Sunday, July 27, 2008

The First Song Hammett Wants to Learn on the Guitar Is “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”

Friday after work I had my third guitar lesson. I’ve learned a huge amount in three lessons; i.e., been exposed to it, not mastered it. My teacher is pushing me briskly along. I’ve picked out the first song I want to learn to play on the guitar other than the ones my teacher is giving me: the Guided by Voices song “Everywhere With Helicopter.”

Their lyrics are cryptic and wonderful. One of their songs is called “14 Cheerleader Coldfront.” What a perfect way to express something everyone remembers from junior high, whether there were actual cheerleaders or not.

It’s really interesting to listen to music now that I’m taking guitar lessons and notice all the different ways the guitar is played, and how some songs I would have assumed were basic guitar, bass and drums aren’t at all—it’s piano, not guitar, or it’s a string quartet, as in “Eleanor Rigby.” It’s making my ears open further, which I hope doesn’t end up wrecking rock music for me: “A G chord, a G chord, another G chord, yet another G chord—hey, this song sucks!” (I know Todd Rundgren is going to stand up to that test; I’m worried about Silverchair.)

Yesterday, Saturday, was an utterly gorgeous day. I did a whole bunch of little chores in the morning, asking myself, “What do I least want to do?” and doing that next. In the afternoon I went to Rainbow. For some reason, I have been in the habit of eating apples all the time—they keep well, I like them, you don’t need a bag or a container with a lid to bring them home in—or of picking out a dinner vegetable for the week and buying a whole bunch of that, such as broccoli or collard greens or red chard or beets.

I’m making a conscious effort to loosen up lately, in that regard and in general, and have started bringing several empty containers with lids to the store so I can buy whatever catches my eye that needs to be transported that way, like cherries or strawberries. Yesterday I bought one Gala apple, one Fuji, cherries, strawberries, two kinds of nectarines, grapes, and a banana (if I buy even two bananas, there’s an even chance the second will be too ripe to eat, by my standards), plus onions, four kinds of mushrooms, broccoli, carrots, an acorn squash, potatoes and celery.

Every now and then I like do to a Tour de Produce and just walk through Rainbow’s large produce section consciously looking at items one at a time, in order to expand my repertoire. While I was on such a tour yesterday, I passed a young girl standing in front of the lettuces with her arms thrown up exultantly.

Everything I bought was either produce, or a bulk item I put in a container I brought from home, except for Ham’s cans of cat food, six eggs in a cardboard container I can put in the recycling, and one maitake that came in a plastic bag. If my eye hadn’t fallen on that mushroom, I would not have bought one single thing that would end up in the trash, other than the stickers on the two apples. It’s probably the closest I’ve come in my whole life.

When I got home, I cooked brown rice—I didn’t end up eating any of the buckwheat with millet I made last week, it looked so unappetizing—and made a pot of pea soup from a Laurel’s Kitchen recipe while I finished the last of the dal with chopped tomatoes and had another bowlful of strawberries and a cup of black tea.

I practiced the guitar when I was done, and in the evening I watched The Shooter—I couldn’t understand half the dialogue, but I like to watch Mark Walhberg do his thing—and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which was very beautiful, though I hate looking at close-ups of eyeballs or anything to do with medical procedures.

Today it is overcast and I am delighted, because there are many thrilling and interesting things I want to do today inside, such as this, and practicing the guitar and stretching, which has become hard to fit in since the guitar came to town, not to mention reading for pleasure.

Hammett was making a big show of looking nervously at the guitar and running off, but a couple of days ago I saw him stretched out next to it with a proprietary air.

I Don’t Care How Many Iguanas Die as Long as I Remain Free of Wrinkles

It was kind of a strange week at work. I hit both extremes of the employee experience (well, not quite; I didn’t get fired) in that early in the week I was in conflict with my boss over not one but two issues, but had some really good experiences later on. It was very uncomfortable to have the conflicts, and I started to wonder if I was simply a square peg in a round hole at this company and if I should leave my job and, you know, play the guitar all day until my savings run out.

In the course of that, my team lead sent our manager a critical email about me, or meant to. She accidentally sent it straight to me. I like this person and thought she liked me, so I was a little startled, but it’s not like I’ve never made a critical remark about Person A to Person B, so I couldn’t really get too worked up. (Besides, if I may be a bit cynical, it improved my latitude on the moral high ground.) I replied politely, saying, “I believe you meant this for [our boss]?” I copied our boss, since she was the team lead's intended recipient, and also seized the opportunity to work in a couple more of my talking points.

In the end, we got that issue resolved satisfactorily—my boss is quite a reasonable person, and she is also careful about how she talks to and about people—and I haven’t heard a word about the other, regarding which I sent two or three very frank emails (on the theory that the truth will set you free; if you say exactly what you think and get fired, it probably wasn’t the right job for you to begin with). Emily told me that I’m not the only person disturbed about this issue, so I believe my boss is thinking the whole thing over and will come forth with a policy statement soon.

At the end of the week, I got favorable mention from someone outside our group, and another woman outside our group showered me with fabulous compliments (concluding with "You're tops in my book!"), which I sent on to my boss, so I started the week feeling like I was in the doghouse, but by Friday, I was on top of the world.

I received a call from my mother midweek about a computer problem and hastened to call her back. I left a message saying approximately this:

“This is Linda Atkins in tech support. I have received your call about your computer-related problem. I understand you formerly had a file, but no longer seem to have it. I hope this will help. I’m going to read you the ingredients in Mexitan sunscreen, SPF 30: six percent titanium dioxide and six percent zinc oxide, deionized water, sunflower oil, lecithin, coconut oil, glycerine, xanthan gum, green tea extract, jojoba oil, vitamin E, vitamin A, shea butter and eucalyptus oil.”

The findings of the Environmental Working Group are that you should use a sunscreen whose active ingredient is titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide; therefore, it seems to me the basic idea is to find some kind of glop that will cause those ingredients to adhere firmly to your skin but that doesn’t inflame your allergies and/or skin condition, should you have the proverbial “sensitive skin,” as do I.

It further seems to me you can’t beat the ingredients in Mexitan’s particular glop. I have another sunscreen on hand containing one of the desirable active ingredients, but glop made out of dipolyhydroxystearate, polyaminopropyl biguanide, cyclomeythicone and the like.

I tried this one, too, as it also has a high rating from the EWG, but, intuitively, which would you rather put on your face, green tea and coconut oil, or polyaminopropyl biguanide? Although if the latter is indeed juice squeezed from the rare bisexual iguana, as the name suggests, it might be a fine natural substance, but then you have your iguana rights issue to consider—your face dripping with iguana juice while livid protesters picket outside your apartment, people screaming into bullhorns, etc.

A friend told me she likes Ti-Silc, which she gets from Kaiser, so she may not be aware it costs $25 for four ounces. She is going to bring me a bit to try (suggesting she does not in fact know how much it costs, because if I had something that cost $25 for four ounces, I probably wouldn't dispense it freely), which is super nice of her, but I’m kind of hoping I don’t like it.

So, Mexitan. Not particularly expensive and smells very nice when it comes out of the plastic bottle, due to the eucalyptus oil, but the scent disappears rapidly, leaving pretty much no smell beyond a faint hint of metal, which I guess you can hardly get away from, given the active ingredients.

My experience with other metal oxide sunscreens is that they are thick and greasy and turn your face a sickly pink or white, as if “lifeguard nose” has marched all the way out to the edges of your face. However, while the three metal oxide sunscreens I’ve tried lately all went on initially white or pink, they all sank in and became transparent, or nearly so, after a bit.

As for greasy, Mexitan is the opposite. It dries in seconds; in fact, it was challenging to get it all rubbed in before it dried. It kind of formed flakes, so I emailed the friendly folks at Mexitan to see if they had any application tips. They said you don’t have to use much, and that if it’s too dry, adding a bit of oil to thin it is not a bad idea.

I was surprised to find the Mexitan could not be removed with soap and water alone, even though it seemed much less substantial than the sunscreen I tried last week. But jojoba oil on a cotton ball took it off nicely, no scrubbing with a washcloth required.

Having said all of that, it definitely is a more major enterprise to use these recommended sunscreens, and you have much more of a sense of there being something smeared on your face, so I’m kind of thinking of just sticking with my chemical sunscreen, even though the Environmental Working Group doesn't think it's very good, due to hormones that can seep in through your skin.

I currently use Zia Face SPF 30 (plus a big hat), and Lily of the Desert Skinsaving Sunblock SPF 30+. The latter is not on the EWG’s list at all, but its ingredients are similar to those in the Zia sunscreen.

Sensitive to the Whole Body, I Breathe In

The whole body breathing class, now concluded, was very worthwhile. I’m doing this to begin with because I get a headache two seconds after I start to focus on the sensations of breath at the nostrils, not uncommon in this type of practice. It’s caused by straining; unfortunately, I am utterly incapable of noticing my breath without at least subtly trying to manage it.

I know I’m doing it, but so far I haven’t been able to stop. I often try to sneak up on my own breath—to notice it before I get a chance to try to enhance it in some way, but it’s hard to do. It’s like that thing where when you look at something or other with a microscope you change it, so there’s no way to see it in its natural state.

The one meditation retreat I go on each year in recent years is a concentration retreat. The one instruction at this retreat is to focus on the sensations of breath at the nostrils, period, for eight days in years past. This year it will be nine days, and next year ten. That is the official instruction, but last year, Eugene was one of the teachers, and he had a group of people doing something a little different.

I didn’t find out until the last day of the retreat, as some of us were walking down to the parking lot, that what they were doing was whole body breathing. The instant I heard the term I knew I wanted to do it, and this is what I’ll be practicing at concentration retreats from now on, and what I have been doing for the past several months in my daily practice, since Eugene’s one-day class on the subject at Spirit Rock.

Eugene pointed out in the class that just finished that the Buddha never said, “Pay attention to the breath at the nostrils.” He said, among plenty else: “One trains oneself, ‘sensitive to the whole body I breathe in; sensitive to the whole body I breathe out.’”

For some reason, I never once got a headache at a vipassana retreat, whether it was 10 days long or 28 or somewhere in between, even though you start with noticing the sensations of breathing and may spend most of the time doing that, along with noticing other physical sensations, thoughts, emotions, intentions, etc.

The wife of my meditation friend, David, said they ended up having to leave the recent daylong whole body breathing retreat, too, due to the smoke. It is definitely good to persist through all sorts of things when meditating, as the commenter who got the three replies very correctly said, but, as Eugene said, it’s good to use your common sense, too.

One woman at the Thursday night class asked how you know when just to notice your experience and when to do something about it. Eugene told an anecdote about how when he noticed his heart was racing, he didn’t just sit there noting, “Heart racing, heart racing.” Instead, he summoned help. It turned out his heart was in spasm, and some medical personnel were able to get it to stop.

I put walking out of a smoky room in the same category, at least if you have asthma or allergies. After all, it’s not like the only place you can be mindful is sitting on a certain chair in a certain room. The idea is to be mindful around the clock, or to aspire to such.

I have learned very worthwhile things from sitting with physical pain in particular. After several successive days of searing back pain at one retreat, I realized that my mind could be completely happy despite the burning sensations in my body, which seemed like a useful thing to know.

But it is possible to take this too far. At another retreat, which I think was either three or four weeks long, my shoulders began to hurt. I sat with it, and it got worse and worse. By the time I left the retreat, I was in agony, and it ended up being a couple of years before it was resolved.

It turned out I was holding my shoulders in the wrong position, too far forward, and when I thought I was letting them relax, I was actually letting something inside rip, day after day. In that case, it would have been smarter to seek medical attention right away, though there was no way for me to tell this pain was actually being exacerbated by sitting. (However, it was kind of entertaining to tell the various doctors and medical folks who ended up treating it later, "Well, I did it meditating." So macho!)

The Spirit Rock teachers are very good about physical limitations. If you have bad, or old, knees, you sit on a chair. They don’t insist that you sit on the floor, as I’m sure is the case at many monasteries worldwide, maybe particularly in Zen, maybe particularly in Asia. If someone has back problems, he or she lies on the floor. The point isn’t to hold a particular physical posture, but rather to be mentally present.

Eugene mentioned several times that if we are having a difficult physical sensation while practicing whole body breathing, we can breathe with it. But since noting my breath at the nostrils or sometimes even attending to the rise and fall of my chest gives me a headache, I asked him during a break in our final class if that could mean feeling the breath, say, in my foot (i.e., feeling energy in my foot, not literally the breath) while feeling the difficult sensation, and he said sure, but that he would encourage feeling the breath in my belly, even if it’s extremely subtle; that is, feeling the breath in my belly plus feeling the difficult sensation.

I’ve been experimenting with that and so far it doesn’t seem to cause a headache, and it also pretty readily reveals if any part of the core of the body is tense. I know this is going to be a helpful thing when formally practicing and in general.

I’ve suddenly started having trouble sleeping, or staying asleep. When I woke up this morning three and a half hours too early—you might think, "Oh, I must have gotten enough sleep, so I’ll get up," but I’ve learned this is almost never true for me—I focused on my breath in the pit of my stomach and voila! I was asleep again right away. And if I hadn’t fallen asleep, then it would have been a practice period, which is also fine.

I Won’t Live Without Your Love, No

Lately I received in the mail from my mother a small package containing these items:

—A copy of Karin Muller’s book Hitchhiking in Vietnam: A Woman’s Solo Journey in an Elusive Land.

—A CD labeled “Best of Adiemus” with a note that track 1 is best.

—A CD labeled “Maná: Amar Es Combatir”—love is war—and a printout of some handy phrases for romance such as “I’m like a beast” and “Send me a love sign.” I couldn’t wait to try them out. I thought I’d start with some of my coworkers and work my way up.

My parents have been learning Spanish for some years—my father started long ago and can watch TV in Spanish with relative ease—so I assumed my mother was sharing one of her Spanish lessons, namely the chapter on how to flirt, and that the CD would be a man pronouncing the phrases over and over—I must have been traumatized by that “sotay” thing.

I sent my mother an email asking what it all meant, which she answered by saying "Who?", so I decided it would have to remain a mystery, but it turned out the CD is actually of music, and the printout is the words to the first song, in Spanish and English.

Last Monday night I went to see Jeff for some acupuncture. By then I’d figured out how to play the guitar without causing left hand pain, but there was a twinge elsewhere that needed his attention. He is also a guitarist, so he showed me some stretches.

Tuesday night was laundry night, and on Wednesday evening I went to volunteer at the Bike Coalition, where I had a lovely time. Thursday night was my final class on whole body breathing. If the person I’m about to discuss ever sees this, I hope there aren’t hurt feelings.

On one hand, I believe everything I see, hear, smell, feel and think is part of my story, and so I have the absolute right to write about it; on the other, I dread the thought of someone making his or her way here—joining the elite Group of Eight—and thinking, “Good lord, someone put stuff about me on the Internet.”

Sometimes I’m even a little shocked that I’m putting stuff about ME on the Internet, plus some of my own relatives would leave me in a pool of blood if I even mentioned their names, so I’m pretty careful about not saying too much about other people unless I’m pretty sure they don’t mind. (Lisa C. once said she’s counting on my blog to bring her worldwide fame, so it’s OK to say a bit about her and David. I’m sorry the fame is taking so long.)

In my short-lived book club, there was a young man who came to the last session who sat right next to me for a couple of hours or so while managing to ignore me almost completely. It was somewhat unnerving and unpleasant, though it played no part in my decision not to go on with the book club.

Lo and behold, this same person turned up in the whole body breathing class. I thought about saying hi, but it wasn’t as if I could honestly say, “Nice to see you.” After thinking it over for two seconds, I decided I wasn't obliged to say anything at all, so I didn't, and neither did he. I wasn’t at all angry, not that there’s anything wrong with being angry, and it wasn’t one bit hard to sit in the same room with him for five Thursday nights without speaking—we didn’t sit near each other; I’m front of the room and he’s back of the room—even when we passed within a couple of feet of each other near a doorway.

But at the end of the final night, when I was chatting with Victoria, I noticed this guy had something that changed the situation completely: a bicycle. I said, “Excuse me for a moment, Victoria. [Unfriendly young man], are you riding back to the Mission?” He said he was. “Do you want to ride together?” He said he did want to; he’d just acquired the bicycle.

So I took him down Gough St.—I offered to go over to Polk where there’s a bike lane, but he said he’d try Gough and that he’d follow my lead—and I know he had fun, because how could he not, and we rode to the Mission, chatting a little at the red lights, and when we parted, I said, “Good night; take care,” and he said, “See you later,” and so that was a happy ending to a slightly strange thing.

My mother said maybe he’s shy, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find that was the case, but he was talking to the other two people at the book club meeting. Maybe he just took an instant dislike to me, which is certainly allowed; I take an instant dislike to people all the time, often later finding out I actually like the person very much. Maybe I would have disliked this person right away if he hadn’t beaten me to it.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Conniving Seating System

Yesterday was quite a splendid day, except for someone calling me at 7:30 in the morning to play me a recording of a man saying “sotay, sotay,” over and over again. I believe this someone had found this on the Internet and was trying to convince me that this was the correct pronunciation for “sauté,” even though the dictionary lists my preferred pronunciation of “saw-tay” first; it does also list “sotay.” It was quite a desperate act, in any event, and necessitated an extra hour in bed.

After that, I went to Rainbow, and spent the afternoon making dal with fresh chopped tomatoes, and a pot of buckwheat with millet. I drank my sole weekly cup of strong, sweet black tea—there’s no rule against having ten of these a day, but it always seems to end up being one a week—and had scrambled eggs with a bit of pesto—yum—and a bowlful of fresh strawberries.

In the early evening, I watched Delirious, in which Steve Buscemi is screamingly funny and ultimately touching as a highly irascible paparazzo and Michael Pitt makes a lovely open-hearted (and highly pulchritudinous) almost homeless person. Several of the smaller roles were note perfect, as well, particularly the actor who played Steve Buscemi’s father and the woman who plays Gabi, the manager or assistant of a winsome young celebrity. Steve Buscemi rescues Michael Pitt from the streets only to watch, dumbfounded and none too pleased, as he swiftly ascends into more rarified company. I absolutely loved this movie.

The question of what to remove heavy sunscreen with is possibly answered. I came upon mention of jojoba oil as a makeup remover, and when I was at Rainbow on Sunday, I asked the guy in the appropriate department his thoughts on Vitamin E oil versus jojoba oil for the purpose of removing sunscreen, and he said he thought jojoba oil would be less likely to gunk up one’s pores. They have organic jojoba oil, packaged and I imagine also in bulk. It’s inexpensive.

In the later evening, I practiced the guitar. I am really enjoying this new way of making music. I can (sort of) play “Amazing Grace” and “Eleanor Rigby”! The first week or so, I often had only 15 minutes to practice, but progress was unsatisfactory, so lately I’m finding hours here and there for this. I wish I could play the guitar for an hour a day, ditto the trumpet, ditto the piano. Maybe someday I can stop working and then I’ll do that.

Email sent to my mother:

I've noticed that now and then, my iMac purports to go to sleep, but while the monitor goes dark, the CPU doesn't stop whirring, and when I wake it up, it doesn't roar back to life because it never went to sleep; the only thing that happens is that the monitor lights back up.

I've had the iMac about seven months now, and this behavior has lately come to be the rule; four times out of five, it doesn't properly go to sleep, and this is the case whether I tell it to go to sleep or whether it tries to go to sleep on its own.

I called Apple and they said that if it were to whir for three days without my knowing it (because I would shut it down if it were going to be longer than three days before I used it again), all that would happen would be that the performance would be (is that too many woulds?) slow until I reset it, so I can't decide if I should take it in for service, or just not worry about it.

What do you think?

The answer, slightly edited for a general audience:

I have experimented with this (on your father’s iMac; my laptop ALWAYS goes to sleep when it should) and what works is a hard punch to the center of the screen. No charge.

(End of note.)

It’s great when you can get such good computer advice free. What a wonderful world we live in, with the pesto scrambled eggs and all. And, yes, I am insanely grateful. I know that much of the world gets the opposite of fresh strawberries and all the Todd Rundgren their ears can hold.

I decided not to worry about my insomniac iMac. I need to save up so I can worry about myself not being able to sleep, such as last night, when I woke up at three a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep. I feel completely horrible right now. This hardly ever happens, but probably will happen more and more often as I ease gracefully into middle age.

Actually, beyond grilling, there is little to worry about these days. By the way, if I looked worried in that picture of myself on the chair in 1965, it’s because I knew that chair, or one in cahoots with it, was going to break 43 years later.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

There IS a God. And He’s Mean.

Today I went to a daylong whole body breathing retreat, a chance to spend a whole day doing what I’ve been learning in my Thursday night class. My extra-good meditation friend turned up—he hasn’t been taking the class otherwise—and sat right in front of me, so I was expecting an outstanding day, but it wasn’t particularly. No states of extreme pleasure were experienced (I heard Spirit Rock teacher Steve Armstrong describe it once as “pass-out ecstasy”), but it was a good solid day of practice.

Until the grilling started. Yep.

It’s almost enough to make you believe there is a (malevolent) God.

When lunchtime rolled around, I noticed the smell of lighter fluid in the hallway, and then in the room we were meditating in. Beyond this room (the Thomas Starr King room at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, at Geary and Franklin) is the church’s kitchen, and right outside the kitchen’s door to the outside, some grilling grillers—i.e., another group having an event at the church—had fired up a charcoal grill, not skimping on the lighter fluid.

Can you believe that?

After a while, the stench abated, but the room we were sitting in was generally smoky and congested, and then it was my distinct impression that more lighter fluid may have been squirted on the grill, judging from the smell, and then I got a headache, and then I got up and came home.

This opened a hole in my schedule which I used to call my mother:

“Sir! I implore to know how you are.”

“What’s it to you? And how are you?”


“Yeah, you have to shout into these newfangled phones.”

The early departure from the daylong also gave me a chance to test a theory I had about cycling on Gough St., where (I shouldn’t say this) I never, ever see another cyclist, apart from the woman who introduced me to this practice, one Sunday night after we left Eugene’s. She said she figured we ought to be able to use a lane on Gough, since there are, after all, three of them going in the same direction (which of course makes it all the more like a freeway).

It sounded like not a very good idea to me, but in her company I gave it a try, and I was so terrified I could barely see anything around me that first thrilling night. I have never seen that woman since (I hope she didn’t get squished cycling on highway 101), but I have ridden home on Gough St. every time I’ve been to Eugene’s since then, except for the night I got completely stoned meditating (see “Standing in the Light, Thank You, Todd, or God”) and felt it might not be wise to be out there with impaired faculties.

That night I took Polk St., which has a bike lane, and realized I felt less safe there than on Gough, where I use a whole lane.

My theory, however, was that it might actually be safer to be on Gough St. in the dark than during the day, because at night, drivers might say, “Jesus Christ, is that a cyclist??? I’d better give her wide berth,” whereas during the day, they might just say, “What a moron, cycling here. I’ll teach her a lesson.”

Speaking of which, it has been a long time since any motorist has honked at me—I have never been honked at or had the remotest problem on Gough St.—but one day this past week, I found the bike lane on Howard St. full of limousines, so I rode squarely in the middle of the next lane over, and the motorist behind me honked and yelled, “The bike lane’s over there.” I didn’t feel alarmed and I didn’t budge, and he went around.

When we met at the red light, I said, “I can see the bike lane. It was blocked by cars.”

“I ride a bike myself, but I don’t—” and here he waved his arms over his head to indicate “inconvenience motorists by riding smack in the center of the lane.”

“It’s not really safe to squeeze between the parked cars and the moving cars,” I said. “I’d encourage you to be a bit more visible out there on your bike. It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s actually safer.”

One thing I learned from this: whereas screaming and swearing tends to prolong some interactions with strangers, unasked advice brings the conversation neatly and rapidly to a close.

I’ve added a final piece to my vehicular cycling practice, which is to look forward rather than backward. I had developed a bad habit of constantly using my rearview mirror to see who was behind me, and I probably will always do it now and then, but it feels better not to worry so much about what’s back there and just look ahead to where I’m going: anticipation rather than anxiety.

As for cycling on Gough St. in the daytime, it was almost exactly the same as at night: I took the lane, I went down the hill, the wind blew in my face, I went as fast as the cars down the hill and later not, I stopped at the red lights, I changed lanes when I needed to, signaling first, and everything was totally fine. It was less good because it wasn’t dark and mysterious, but also more good because I could see the road surface clearly.

Wow, Just Like in Clueless

Last Sunday I meant to go to Eugene’s in the evening, but got up extremely late because of the Dark Angel-athon the night before, so I decided just to do my chores and cooking at a leisurely pace and not worry about going to Eugene’s. I’m making the trip across town every Thursday night lately for the whole body breathing class, and maybe once a week is often enough to schlep over there.

You may have read in the newspaper, or wherever you apprehend the news, about the Environmental Working Group’s findings in regard to the safety and effectiveness, or lack thereof, of sunscreens. I looked mine up and saw it was a seven on their ten-point scale, but then I saw that zero is high on this scale.

(This reminds me slightly of that scene in Casanova where the one religious-type guy says to the other guy, “We’ve gotten a letter from Rome … cesspool of depravity.” “Surely not,” murmurs the other guy, “Oh, do they mean us?”)

Accordingly, a search for sunscreen is underway. I’ve already identified one I don’t like, which smelled strongly of orange and made my face itch, and revealed at least one good thing about using poor-quality sunscreen: it’s easy to get off again. My normal face-cleaning method left all of the itching sunscreen right where it was. Now I’m going to have to find not only a sunscreen but something to remove it with.

Wednesday evening I had my second guitar lesson, quite as enjoyable as the first. My time for practicing is extremely limited, so I’ve been trying to cram a little bit of everything in, one result of which has been that I’m so far completely incapable of changing chords without a lengthy pause for regrouping, so I got out the metronome after my second lesson and started doing these things very, very slowly, and writing down what the tempos are so I can tell if I’m making progress.

I also have developed a fairly severe pain in my left wrist, such that I had to make an appointment to see Jeff Harrison for acupuncture (I haven’t seen him in months). I’ve been holding the guitar in a death grip, making sure everything is precisely in place, which is also hard on my fingertips. Last night when I played, I experimented with deliberately flopping my left wrist back and forth while playing a chord. I honestly thought it might not be possible to move at all, but it was possible to move quite a bit, and, by trying it frequently, I soon found I could relax my left wrist and hand almost completely. A bit of precision was sacrificed, but I think it’s better to do it this way for now.

I don't get a chance to play the things I've written on the guitar every time I practice, but when I tried them last night, I could tell my two lessons have already had a beneficial effect.

On Friday morning, a guy either came from the insurance company or was dispatched by the insurance company to see if he could figure out why water dripped into the building manager’s apartment back in May; the plumber wasn’t able to find a cause, and it hasn’t happened since.

The leak guy ran the water hard, filling the tub almost all the way up, and did other various things in and around the tub, going in and out of the apartment several times, while Hammett hid under the blankets on the bed.

Later Hammy showed the leak guy just whose tub it is by taking a giant crap in it, something he’s never done before.

I said, “I’m appalled by your uncivil act,” but I could tell he was wholly unmoved, so I decided to try radical acceptance, a la Tara Brach, and told him, “It’s excellent that you pooped in the tub! It’s as much your tub as mine, so you go ahead and poop in it whenever you feel like it. Perhaps I’ll do the same.” I added that last so he wouldn't feel like he was some sort of freak.

It turns out that he, like me, may be susceptible to reverse psychology, because he went back to using his litter box after that. Or maybe once he was sure he had scared the leak guy off, he could turn his attention to more pressing matters, such as meowing plaintively for a cheese puff, which he never eats once it’s given to him.

Gino’s singing “One Night with You” right now! Every now and then, I turn off Todd Rundgren for a couple of minutes so Gino can sing, but for the most part, I wish I had four sets of ears so I could listen to four Todd Rundgren CDs at once. (I’ve been listening to Something/Anything? lately.)

Last night I watched Rails and Ties, starring Kevin Bacon and Marcia Gay Harden. It wasn’t the world’s best movie, though I can’t quite figure out why, given the outstanding performances by the two leads. Extremely lousy performances in a few smaller roles can’t have helped.

Kevin Bacon is an amazing actor. With an expressionless face, not moving a muscle, he can make you experience exactly what he’s seeing inside his own head, in full color and sound. He does it at least once in this movie, when he’s with the little boy in the car, and he did it in The Woodsman. I think the moment when he does it in The Woodsman, when he’s sitting with the young girl on the park bench, is the finest piece of acting ever to occur in American cinema.

(For some reason, this makes me think of the time I was at work talking to Paramjit on the phone, who I assumed was in some other town, but she was actually right behind me, and when she walked up to me, still talking to me on the phone, Emily said admiringly, “Wow, just like in Clueless.”)

Monday, July 14, 2008

Allergy Smackdown

Last Sunday I made a big pot of tomato pasta sauce to freeze in one-serving quantities, and kale-potato soup, and then Tom and I went over to the apartment of his niece, Sarah, for a magnificent dinner and a very pleasant evening in general with her and her boyfriend, Josh. Tom has just fixed up Sarah’s bike, so maybe one of these days, we can take a ride out to the beach.

Monday after work, I had my first guitar lesson with Bruno P., a local jazz guitarist. I was hoping I’d like him a lot, because I knew that would make all the difference when it came to continuing, and, fortunately, I did.

I took a lesson or two a few years ago with a fellow who encouraged me to bring a favorite song with me to the lesson on CD, and it was thrilling to hear myself play even one chord of a Stone Temple Pilots song, but I got the feeling his approach was not going to be highly methodical, whereas I can tell Bruno’s will be. I learned a lot just at that first lesson.

He’s also in Noe Valley, easy to reach via the J Church, or by bicycle, or I could probably walk there in 30 minutes.

Bruno gave me a sheet with 20 or so chords on it and said, “These are all the chords you need for a professional career.” “Good,” I said, “I’ll call my boss right now and tell her she won’t be seeing me again.”

Tuesday after work I did laundry, and on Wednesday evening I went to the Bike Coalition to volunteer for a bit, but didn’t stay for dinner. They always have either pizza, take-out Thai or take-out Indian, and while I like all of those things, I’d actually rather go home and make a real dinner, so I did.

Thursday morning I went to pick up my chair, which now feels wonderfully solid, from Andrew Woodside Carter. This chair is made entirely of wood and wooden pegs. There are no nails, but on the bottom of the seat, there are two holes into which fit the two main supports for the upright portion of the chair. The bottom end of each vertical piece is secured underneath the seat by a large washer and screw; these are the only non-wooden parts of the chair.

However, one set of these parts was lost long ago, which is why one side of the chair often came apart and had to be fitted back together. Andrew Woodside Carter said he would see what he could do. I half-expected to find it still unsecured when I picked it up, but not only did he find parts, they are virtually identical to the ones on the other side—i.e., they are the same color and look like they’re 50 years old, which is perfect. I see on his invoice that he specializes in restoration and conservation of period furniture, which must certainly involve matching ancient hardware and other details. He was the perfect person to take my chair to.

It’s been warm and humid here lately, which means every time I get off my bike, my cotton garments are sodden and stay that way for a while, which is extremely unpleasant. I got an actual cycling jersey lately, the first I’ve ever owned, but it feels kind of weird against my skin, and I also remembered that it’s practically impossible to get sweat out of man-made fabrics, so it will probably get worn only on rides to Marin and the like.

I have a coworker in Chandler, AZ, who said that one day a week or two ago, it was 112 degrees out, and 132 degrees inside his dark-colored car. Compared to that, it’s not really hot here in S.F. at all; however, we are very well acclimated to precisely one temperature, and that is 67 degrees.

On Friday I went to work for half a day, and then to Si Señor for a burrito, and then to Sacramento with Tom on the train. Because he will miss his mother’s and brother’s birthdays while he’s on his bike trip, he thought it would be nice to get together with everyone, and indeed it was.

We spent Friday evening with Ann and Mac and their little dog Sophie, and stayed overnight there. Saturday morning, we gathered at Steve and Julie’s for brunch. Here’s who was there (though I usually list this for Chris’s benefit, and Chris was there, which was wonderful): Paul, Chris, Dan, Steve, Julie, Ann, Mac, Tom and me.

It was searingly hot in Sacramento earlier this week, plus it is billed as having the worst air quality in the state due to the fires. There is still a pall hanging over it, but it got much cooler just as Tom and I were heading there, and the breeze picked up and blew some of the smoke away, so we were lucky in that regard.

However, Tom said he could feel the bad air in his head as soon as he got off the train, and Ann said it was inflaming her eyes and throat, and by the time I got back to S.F. on Saturday afternoon, my nose was running like an open faucet, my eyes were red and itchy and my throat was irritated. I don’t normally have allergies beyond some mild headaches in spring, but now my nose is dripping so much I barely have time to set my handkerchief down before it’s needed again.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Soon I Should Be Shredding Like Kirk

Today I meant to do some sewing, but felt kind of sleepy after a pancake breakfast (not too surprising), so I’ve been puttering around listening to music and playing with the computer. I burned a CD of the songs I bought from iTunes after my visit to Ann Arbor, and listened to Todd Rundgren, and sent a couple of people an mp3 of a Nicole Willis song I like—“If This Ain’t Love (Don’t Know What Is)”—and replied to an email from Lex.

Lexie is my very oldest friend, and we have been very well in touch lately by email, pretty much on a daily basis, which has been nice. We met 40 years ago, when I was six and she was four.

I don’t know if I mentioned BioBags biodegradable bags here. If I did, I need to unrecommend them, as they have a regrettable tendency to break, spewing cat litter all over the floor. Maybe there’s another brand of biodegradable bag that is better.

Lisa M. recently had a Perspective air on KQED on the subject of not flushing the toilet so much. She wasn’t allowed to say this on the air but told me on the phone that one of the secrets to infrequent toilet flushing (skip this if you’re easily grossed out) is to put toilet paper that only has pee on it into the trash rather than into the toilet. Then, by the time you flush the toilet (per the “if it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down” rule), there won’t be tons of toilet paper in the toilet.

She assured me that this does not give her trash an unappealing odor so I started doing the same thing and can confirm that this is true.

I got out my electric guitar today, for the first time in a year or so, and played through the snippets I’d written previously. They all sounded terrible, which was mystifying. Then I realized I’d tuned the top two strings a note too high. This does make a difference.

I’ve decided maybe it’s not an entirely wholesome idea to take guitar lessons from the very-attractive-but-married guy, nor would it be at all convenient, since he teaches clear across town, so I have been looking around for teachers and have emailed a couple of folks.

When I started playing the trumpet again as an adult, I took lessons at the Community Music Center, which was good because you pay for a semester at a time, which gives you time to build up some momentum. Unless you like throwing money away, you don’t have to debate whether or not to go back for your second lesson. As it happened, I absolutely loved my teacher, Lauraine Carpenter, who started pushing me into performance opportunities right away, and I ultimately ended up going back to school for a music degree.

I’ve been looking at the Community Music Center’s website for a guitar teacher—they have lots—but while they bill themselves as being affordable, it actually costs as much for a lesson there as it would to take a private lesson with a pro player, so I might not end up there, or I might.

I’d love to be playing the trumpet, but it’s so loud and I hate playing it right over the head of the building manager, knowing that probably every note is making her angry. I have looked into the Yamaha Silent Brass thing, but it gets very mixed reviews. A lot of people say to just get a good mute (for about $500 less).

Maybe the main thing about the trumpet, though, is that it demands a daily commitment, which I don’t have time for these days. If I really wanted to perform, I’d have to practice at least an hour a day, and I just can’t.

I’m thinking that if I learned guitar fundamentals, I could write songs and sing them while I accompanied myself and maybe record them on the Mac, but it wouldn’t be something I’d have to do every day.

A Bout of PGSD

This past week I was extremely grumpy at work, so it was excellent timing that it was just a four-day week. I was also suffering from PGSD—Post Grilling Stress Disorder—which became more acute as the Fourth approached. As always in these parts, Independence Day actually commenced the evening of July 2, when explosions began to rock the Mission nonstop, leading one to wonder where ordinary citizens get so much ordnance.

I had no idea if we were done with grilling around here or not, and when I saw the back yard filling with party furniture this past week, I feared the worst, but realized that my anxiety was partly for a positive reason: Normally I would have talked to the building manager about Tom’s and my lousy experience six or so weeks ago, when it was so hot and we had to leave the building entirely to escape the heat and smoke. The downside of that would have been more acrimony, but the upside would have been that I would have known whether grilling was a thing of the past or not.

Since I never discussed it with her, our relationship didn’t get any worse, but I was also left to wonder if the day would come when she would grill again, and seeing obvious party preparations underway sent me into a tizzy.

My mother and Tom are sick of hearing about this. I can almost hear Tom’s eyes rolling over the phone, and my mother may possibly have said, “You’ve been meditating for 20 years! Why can’t you cope with this?”

She suggested I could go see my mental health professional, Deborah. I said that I would not be doing that, as Deborah has finally raised her rates, and there is nothing on this earth I would spend $100 to discuss. “But don’t you need psychiatric help?” asked my mother, managing to sound innocently helpful.

Well, perhaps so, and perhaps discussing grilling—that is, having someone listen while I discuss grilling—actually is worth $100, so I called Deborah and said that I would like to come in that very day at 9 a.m., 4 p.m., or 5 p.m., and not at any other time, and soon she called and said that someone had canceled for 4 p.m

The upshot was that I decided that if grilling occurred on the Fourth of July, which is kind of Grilling Day, so be it, but I would address it afterwards and try to make sure it was the last time, and that it wouldn’t be worth it try to stop it once it was underway, but that it would be perfectly reasonable (in my view, if not the building manager’s) to ask her not to let the charcoal burn for hours and hours, as she has in the past, because I didn’t really want to be walking around the Mission at midnight having my fingers blown off by some teenager’s firecracker while I waited to be able to go home.

When I got home after seeing Deborah, which was the day before July 4, I was perplexed but pleased to see that the party stuff was gone from the back yard, and that there was no evidence of grilling; i.e., my place didn’t reek of smoke. I called Tom and inquired, “Did the building manager perchance have people over today?” “Yes,” said Tom, “She had a ladies’ luncheon.”

I was tremendously relieved—honestly, I felt as relieved as if my doctor had said, “I accidentally confused your test results with someone else’s—you don’t have cancer, after all”—and decided to celebrate by inviting myself along on a bike ride Tom had planned for the Fourth of July. He is going on a five-week bike tour of the Continental Divide with one of his buddies, and has acquired a bike trailer for the trip. He wanted to ride with the trailer attached, including on dirt roads, to see how it handled before embarking on the trip, which was wise.

So yesterday we rode across the bridge to Sausalito, where we had lunch, and then to Marin Headlands, to do some trail riding. I saw a family of quail, three regular-sized ones and two little-bitty ones, and a coyote walked up within six feet of Tom. He was wounded, with a bloody patch on his side. He wasn’t aggressive or anything like that. He just sort of strolled up near Tom, and then strolled away.

I felt exhausted two blocks into our ride, but fantastic after five hours. I worked up a good sweat, and told Tom we should do this once a month. He liked that idea. He was often half a mile or a mile ahead of me, and when I finally caught up to him, I’d seize the brief opportunity to yell, “Don’t clog the roadway!” “OK,” he would answer, agreeable as always.

One of the days I was very grumpy this past week, I ran into Tom in the hallway of our apartment building and warned him first thing that I was in a bad mood. Later, when I was in a good mood again, I called him up and said, “Why so grumpy? Lighten up.” “OK,” he said.

When we got home from our bike ride yesterday, after a final stop at Mitchell’s Ice Cream, the back yard was deserted. So: no grilling, even for this most grillingest of holidays, and I am now ready to conclude that the Fume Wars may be satisfactorily concluded. Also, the building manager got some practice at entertaining people in the back yard with no grilling, which is good.