Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Olive Leaves, Cows, and Pink Roses

On May 1, I undertook, by bicycle, the 100-kilometer course of the Wine Country Century, which starts and ends in Santa Rosa. This is normally a 62-mile ride (since 100 kilometers is normally 62 miles), but if you miss the final turn and go four miles past the finish line, it can be parlayed into 70 miles. Just saying. The 70 miles took me seven hours.

The course was congenial—not overly hilly—and the weather was warm and sunny, with a refreshing breeze. As I rode along, I asked myself regularly, “What do I see? What do I smell? What do I feel?”

I saw many, many a vineyard—but no two alike—and charming country dwellings and fabulous country mansions and a couple of cows and some goats. I smelled dirt and grass and flowers; I pulled up now and then to get a good whiff of the latter.

I felt the light wind on my skin and heard the leaves rustling; now and then, I felt a somewhat more pronounced draft—a cyclist passing way too close, or a whole herd of the same. And then I asked myself, “What exactly is the experience of irritation?”

In a seeming paradox, focusing explicitly on irritation caused it to disappear very quickly, though that was not the goal. The whole thing was noticeably different from my usual practice of either trying to push the irritation away via rationalization (“Oh, don’t get upset; it’s such a nice day”), or getting lost in a train of thought that can take on quite a life of its own: “Too close! How irritating! Why do people do that? Why don’t they allow more room, or at least say ‘On your left’? You know, that is the fourth time that has happened today, and—my god, there’s another one! But it’s not just cyclists out in the country. Cyclists in the city are clueless, too … Plus my co-worker is clueless … Plus I hate my job … ”

Sad to say, I can remember finishing rides of this length in the past and recalling the primary flavor of the day as irritation.

But when I made the annoyance my conscious focus—where do I feel it in my body? what thoughts am I having about it? what is it actually like to have this feeling?—it proved to be strangely elusive, soon gone and without leaving any filmy white residue. How exactly it dissipated, I can’t tell you. My mindfulness isn’t that good yet, but I did notice that seconds after deliberately setting out to experience irritation, four or five times in the course of seven hours, it was no longer there to experience, and thus cumulatively took up maybe 60 seconds instead of several hours.

Primarily, my experience was of what I saw and heard and felt in my body and on my skin, and when the ride was over, instead of being ticked off at the rudeness of other cyclists or irritable in general, I felt tranquil, and I had vivid, beautiful memories of flowers and leaves, hillsides and houses, expanses of green and rows of grapevines.

It’s lucky that the course wasn’t extremely hilly because I discovered after finishing the ride that someone who shall remain nameless had not secured my rear wheel to the rest of my bicycle, which had been dismantled so it would fit into a tiny rental car. On a very bumpy downhill, the wheel and bicycle could conceivably have parted company and I could have been discussing lucid dreaming with my maker sooner than expected, but, fortunately, this didn’t happen, and yes, from now on I will confirm the key aspects of bicycle assembly firsthand before setting off.

Speaking of lucid dreaming, as we often do here, Siri Hustvedt, in a column for the New York Times’ splendid All-Nighters series (an exploration of insomnia and the things people do in the wee hours) wrote this, which I thought was fascinating: “The neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinas has proposed that consciousness and dreams are not distinct but part of the same intrinsic brain functions, ‘that wakefulness is nothing other than a dreamlike state modulated by the constraints produced by specific inputs.’”

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Viene Aquí Usted Muchas Veces?

(Do you come here often?)

I think I’ve mentioned that my parents have been engaged in learning Spanish for some time. My father started long ago and has pretty much mastered it—he can watch TV in Spanish with near-total comprehension.

To be precise, he says sometimes he understands everything so completely, he forgets it’s in Spanish, while other times he has no idea what they’re talking about. He says humor is particularly tricky, with its idiomatic expressions and wordplay—sometimes he understands all of a joke but the punch line, or he doesn’t understand anything BUT the punch line.

My mother (if she’ll forgive my saying so) isn’t as far along in her studies, but she enjoys conversing in Spanish, anyway. I took Spanish for several years in junior high and high school, and lately have armed myself with a massive Spanish-English dictionary, the same one my my mother has; well, one of the same ones she has. I think that she and my father, between them, probably have several such reference works. We are thorough in my family.

As it happens, my halting, laborious production of spoken Spanish perfectly matches her halting, laborious comprehension of same, and vice versa, so it is quite satisfactory to both of us. My mother lately said approvingly that my Spanish is “muy lento,” ergo “yo entiendo!”

She recently said this: “Me gusta el baño de pájaros con agua profunda.” She likes the bird bath with deep water! Which I understood as soon as she reminded me that “pájaro” is “bird.” It’s possible there’s some other expression for “bird bath,” or maybe not, but I understood perfectly what she was saying. Thrilling! We did not plumb, on this occasion, her feelings about their other bird bath.

I get to practice now and then in my own neighborhood, most often in the laundromatpeople probably think I'm desperate for romance, since my Spanish at this moment is along the lines of "What’s your name? Where do you live? Are you married? Do you have children?"

One of my potential boyfriends explained to me last night how religious practices differ from country to country (I think).

NOTE: This post has been edited per two emails I got from my father after he read it. Let the record reflect that I'm not that far along in my Spanish studies, either. Among other things, he notes that "a menudo" more nearly means "often" than does "muchas veces," but that a gringa like myself can probably get away with "muchas veces."

Sunday, May 02, 2010

We Have a Winner, and It’s Ants

This winter’s rainy season was unusually long, and my place filled up with ants accordingly. Normally, they go outside once it’s dry and warm enough, but I suspect that after so many moist months, they’ve forgotten that outside exists. They are absolutely everywhere and we coexist peacefully for the most part, just different kinds of beings sharing the same apartment—or so I thought until I opened a glass jar of honey to get a dab for my oatmeal and found two ants inside the container.

No, we’re not equal. Some of us are considerably more resourceful than others.

One of the ants was dead, no doubt of overindulgence, and the other was marching triumphantly to and fro on the waxy surface. This was cappings honey, which contains bits of wax and goodness knows what else, so it’s extra good for you.

I have no idea how on earth the ants got in there. It’s a jar of honey I’d been using for a while, and it definitely didn’t have ants in it the last time I sealed it up. All I can do is bow before them, and wrap the whole jar up in a plastic bag.

Some of my ants have apparently learned to walk on water to get to Hammett’s cat food, which sits in a moat. I’ve been putting a couple of drops of dish soap in the water to break the surface tension so the ants theoretically cannot walk across it, but where there is a ferociously strong will, there is a way, and/or some of them are good at the long jump.