Monday, January 23, 2006

The sky and its minions

Today I went for a short jog in Piedmont, the city entirely encompassed by Oakland. In the past, when I was a more steady runner, I had gone in my car and determined two, three, four and five mile roundtrip turning points. The sad thing is, so much time has elapsed that I don't remember the five mile point. Not that I'm ready for that anyway. I have to admit, I only went two miles. But I ran a blistering six-minute mile pace to make up for that.

Hint: somewhere in this post is an outright lie.

As I went, I looked up at the sky and was amazed how there was not a single cloud, and the sky was a uniform rich blue. No wispiness, no graduations of color... just a solid, deep cerulean (I'm not familiar with this color, but know it to be a fancy form of blue.)

I thought of that old childhood song, "Where seldom is heard a discouraging word, and the skies are not cloudy all day." When I was a kid, I did not see the attraction of the cloudless sky. I loved clouds (and still do), back when I'd lie on my grassy yard in Vermont and look up, watching the always-moving clouds, performing my own Rorschachian therapy.

But I have to hand it to the California sky: there is something impressive about seeing the sage-green leaves against that broad panel of blue. I always wish I could paint it when I see it like that.

Speaking of leaves, someone on that route has a full-grown holly tree. And as I lurched in my oxygen-deprived state, I kind of ran into it, with several spears digging into my forehead. Those are sharp leaves! I had to rewrite the Christmas carol:
O the holly and the ivy
When they are both full grown
Of all the trees within the forest
The holly kicks your ass

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Music by the Lake

Just got back from walking around Lake Merritt. It rained on me; I put up my hood; the sun came out and dried us all up. Such are the moods of the lake.

[This is a stock archives photo of the lake, from a month or so ago]

As I walked, I listened to my mp3 player with the varied songlist (everything from Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” to Gorillaz’ “Dare”). When the Bowie/Mercury song “Under Pressure” came on, I indulged in a little daydream about karaoking with David Bowie, singing all the Freddy Mercury parts. Of course, in this fantasy, David is so impressed that he insists we must go into the studio and record together.

My favorite musicians are:
1. David Bowie
2. Cake
3. The Pixies.

And here are my musings on those musicians.

Bowie: I first encountered him after a ninth grade lab partner Amy Carpenter made me a tape with Ziggy Stardust on one side and Duran Duran on the other. Soon I was a Bowieophile, trying to play his songs on my guitar (my guitar lessons had ceased after fifth grade when my instructor gave me a pedophilic vibe, but I still knew the major chords) and trying to find out everything about him. I would study his album covers over and over, trying to see if there was secret information I was missing.

In December 1989 (I think), I was in Ansbach, Germany with my then-boyfriend’s family. We learned David Bowie was performing in Stuttgart on the Sound + Vision tour, so we hopped a train and pulled into town to fulfill a dream. Our scalped ticket was so much money that we ran out of money for a hostel that night, and spent the entire night traversing Germany, sleeping on trains with our Interrail pass.

The concert? Freaking amazing. I loved the two-story projection screen, with the Gigantic David image reaching down to pluck at the tiny, real David on stage. It was spectacular, and since it was a greatest hits tour, it was the best thing possible for someone who had loved him so long.

I was distressed when he had his recent heart attack. My daydream (huh, it seems like I have a lot of Bowie daydreams, doesn’t it?) is that someday he will come stand on a little wooden platform in my backyard and perform for my birthday party. First, I need to get a backyard, and then I will think about approaching him.

My favorite songs: Sound + Vision (which I relate to as a writer), Rock and Roll Suicide,
Lady Stardust, Oh You Pretty Things (which I once ran a red light for, in high school, since I was so involved in listening to it. I only knew about this potentially-fatal mistake from all the cars honking after the fact), Drive In Saturday, Time, Fantastic Voyage, Ashes to Ashes, Boys Keep Swinging, John I’m Only Dancing, Life on Mars, Memory of a Free Festival (well, just the end part, where the orgasmic Sun Machine is Coming Down), Queen Bitch, Sweet Head, Velvet Goldmine, We are the Dead (if you’ve noticed the list suddenly got alphabetical, it’s because I consulted the excellent teenagewildlife website), and oh just scads of others.

I once read Bowie himself chose Suffragette City as either his favorite song or at least his favorite song to perform… I was surprised.

What I like most about Bowie is that he’s so emotional. So many times his voice cracks or he surges up into falsetto to say what has to be said (as in “Ain’t there one damn song that can make me… BREAK DOWN AND CRY?”). He’s always fervent, caught up in his own moment… entirely earnest. God love ya, Mr. Bowie.

2. Cake. Absolutely, without question, the best band to run the lake with. Meaning somehow their rhythms fit with my footfalls. They also tend to be our Road Trip accompanists since Alan loves them too. Alan once remarked that they sound as if they broke into their third grade music room and stole all the instruments: the Jew’s harp, the wooden block, the triangle…

I have not seen them live but thanks to watching a Direct TV Freeview concert, I was able to identify the lead singer walking around our very lake one day, and some of the other band members at the Parkway Theater and at some local club watching the Lovemakers.

What I like about them is their exuberance paired with their world-weariness. A nice paradoxical mixture. And some brilliant lyrics: my current favorite is from “Dime,” the first-person tell-all from a coin: “I am determined not to be dented/By a car or by a plane or anything not yet invented.”

My favorite songs: Pretty Pink Ribbon, Dime, Meanwhile Rick James, the very sardonic I Will Survive, She’ll Come Back to Me, Italian Leather Sofa, Sheep Go to Heaven, etc.

3. Pixies. What a solid rush of relief that they got back together. They’re an inspired band whose songs are unpredictable, taking left turns in the middle of the melody. It has not escaped my attention that my number one hero David Bowie chose to cover one of their songs, Debaser! The highs are high with this band, and the lows are misery-soaked as they should be.

I used to usher at the Warfield in San Francisco and got to see the Pixies twice in the ‘90s before their breakup, and then I saw them at the Greek Theater last year after they reunited (and it feels so good). I’ve also seen Frank solo at the tiny Star & Plough in Berkeley, the Breeders at Slim’s, the Martinis somewhere in SF, the Amps… wait, did I see the Amps? Actually, I think I saw the Amps at Slim’s and the Breeders never. They are all talented on their own or in different combinations, but they are ALL POWERFUL as the Pixies.

Favorite songs: UMass, Alec Eiffel, Debaser, Bone Machine (this one is my absolute favorite, actually), Tony’s Theme, Where Is My Mind (no, wait, THIS one is my absolute favorite), Here Comes Your Man, La La Love You, Is She Weird, the Happening, Motorway to Roswell.

And now it occurs to me I have spent a lot of time thinking about music, when really I should have been doing other things. I got waylaid.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Cross-country skiing

My friend Cinderella and I have a tradition of going into snow country on MLK Day. This year we went to the Alpha and Omega rest stop off Highway 20, whose portentous name made me think one or both of us would end up giving birth and/or dying. There we donned our hats and gloves and skis to enter the woods.

It was rough terrain that made me miss the groomed trails at Royal Gorge. The middle of the trail had fairly packed snow (pockmarked, however, from dogs' paws and snowshoes) that we skied on, but the sides of the trail that you use for poling were soft and VERY DEEP. Many times my pole sunk down, catching me off guard. The analogy would be: you're on crutches and every now and then one crutch is instantly shorter by 10 inches.

We skiied about eight miles. I confess I'm a little bruised and battered. At one point Cinderella and I were completely stopped, motionless, talking, NOT MOVING ONE WHIT, you understand... and I fell down.

As I lay there looking up at the sky I complained, "There was no reason for that to happen." Then while I clumsily stood up, the tree hovering over me unleashed seven heavy clods of snow upon me. Nature was evil today.

But there's something so amazingly invigorating about X-C skiing. My cheeks felt burned with all the good blood rushing through them... and our vista over the valley was worth all the trudging.

And trudge we did. We forded a running stream several times, skirted a fallen tree and broke trail at one point (well, I broke it to the vanishing point and then we returned back to the trail. We were looking for better ground and we didn't at all mean to create a trail that others might follow, thinking it led somewhere good... although that might actually be funny). I remarked we were like Lewis and Clark, and Cinderella wittily revised us to "Louise and Clara."

And now, to return to the man whose abbreviated work on this planet we remember today, here is a passage of Dr. King's that I found on Stanford's website. He might possibly approve of our nature-seeking on his day:

"And it was at this time of year that I made it a practice to go out to the edge of the campus every afternoon for at least an hour to commune with nature. On the side of the campus ran a little tributary from the Delaware river. Every day I would sit on the edge of the campus by the side of the river and watch the beauties of nature. My friend, in this experience, I saw God. I saw him in birds of the air, the leaves of the tree, the movement of the rippling waves...."

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Offbeat Xmas Part III: Father, Son and the Miner Ghosts

Rather than spending Christmas with the Ghost of Christmas Past, we spent it with the ghosts of dead miners. To wit, we hit a ghost town.

Our original destination had been Calico, California (destination being a loose term meaning “we saw a sign as we drove past and resolved to return”), but after some advice given to us on Christmas night (see the Unhappy Hellidays post), we decided to bag Calico, which had been described as Disneyized, and instead head to Goldfield, Nevada, a REAL ghost town.

Our Delusional Adviser described the riches of Goldfield with such vigor that I grabbed a scrap of paper to make notes (and hence have evidence now of the pure delusion of his advice). Goldfield, he said, was a boom town that had been abandoned and there were lots of buildings still around, included a haunted hotel that, if you talked to the guys at the saloon across the street, they might let you into. Moreover, Goldfield had just received its state historic designation a few weeks ago, so I thought, “Hm…. freelance story?”

I was in ecstasy. And since our Delusional Adviser told us Goldfield was only a few hours north of Las Vegas and that Reno was only a couple hours north of Goldfield, we decided to reroute our trip home to Oakland through Reno. This means that rather than going back through California, we would head north through Nevada, and then take a left turn at Reno to cut through the mountains. Sounds easy, right?

We arrived in Goldfield.

Now, to me, the main characteristic a ghost town must have is that it be abandoned. That only the GHOSTS live there, right? Hence the name?

Well, Goldfield has some live residents living there with real homes intermingled with the abandoned shacks. In fact, a cursory examination would say half the homes were being lived in, half not, and my friend Tamim said later, “That’s not a ghost town. That’s Flint, Michigan.” According to Webster’s 9th, a ghost town is “wholly or nearly deserted,” so I think my disappointment is valid.

The other criteria I have for ghost town, and I admit I’m wrong on this one (but can’t prevent my tender feelings nonetheless), is that it be from the 1800s. I need the wooden saloon with one of its doors hanging half-cocked blowing in the wind, and a moldering brothel. But Goldfield wasn’t established until 1902 and was “abandoned” around 1912, a little late for my taste. Instead of wood, we had brick.

We walked around Goldfield, trying to figure out what in this salvage yard was what. Everyone seems to have rusted metal objects on their lawns (side note. I just turned to ask Alan what kinds of things they had in their yards, and his nonjudgmental response was, “I can’t believe how many times you want to revisit how messy Goldfield was. Let people have whatever they want in their yards!”)

I am not the most fastidious housekeeper, but I do like things tidy. I would not randomly cast things aside in my yard to see how the weather treats them. I would not want it necessary to plan a tactical assault while walking through one’s yard, to avoid getting gashed by sharp, tetanus-ridden objets d’art. I had a brainstorm that I could come to Goldfield and offer an all-day conference on How to Get Organized.

In retrospect, I think that this messiness was a way of helping ease the eye’s transition from “1912 abandoned shack” to “home sweet home.”

Anyway, we went to the courthouse to see if we could get some help. There, we were “assisted” by a sheriff who did not want to offer information about Goldfield but instead wanted to talk about how a romance novel lists his name in the acknowledgments section. I nodded and smiled and very much appreciated looking at that acknowledgments page, meanwhile trying to crane around him to listen to the woman behind him. I heard her utter some tantalizing information about ghosts she could hear upstairs in the courthouse sometimes. I was impeccably polite but also trying to steer my sheriff with direct questions about the town. Finally, I had to give up and assume that Alan would remember everything the woman was telling him.

When I overheard her say there was a pamphlet outside with a walking tour of Goldfield, we used that as our exit. The light was fading and we wanted to take photographs for that hypothetical article I might write. We stepped outside and rifled through all their pamphlets – not a one about Goldfield. Shit. But I was damned if I was going to go back inside that office and risk more Harlequin talk. So we just wandered around, took some photos.

The haunted hotel did look kind of cool through the windows, but still too modern for the ghost town experience. And of course the saloon across the street had no one in it, with key or without.

I must make the confession that later when we returned home and googled Goldfield, we learned it had a pretty damn cool history. Wyatt Earp lived here after his O.K. Corral gunfight, and there was apparently a bar so long it took 80 bartenders to serve everyone… but we knew none of this. Our experience was underwhelming. Here’s a picture of me giving a thumbs down (my black glove blends against the background). Did I mention it was freezing cold there, too?

So, we continued on to Reno. Delusional Adviser had told us to beware the speeding traps in these small communities, so I was vigilant during the parts I drove. I quickly decelerated from 70 to 50 to 40 to 30 in the three seconds they give you to do so in each of these little towns.


We got behind a swerving black sedan whose driver was clearly drunk. I slowed down and watched their lurching progress. Finally, they turned off onto another road and I accelerated back to the 40 mph which was the last sign I’d seen. Apparently, Drunky had distracted me so much I missed the 30 mph sign – and sure enough, I got a ticket.

Alan’s been in P.A. school and little paperworky things have been somewhat ignored. Things like making sure you have current insurance and registration in your car (I hasten to say both WERE current, but the proof was simply not in the car.) Adding to my $117 speeding ticket was $700-something for the proof of insurance. Our peace officer said “nine times out of ten,” when you show the court proof of insurance, that part will be dismissed. Well, great. Given my luck, I’ll be part of that ten percent solution.

The officer asked me my profession and I replied, “Instructor.” Later, I looked at the ticket and he had written “Constructor.” I don’t know if he thinks I helped build the Wynn or if I’m still active with my Legos, but I had to laugh. Snort, really.

We continued on, pissed. Since Delusional Adviser had been ludicrously off on his distances, we ended up having to stay in Reno instead of continuing on to Oakland, giving us the extra expense of another hotel night. Then the next day we were in scary Sierra weather going through Donner Pass (yes, exactly, where the wagon train people were stranded and had to eat each other).

Here’s the highlights of that portion of the trip.

We saw a sign that says chains are required even for cars with 4-wheel drive. In the past, we’ve always gone through the pass just with 4-wheel drive. I asked Alan if the chains were in the car, and he astutely replied, “Gosh, I didn’t think I’d need chains driving down California to the Nevada desert.” Thanks, Delusional Adviser!

So we sweated bullets thinking we were going to have to pay the $40 to have someone rent you chains, and then the $20 to remove them four miles down the road, but thankfully we were waved through. We passed the dozens of cars pulling off to put on their chains… and now we were like one of three people on the road. It was really scary. We began to wonder whether being waved through was a good thing or not! We were on ice and at one point when Alan tested his brakes we fishtailed. It was pretty harrowing.

Then all of a sudden all the Chain People began catching up, as well as other 4-Wheel Drives going recklessly fast thinking their tires were, I don’t know, magical. We passed no fewer than three serious accidents by the side of the road. It was like the scene in The Shining when Mr. Halloran is trying to rush back to the Overlook.

One accident – well, we think the driver is either dead or in a wheelchair. It was a pickup truck upside down, facing the wrong direction, the cab completely smushed in. There wasn’t really room for a person there anymore. And the cover for the truckbed had been sheared off. His/her personal belongings were strewn across the snow (passenger was already in ambulance somewhere). The sobering thing is that there was no other car there (besides the cop car). So, this driver got himself in a whole mess of trouble all by himself. Meaning he must have been speeding like a m-f-er. I just got so sad thinking, “Here’s someone who went up to Tahoe for a fun ski weekend and he’s just driving a little too fast on the way home… and it’s all over.”

Traffic was going 10 mph in major portions, including when I took this picture. We were just steaming over Delusional Adviser, thinking “We would have been home yesterday if not for him.” After two hours of white-knuckle driving, we emerged out of the pass and continued on home.

Where Alan discovered he’d missed a credit card payment by one day, with the slap-ding of $35.

So, to recap:

1. Delusional Adviser said Goldfield is a “couple hours” north of Las Vegas. It’s three. D.A. said Reno is a “couple hours” from Goldfield. It’s four. A reputedly four-hour trip turned out to be seven hours.

2. Due to the underestimation of travel time, we had to spend the night in Reno. $84 dollars extra.

3. I got a speeding ticket. $839.

4. Harrowing trip through Donner Pass. Threatened expense of chain rental.

5. Alan’s late fee. $35.

6. Goldfield is not as exciting as it could’ve been. In spite of its purported Disney qualities, Calico might’ve been a better bet. And since it’s unlikely we will ever drive to Las Vegas again, I will probably never get to see Calico.

Emotional toll: heavy
Financial toll: $958

Not to mention the gas costs associated with the extra hours in the car.

My advice: do not listen to advice.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Offbeat Xmas Part II: Stigmata in the Elbow

Yes, we all understand Christmas to be a time of blood-letting. Alan took it seriously this year. So did Penn and Teller, who, through the 13 Bloody Days of Christmas, let you have free tickets to see their Las Vegas show if you donate blood.

We had decided we needed to splurge this time and see a show (rather than just that free noontime Elvis impersonation show at the now-defunct Westward Ho, both of which rocked), and “splurging” for some means the course of blood through a vacuum-assisted line, rather than the opening of a wallet.
We drove out to the suburbs (yes, there is a Las Vegas Walmart) and checked into a clinic where the other six people ahead of Alan on the sign-up sheet were also there for Penn and Teller tix.
Alan was doing great, despite his needle thing… up until the phlebotomist said, “Uh oh.” And then started calling out, “I need some help over here!” Alan started dizzying, and they had to throw some cold packs on him and dip his chair so his feet were above his head. I stood there and tried to assure him his lifeblood wasn’t being drained out of him… although of course it was.
The problem was a little bit of decaf he’d drunk that morning: did you know caffeine makes your veins seize up and close down? Scary to think.
Alan, who is a P.A. student, wanted me to say that the “elbow” in this post’s heading should really say, “antecubital.”
Anyway, this cool underage phlebotomist joked him out of his anxiety and we liked her and the other phlebotomist so much we just had to get their photographs with him. They said we can return in March and give blood for Le Reve tickets!
Fast forward a few hours…
We are in the Penn and Teller Theater in Rio, and we have been invited up on stage along with everybody for box viewing. This is an opportunity to put your hands all over one of those disappearing boxes and check for the false bottom… here’s Alan checking.
Hint: if you go, check out the bass player who accompanies the box viewing. He’s not just any musician…
The show was just incredible, worth every penny--- uh, every drop, I guess. Those guys are brilliant. Here’s a picture of me in the audience before the show starts, ready for all the spicy magic.
Afterwards, Alan told Penn in the lobby that he liked his NPR piece, which Penn responded had been important to him. I showed Penn, in the viewer of my digital camera, the image of Alan flat on the phlebotomist’s chair so we could see the show, and he laughed.
Next time: the ghost town of Goldfield