october, 2005

Mon Oct 10 09:36:04 PDT 2005

With the wireless not working on the bus, my week is already off to a stressful start. At least I didn't spend all of yesterday in the South Bay -- with Jo making a Canadian Thanksgiving, I could have stayed, helping her cook as we did multiple times from 1702 9th St. or Delafield (whose faces she has on her wall), but I knew that I needed to be in Berkeley, doing my favorite weekend activity -- reading the Sunday Times in the sun with a bagel and tea -- for at least part of the day. So I navigated my bike -- like new again, with the previous day's upgrades at the Haight cyclery -- through Caltrain and BART, back to my huge backyard, whose sunflowers are now sun-dried stalks, where I had to apply sunscreen to even read the paper.

My annoyance at the shuttle increases as I feel more self-powered from this last weekend and week: Wednesday again biking down from 24th & Mission with a group of friendly lycra-clad, clipless-shod Googley boys, whom Jacob and I eventually lost, and who made it to the early-closing breakfast as we ate fruity Clif bars on the road; yesterday, finally mustering the energy to get my lovely Bianchi over to the panhandle of Golden Gate Park, back to its home amongst alternately dredded and hipster-bedecked bikers who sold me the stiff-soled shoes not meant to be walked in and the cleated pedals that will remove my last excuse about being slower than everyone else ascending this area's ubiquitous hills. I practiced on the bike stand in the courtyard for half an hour, as various employees and passers-by assured me it would soon be second nature. The next morning, cruising between the Mission-style architecture buildings of Stanford, Joanne & Matt's new campus, the clipless didn't seem like such an obstacle. My left ankle this morning notices the strain from Rona's advanced simultaneous de-clipping move, but I haven't yet fallen over, cleated, into traffic, nor did walking through the Berkeley Bowl in search of de-stressing chocolate (now used not only as espresso accompaniment but as jaw-unclenching drug) and bagels in my new unforgiving, clicking shoes engender the constipated biker strut seen in those (undoubtedly more hardcore) wearing carbon-fiber soles.

Thus excited about my newfound pedal power (the upstroke counts too, now!), I was almost surprised to see myself getting on the BART this morning. With bike racks on the new shuttles and my easily-heftable frame, I have no excuse not to roll down Adeline in my new clipless shoes every morning (which would take twelve weeks of morning commutes to pay for themselves -- not an obstacle these days, but it's still good to frame these things in terms of alternatives). And with gas prices still in shock from Katrina, and the Times reporting more bikers taking to the road because of it, my urges to use my employer's credit towards the purchase of a hybrid car dissipate, even in light of its increased fuel efficiency. I hate our car culture; I hate that there is no unified public transportation system connecting all points around the distributed metropolis of the Bay; I really don't want to buy into it. But should I want to go to Tahoe? pick someone up from the airport? go dancing in the city and stay out past the crazy-early BART-closing at midnight (even DC stayed open 'til 3 on weekends!)? -- I can't yet bike across the Bay Bridge, nor would it be prudent to lock the undisguised Bianchi outside some of the clubs I would want to frequent.

The errand into the city, which I've been putting off for a month or so at this point (half-hour BART ride; then biking west up seeming-45-degree hills), was justified by the necessity to then get to the Caltrain station, and down to the South Bay, for [other acts that were way less cool than the 45 minutes of] the Arcade Fire. Am now kicking self for not having been unable to attend either concert of theirs this year for which I've had tickets! Their cult-inspiring gyrations concluded what's been a rather musical week, with seven pairs of press seats for The Italian Girl in Algiers coming my way on Thursday (a grateful audience from work, along with opera-virgin Gina, came along), and the next night, with a musicological college friend I haven't seen in six years, attending one in the first run of Sellers & Adams' Doctor Atomic: thrilling; more accessible than I expected; powerful. I think I need to go again Wednesday. An old, traditionalist curmudgeon griped sotto voce at my orange blouse and Vinny's jeans, but apparently he hadn't seen the group of men his age in attendance in leather chaps. Maybe you haven't noticed you're not in Milan, sir?

So as it turns out, I've spent the fifty-minute shuttle ride absorbed in this, which I was going to do last night but which pub trivia at the Albatross, and later, Dora's back-pain remedies, precluded. A morning not wasted. The Bay shimmers on both sides of the bridge over which we're driving, the rocky arms of the salt repositories snowy white. Maybe I'll bike to BART tomorrow.

Thu Oct 13 10:18:08 PDT 2005

On the shuttle yesterday, in my velvety skirt, Lulu's birthday-present necklace, and Birkenstocks, trying valiantly to use the lossy wireless being bombarded by dozens of users, I could find no one -- nor half of Christophe or Tessa; nor even the blue-haired Charles -- to take my second opera ticket. The same friend of a friend who had given me and thirteen Googlers tickets to Italian Girl last week, upon receipt of my thank-you note, offered me a pair to what was to be my second viewing of Doctor Atomic. I eventually closed my computer in frustration over the multi-second ping times, borrowed Tessa's pen, and attacked the Sunday crossword living in my red-orange-yellow Timbuk2.

So I went by myself. The shuttle got in to Civic Center at seven, leaving me with an hour to find a vegetarian restaurant around the corner from the War Memorial Opera House, and stare at the blue walls, sipping genmaicha, while enjoying not having to make conversation. Again, I was the youngest by fifty years in the audience, the only one with a full, brown head of hair. And again, I sat rapt through the three and a half hours of minimalism-meets-Varèse-meets-Stravinsky, dystopian-yet-historical musical account.

"Let me say," says Teller, "that I have no hope of clearing my conscience." Oppenheimer sings Donne; Kitty sings Rukeyser; the chorus sings the Bhagavad Gita. And so lyrical! When was the last time I saw an opera so well-sung? Every principal (and they're all principals) worthy of their own aria, Kitty's putting me in mind of Upshaw's rendition of The Girl with the Orange Lips, to which I listened, raptly, over and over on my parents' stereo when I discovered CDs and recordings of classical music. Love, am I in your light?

It makes you sad for humanity. Walking past the Vietnam vet who sits outside the corner store on the way home and yells "bang! boom! rat-a-tat boom!" as you pass by, post-traumatic-stressed, I reflect (1) wow, that was thirty years ago; and (2) apparently, we haven't learned.

The final curtain descends, and the audience sits, stunned. Slowly begins to clap.

This break from work, this immersion in minimalism and music, while a departure from the jaw-stressing daily decapitated-chicken routine, perhaps did nothing to alleviate my general anxiety. Now, an addition to pushing this code out, I fear for the implications of the atomic bomb, the nuclear age, the commoditization of power -- and all in a way more poignant than reading the morning's news.

I have since postal-mailed four people the New Yorker's twelve-page article on the opera: --Go see it if you can! I feel like I'm back in Vienna, to see so much opera for so little (the price of a few BART tickets; of leaving work early)!

I must stop fearing for humanity, and for my code. I must quell my growing anxiety (whence?!) over long plane flights. I desperately need this vacation that starts Friday: nine days in London, leaving computers and VPN access at home; going to see a much-missed Jaime.

Sun Oct 23 19:08:23 GMT 2005

Somewhere over Greenland, I'm probably no longer exactly in GMT -- that arbitrary meridian that stretches through a park several miles southeast down the Thames from London, through the Royal Observatory there, which line I think I have a picture of Jaime straddling. I say "think" because, though I remembered to pack my three-year-old digital camera (it seemed so modern the fall of my senior year, when I got it for my 22nd birthday; now it seems -- well, is -- twice as thick as the latest models) and remembered to charge it up the night before my departure, it must have turned itself on in my bag on the plane over, and I had neither a physical nor voltage electrical outlet converter with which to recharge it. So, after our circus around the millennially-installed, ovoid-carriaged London Eye on Wednesday (somehow couldn't be bothered to track one down beforehand), I picked up an old-school, single-use, analog point-and-shoot -- and therefore have no idea what pictures I've attempted have and haven't come out. (O, the extent to which I've come to depend on instant gratification! But the anticipation of the prints is anachronistically fun.)

I haven't touched a computer in a week-plus. My uncut nails, approaching bona-fide talon length, might be longer, getting in the way of typing, or maybe the muscle memory for Dvorak, for ViM, has just atrophied a bit in my time in London. (Okay, so that's a bit of a lie: Over the dial-up connection in British Josh's childhood room, where Jaime has been staying until she found a flat, and where I was therefore also crashing, I checked -- but ignored most of, and did not respond to all but two of -- my work email. But nothing substantive (which is, really, defined as Those Things Which Use Vi) has been done.) And this has been intentional: though I planned this vacation holiday to coïncide with Jaime's being settled in London and me being well done with my foreseeable projects at work, somehow circumstances conspired to leave me completely strung and stressed out with work, my deadline only just met before I hopped on the 747 out of SFO. I have been therefore quite happy not only to sleep til noon after a night of attempted clubbing (obnoxious boys and progressively-lamer music eventually urged us out around 3:30, despite the valiant protective attempts of Duck Boy (so christened due to his faux-hawk 'do, ubiquitous around London -- and welcomely so!)); but to remove myself almost completely from my five-month-old, wonderful-but-stressful job. One of the Dave W's pointed out that I could have done better had I really wanted to remove myself as far as possible from the reaches of computers -- and, touché, I did bring my trusty iBook with me (though, despite thoughts of wireless cafés throughout the city, now is the only time I've used it) -- but this has been remote enough for me, for now.

It took a few days not only for me to get over the vicious eight-hour jetlag (not as bad as the full half a day I must have experienced when my Wisconsin-based youth orchestra travelled to Japan in '98, but perhaps because I was younger I could more readily shake it off. Damn, am I really aging at 25?!), but to stop thinking about work, and diverse non-dishes-doing and getting-married-for-her-visa, therefore-breaking-her-lease roommates, who have been weighing as stressors on my mind before leaving. Staying in the semi-remote (Zone-3) Golders Green, we would wake up to Lady Grey (is my memory that poor? or is Twinings worse in the States?) and toast with hummus, then soldier out for bits of tourism -- the kind I'm often unsure I want to do, but which is almost always rewarding: the Tate Modern; the reconstructed Globe (boasting the only thatched roof allowed in London after the fire of 1666); the London Eye; the infamous Tower of same (not a tower! just like Christ Church in Oxford turns out to be not a church -- at least London Bridge was a bridge, if unremarkable); Greenwich; an attempt at Westminster, though, having slept late yesterday, we missed the abbey's early Saturday close. I mandated coffee in the later part of the day, as, between the months of accumulated sleep deprivation, the warmth of the unventilated Tube, and the peripatetic voyeurism to which we devoted our mornings, it was the only thing that would keep me awake. Soy soya milk (the extra 'a' à la l'Europe, I suppose) was in surprising abundance, though admittedly only in the more chain-style coffee shops (I eschewed the divide-and-conquer Starbucks on principle), as was vegan food. A few gratuitous croissants were had, and the occasional splitting of a dessert without excessive dairy; but the one full-on latte I had at a small, adorable French place in Soho was too much. This cultivated lactose intolerance of mine is apparently more than psychosomatic. And the vegan food found was more than expected! A lackluster veggie burger at Pistachio's Café in Greenwich did not excite, but both of the veggie restaurants The Gate in Hammersmith and Manna in Jaime's neighborhood-to-be of Belsize Park most definitely did. Manna, indeed! Stunned by the imaginative, oyster-mushroom-y latke with tahini sauce at Manna and well-pleased with the cremini/arugula/risotto of The Gate, both over bottles of pleasant white, I was reminded -- yes, sentimentally so -- of Colin, Chris and my vegan tour of New York and The Gates this past February. (Many other things sentimentally reminded, also. Having not had time to think about this these pasts few months has apparently been good for me, albeit not entirely curative.)

(Linguistic observations: Soya milk. Aubergine. Veg (no '-etables' or '-gies'). A 'circus' is not a place with clowns and animals, but a roundabout (which is why London has so many). 'Cheers' is more than a toast. 'Sorry' for "Excuse me," as in a preëmptive apology for spilling these pints on your shoes if you don't let me through.)

Of course I am glad to have done the touristy things. England is the country about which I have, I'm sure, read the most without having been there -- perhaps even without that qualifier. Practically the entire pre-1900 canon of my language comes out of there, and so I have read countless books about, plays set in, and poems alluding to not only the entire foggy rock in the Atlantic, but specifically its capital. So much history! Pagans aside, Londinium founded in Roman times, and relentless narrative since then. Granted, Mr. Irwin in 10th-grade history skipped over all of the Ethel-*s with a wave of a hand and perhaps fifteen minutes, but to post-1066 we devoted the rest of the term -- and all of the books of fantasy, kings and queens, historical fiction, quasi-historical (or pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical- comical-historical-pastoral), and downright fantasy, have all been rooted in the city I spent the past week tramping around. And much of it still standing! Things that were wooden, thatched, and central of course burnt down 350 years ago, but Westminster Abbey is working on its 800th birthday of the still-visible parts, and the central White Tower of the eponymous structure (or Big Fortress-y Thing, as it would be more accurately named) is well nigh on its thousandth. Yes, the pyramids in Egypt are older by millennia. But as Cairo's novelist Naguib Mahfouz -- so recent as to be yet alive -- is the widest-reaching ambassador of Egyptian culture, if not lore, I have nowhere near the same degree of anticipation upon reaching that city's proverbial gates as I did upon London's, wanting to map the pictures in my mind from books and movies (more books than movies) to actual places. Reading Stephenson's yet-new Quicksilver, picked up outside Portobello Road on Monday, I have an opportunity for this instant gratification -- reading through its beginning in the mid-1600's, its abundance of family trees and maps of the parts of London not scarred by the Fire, I can more accurately visualize Pepys on the Strand or Oldenburg locked in the Tower. I therefore grubbed voraciously for time for a few pages here and there, snatching even the few exhausted moments after the night bus got us home at 5 AM, or a fading afternoon, waiting for Jaime to be done with the King's College library, in a wine bar in a courtyard, sipping a glass of pinot, alternately writing to my sister and raising my eyes from my book to the pinstriped lawyers avoiding the £8 congestion charge by riding their motorcycles away from their den near the Royal Courts of Justice.

And of course we found time for the off-the-beaten-tourist-track things -- this being Jaime. A man on the plane over asked me if I had an agenda for myself in London; I replied no, that I was going to place myself in the hands of She Who Never Fails To Entertain. British Josh provided his own form with cheesy bars and clubs my first night in, me having removed my tired contact lenses in favor of punky-for-DC, normal-for-London glasses: after delicious Lebanese (despite the mysterious bowl of uncut vegetables, it had hummus to rival my mother's!), first a lounge where it was all but impossible to hear; then another to which I felt we were only admitted because I'd stolen Jaime's cute Mango jeans instead of my hole-in-the-pocket-where-my-computer-rubs-them old Gap pair, at which Josh ordered us, of all things, Dom Perignon (unnecessarily lavish, but J assures me that's just how the boy likes to burn through money), and a bit of salsa with the odd Italian. An "en-gay-gement" (cute) party for friends of friends the next night. Another, drinks and dinner with Jaime's friend Tal, back to his impossibly-big Soho flat for a bottle of wine, music, and musicals. Deep house and protective Duck Boy at The End on Friday night. Extra-cold (3°C -- and therefore extra-thick) Guinness with friend-of-physics-James Anne in Chalk Farm Thursday night (wish they had that on tap in the U.S.!); Guinness not extra-cold at chic, north-London, tavern-meets-bar (but with hours like a pub) The Hill as a final hurrah last night.

Good to see the Agent Yassif. She's been galavanting all over the world of late, and while I've been enjoying my yet-new (well, nine-month-old, at this point) situation out west and we've had the miraculously free VoIP of Skype with which to stay in touch, it is of course fantastic to reconnect in person (even if she can beat me in Scrabble half the time by now -- the indignity!). No fluency of banter has been lost; we even regained our old similar inflection and simultinaeity of speech within a few days. Perhaps she'll end up in my adopted neck of the woods for grad school (though the options out there aren't her first choices, she could do much worse) -- or at least within easy visiting range, only three time zones east, within the year. Having the means to travel -- and I mean not just potentially to the east coast, but across the pond to the U.K. -- feels wonderfully adult. (I suppose my job, despite its lack of dress code, is.) And what a needed, relaxing, expanding, and reconnecting vacation this has been! If it means a place for me to stay in the cosmopolitan-yet-English, Europe-yet-intelligible London, I wouldn't mind if Jaime stayed there for a while ...

Mon Oct 31 09:54:08 PST 2005

Jealous of Colin's marathon time, and bolstered by the extra hour from the daylight-to-standard-time transition (gleaned the previous night munching nutritional-yeast toast, looking at my newly-banded watch: Emily, it's now an hour ago!), I went running Sunday morning. This before the open house (to which no one came), but after I had joined the waiting congregation at the gates of the Berkeley Bowl, lined up for the first fresh bagels I've had in two weeks, since before London. Abby can't run having recently eaten, so I take off myself: shirted in my San Francisco Half Marathon schwag, perhaps to prove to myself that I too have run these things, I veer down Woolsey into the ever-more-florid Richmond and Claremont neighborhoods. Look at the red-ribboned medal on my wall for good measure.

Biking, too -- on my bagel pilgrimage and to drop off film to be developed, sitting in Nomad with a Plato-perfect soy latte -- clipless pedals; shoes with rocking, stiff soles. I still can't make it from the city to No Name in time for the 9:30 closing of breakfast, and am therefore Not Hardcore Enough; my marathon time(s, for I have run two and a half!) are, while not quite double his, those of a finisher, not a placer. I can either be annoyed by this, or take pleasure in the exercise.

And, of course, that is its purpose (that and chocolate): to dissolve annoyances. I've spent the weekend thinking the grass is always greener: roommates have all but stopped washing dishes; the Friday shuttle into the city is always alive with chatter (everyone unsure how long it will last, their distractions suspended: iPod nanos and copies of the Economist, the New Yorker, stayed on laps or on tables, paused, unopened); fedora'd Phil of Philz making me and Travis coffees "perfect for a sunny Saturday afternoon with salsa music" (for there it was, outside: people dancing on the corner of 24th & Folsom): mint and cardamom; the kaleidescoped Octavia leading up to Belgian pommes frites and Leffe on tap and James all in white illuminating a blacklit bathroom. All in the city! And me across the bay. (I tried to read Capote on the last train back Friday, my brain buzzed, unsure if the music of the words was the author or my cross-firing synapses.)

But Sunday running past jasmine, biking around a flat plane between coffee and errands, Nomadic perfection, I reflect that part of it all is just roots: nine months I may have been here, but to deracinate and reëstablish myself at this point would (perhaps) be counterproductive. Better for now to stay and enjoy the flat biking (one of these days I'll learn how to reliably clip in) and my purple room. And to not be annoyed, but to run as much as I damn well feel like it.

all this ©nori heikkinen, October 2005

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