Monday, October 30, 2006

Standard Shift

When I got home last night, I had to replace the dead batteries in my wall clocks with dead batteries that were an hour newer, so the hands moved an hour earlier.

(It seems a little creepy to have things in your house moving around when you're not there. I prefer not to worry about whether my wall hangings will move when I'm asleep. If I want the hands in a particular place, I can put them there.)

In the U.S., we are now on what's called "Standard Time." For five months a year (out of 12), we're on "Standard Time." Next year, we'll bring that down to about four months, or a third of the year.

When did we change our standards?

It seems to me that the time called "standard" would be the time we were on more regularly. This is the same complaint I have about "standard" transmissions in cars: More typically, in the U.S. at least, cars have automatic transmissions. That's the standard. Often you have to search far and wide to find a "standard" transmission.

I don't know who you have to go to if you want to see the change codified, so we can stop using the word "standard" for what has become less common.

But it's interesting to clock the shift as the U.S. moves toward a shorter span each year when we are on "standard" time. Changing the hours in spring and fall helps farms that follow a clock. Last week 6:00 milking was in the dark; now it comes in the very early morning.

Changing hours at all tends to throw off other businesses, and it has a negative effect on businesses that don't start at the crack of dawn: As the business day shifts later, lights have to be turned on earlier. Office lights that were turned on at 5:30 last week will have to be turned on at 4:30 this week.

As the U.S. moves further away from farms and further toward later hours, we nibble away at the chunk of the year when we shift our clocks to accommodate field workers. "Standard" time used to last longer than it does today. Next year it will be even shorter than it was this year.

We mark the arbitrary hours as if anyone could really change what time it is.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Dumb Art on Oaks

I have to name-check my brother today, because he used the f-word in a post that also included a reference to linguistic back-formation (not, as some would think, the process by which linguists get spines).

It's O.K., because I was thinking of him today anyhow, and particularly I was thinking of how I was going to mention him in today's post.

See, he's seen all this stuff before. He's been--with me, and with his lovely bride--to the Arastradero Open Space Preserve, up Arastradero Road from our sleepy little hometown. We hiked all over. He knows how those hills smell, how you can just about taste the wild fennel in the air down by the water, how the grasses and the oak and the eucalyptus mix on a warm wind and smell like home, like summer.

But he wasn't there today. Not because he's some young punk slacker, mind you--no, he's got something going on with a baby, and transcontinental flights, and three-wheeled strollers, and a dog, and for whatever reason he missed it.

By "it," of course, I mean it: the last day of the season. Way back in April, I nominated the first day of Daylight Savings as the start of the bicycling season. That would make today, the last day of Daylight Savings, the day that I can hang up my shorts, count my new T-shirts, rub my sore calves, and savor the memories of a well-traveled season. I rode a century. I rode several organized rides, major and minor. I rode places I'd never taken a bike (or a car) before; I rode Northern California and Southern California. I rode by night and by day, after the sun set and before it came up. I had flats; I replaced a derailleur cable; I got new riding flip-flops. All in all, a fine season.

And, since it was the last day of the season, I did take advantage of some really spotless warm October weather to swallow up my last few hills before I load the bike on the back of the car tomorrow and head south for Long Beach. Will I keep riding in the next few months? Absolutely. But I'm not in training for any particular ordeals, as I was last April when I was already mapping the buildup to August's Cool Breeze Century.

And yeah, bro, you can come ride Arastradero with me any time you like. As you can see, we've kept a space open for you.

Mountain Coda

Going through a houseful of old stuff, you run into strange odds and ends. Note the vintage pop-top on this can of soda. People used to make necklaces out of those, until some bright light figured out a way to open a can of soda without having a ring and tab that immediately turn into litter.

More to the point, have a look at the brand name and logo. Couldn't see a thing like that without mentioning it adjacent to my post from the other day.

Shasta's still in business, by the way. Check 'em out on Wikipedia, where they're even quoted in a Beastie Boys lyric.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Hasta be Shasta

Today was what steamship companies call a "positioning cruise": I need to be in San Francisco tomorrow, so rather than making lots of local stops and not venturing far from my starting point, I made a long run without many stops at all, ending up at my home base for tomorrow's shorter jaunts.

I've squeezed off a lot of shots in the past few days, but I don't feel I've really captured the feel of fall in the Siskiyous. It's a rich season, with lots of saturated browns and oranges and reds and yellows in the trees, offset by dark evergreens, brightly lit by autumn's intense sunlight.

Every time I come across the Siskiyou summit, I try to get a picture of this sign. Sometimes I miss it completely. Sometimes I get a good, clean shot. It marks the number of times I've been up and down this road. It also reminds me what weather I had on a particular trip. Today was crisp and clear. I saw a roadside thermometer that said 47 degrees Fahrenheit.

I always tell myself I won't take bazillions of shots of Mount Shasta as I come down the highway, just because it's there and it's captivating. I already have bazillions of shots from every other trip I've taken up and down this road. And every time, no matter what I tell myself, I take bazillions of shots anyhow.

Above is the formal, posed shot, from the main vista point off the highway just north of Yreka. This captures the whole scene from the north, with Shasta on the left, a double peak formed by the main mountain and Shastina, a lower peak that's part of the same structure. On the right, but still really part of the same complex, is Black Butte, a much smaller cinder cone.

Shasta showing off her fall colors, before the first snowfall. Look how bare the mountain is, compared with winter and spring shots where it's entirely white. Also note the smudge of smoke in the sky to the left (northeast) of the mountain. Not sure exactly where that came from, but it's not an illusion.

Black Butte from closer up.

As Shasta fell behind me to my left, the sun sank out of sight on my right. Here's the silhouette of the boat docks at the marina on Lake Shasta, behind Shasta Dam.

Many hours later (too many hours), I was on my way through the tunnel in the middle of the Bay Bridge, heading in to San Francisco. My vision at this point was considerably better than the camera's. The camera had a long day, and needed some coffee and a good rest.

Many Rivers to Cross

I'm in, um, let's see, Portland this morning. Or, uh, no, wait, I think it's Albany. Was it Medford? I know I was in Yreka one night.

When you're on the road, the hotel room artwork and the Fire Escape Plan on the inside of the door and the gift-wrapped soap in the bathroom and the room air conditioner controls give you precious little information about where you are. A couple of cups of coffee later, and you shake your head out and remember stopping for gas and to glance at a map 50 miles ago when you came through the rest stop at Salem last night. You remember they were out of cookies at the check-in desk, but they still had popcorn. You remember you picked this place because it had a pool and an exercise room, then you dropped off to sleep like a log instead.

If you're lucky, you're parked somewhere with distinctive geography: You come out into the crisp morning air and see Shasta, or Old Faithful, or Mount Rushmore, or Lake Tahoe. Sometimes you just see flat brown plain as far as the horizon. Seeing some kind of hill whose shape you recognize gives your body the clues it needs to know which way is east and which is west and which one you're driving toward today.

Fortunately, we live in a world where it doesn't really matter where you are physically. The work is all in your mind, and in the connections you make with others.

Still, it's nice from time to time to know where you are when you wake up. If nothing else, it lets you know whether to expect biscuits and gravy for breakfast, or yogurt and a banana, or eggs and bacon.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Summit Cows and Summit Ducks

Completing last night's photo essay, here's Shasta by daylight.

The Siskiyous are almost always beautiful to drive through, but it's a different trip every time. You just have to have your camera ready and take whatever they throw at you. The light and weather are constantly shifting. Today fog was spilling over the pass at the highest point on Interstate 5, about 5 miles north of the Oregon border.

A few minutes after the last picture, the road looked like this.

Then, coming into Ashland, the farmland appeared again.

The Siskiyou summit is not particularly high by mountain standards: It's about 4,000 feet. But the weather along that stretch can be capricious anyhow.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Comin' Round the Mountain

I've been posting a lot of pictures of California's golden rolling hills lately, since I've been traveling a lot through that part of the state. A golden hillside dotted with dark live oak trees is pretty easy on the eyes.

But that's not the only landscape California has to offer. California's got the beach, the redwoods, lakes like Tahoe, the crisp rocky Sierra Nevadas, the flat salt pans of Death Valley and neighboring creases--a huge range in landscape.

So rather than post another sunset today, or another picture of a hillside with an oak, or another picture from a bike ride, I decided I'd put up a picture of Mount Shasta, which I passed right before I got to Yreka, where I'm spending the night. (I spent most of today in Sacramento.)

This majestic massif towers over the north end of California's Central Valley, visible from miles in every direction. It really owns the whole north end of the state. Nothing near it really compares in size or breathtaking splendor. It's not part of a string of mountains; this volcanic peak stands more or less alone.

Enough words. Here's what it looked like tonight:

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Invisible Shadows

Well Plato's cave is full of freaks
Demanding refunds for the things they've seen
I wish they could believe
In all the things that never made the screen
—Jack Johnson, "Inaudible Melodies"

No time for a real note today, because I'm busy on other projects. But I did ride 31 miles yesterday, down around Gilroy, and didn't want to let it pass without notice.

Beautiful weather for mid-October. Someone said it was 75 degrees Fahrenheit after the morning cool burned off. I believe them. The hills smelled of dark oak and dry grass, with a slight tang of eucalyptus.

Terrific ride. Organizers said we had 1,500 feet of climbing, but it never felt like it. Several slow, easy grades—none felt like more than 200 or 250 feet. They must have added up. Plenty of cows along the way, and windmills pumping water, and tractors and grape vines. A few fields filled with pumpkins by the roadside. Very enjoyable ride.

The Jack Johnson quote doesn't have anything to do with any of that. But I heard it on the radio again this morning and didn't want it to go unnoticed either.

Sunday, October 15, 2006


The U.S. has passed a key point in its activities in Iraq, one that I think should not escape notice.

As of today, the number of U.S. military deaths in Iraq--2,753--has passed the number of people killed on September 11, 2001, in New York City's World Trade Center--2,752.

At the current rate of losses--46 so far this month in Iraq--by the time the next Congress convenes, the U.S. political leadership will probably have more U.S. deaths to answer for in Iraq than the total number who died on 9/11, in New York, at the Pentagon, and in a Pennsylvania field.

Numbers tell the story we ask them to tell, and these numbers can be read many ways. Certainly many more thousands could have been killed in New York. Certainly the next attack, from Iraq or anywhere else, could kill thousands more. The numbers above do not include American deaths in Afghanistan--and they do not include the vastly larger numbers of Iraqi and Afghani deaths from the past few years, whether civilians or people who were fighting the invading forces. The deaths suffered by the U.S. military in Iraq pretty clearly are not part of any "war on terror," and specifically they can't be considered a response to the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, which was perpetrated mostly by Saudi Arabs, led by a Yemeni based in Afghanistan. (Until 9/11, the man responsible for the most deaths ever in a terror attack on U.S. soil was an American, a former Marine.) We can only speculate on what Iraq's path would have been under Saddam Hussein if the U.S. had not stepped in. It may be even harder today to speculate what Iraq's course will be five years from now.

I'm not saying we should or shouldn't, or have or haven't. I'm not measuring how successful we have been at cutting the odds of an attack on the U.S. in the future; I'm not asking whether those lives were spent well or in vain. Any war is a mess. I'm not asking how prepared our leaders have left the U.S. today to make the same sacrifices to effect regime change in North Korea, a dictatorship with real nuclear weapons, not phantom ones, and with a declared and demonstrated program for developing missiles that can deliver those weapons to North America. I know that South Korea is not prepared to risk Seoul to stop a North Korean first strike that could kill millions. North Korea's intercontinental missiles will not be pointed at South Korea.

I'm not asking how prepared the U.S. is in 2006 for the moment when Beijing decides to send troops to occupy Taiwan, which mainland China considers a renegade province in much the same way that Iraq considered Kuwait its own property or Syria regards Lebanon. Have our political leaders considered economic and military contingency plans for any scenario worse than a misfired Florida election? I don't want to know. Are our political leaders ready to risk their own children's lives to ward off a hypothetical threat, or will they only send other people's kids to be maimed by IEDs? I'm certainly not going to vote on whether it's time for the U.S. to pull out of Iraq: What should we do now with the mess we've made?

But it is a solemn moment when we sacrifice more of our own than the bad guys ever did, in order to prevent some future holocaust. Each of these deaths has torn a hole in many lives, just as each of the 9/11 deaths did, just as every death does.

And I don't think a moment like that should go unremarked.

(Sources: Iraq deaths, CNN. WTC deaths, CBS.)

Sunrise Serenade

I'm not sure what kind of nut gets up at 5 a.m. to go ride 26.1 miles in the dark, but whatever kind of nut that is, I'm one. This shot is from about 5:30, as the bicycles mass at the start line. Ride started at 6 a.m., pretty much on the nose.

What it looks like to ride up the highway in the dark. Route was very pleasant, and the temperature was surprisingly mild. My street looked as if it had rained earlier, but there was no sign of precipitation on the ride.

Looking down from the overpass in the previous picture, after riding a few more miles. Obviously still plenty more riders coming behind me. (Note that they're going in two directions here; there's a U-turn just a little bit ahead.) This is within the first 5 miles of the ride; even by the time I got to Mile 23, I could still see a lot of riders coming along around Mile 10. I got lucky and started near the front, so I could go full speed almost from the start. Folks who start back in the pack may have had to crawl along for the first few miles, although here you see the pack pretty spread out.

Right up near the end. I finished in about 93 minutes, which means I averaged nearly 17 miles an hour, or about 3.5 minutes per mile. Not too sluggish for an old guy who hasn't been training particularly hard. Plenty of people passed me along the way. That time includes the one camera stop I made.

As you ride past the refreshment stands being set up along the roadside for the runners who will take the same route later today, the folks by the side of the road cheer you on and applaud--some more, some less. I like to wave back.

As I went past one of them, early in the race, I heard a girl call out, "Finally! A normal person riding!" What she meant was that I was in T-shirt and shorts, not a high-tech jersey and Lycra contour riding leggings, and I was on a pretty ordinary bike, not some high-tech space-age sculpture. What I thought when I heard it was "Yeah, if you call a guy who rides up the highway in the dark normal, sure, it's a normal person on this bike."

I really enjoyed this ride. It started too early, but it was over fast, and the route was mostly a good one. (Being so close to the beach, it was almost completely flat; there was a little wind, but not so you'd really complain.) The best part was how close it was to my front door. It took me about 10 minutes to get there on my bike, and a half-hour after I crossed the finish line, I was sitting in my kitchen again, sipping fresh espresso I'd just made and nibbling on the last of the cookies I baked last night. Looks like the rest of the day will be overcast; I can sit inside and enjoy the ambience of a fine fall day. All that's missing is a crackling fire.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Oh, It's for Health Reasons

Q: How many calories will you really burn by riding a piddling 26.2 miles? Will it be anywhere near the "carbo load" you're ingesting tonight by downing all that ice cream and fresh-baked cookies after a big ravioli dinner with plenty of salad? Even if it's cold tomorrow morning, what with you setting out before dawn and all, will you burn half the calories you've just taken in?

A: Shut up.

I'm going to go crawl into a diabetic coma now, and get up at some ungodly hour to pull on my riding flip-flops and pedal on down the L.A. River trail about a mile to the start line of the Long Beach Marathon Bike Tour, which starts well before the marathon itself, so we riders will be off the road and having our pancake-and-lots-of-gloppy-syrup breakfasts (more carbs!) long before grimacing runners can spoil our view. For once, I'm not driving further than the total mileage of a ride to get to the starting line. Watch for photos tomorrow, if the sun inches up over the horizon before the ride's over.

Monday, October 09, 2006

When the Music Stops

I'm not saying Mom bought too many CDs and DVDs and books and calendars, and I'm not saying she was the only thing keeping them going.

But the month after my mother died, Tower Records closed their doors forever. You can take from that whatever lesson you want.

When I was in high school, Dan Grant and I used to ride our bicycles over to our local Tower Records all the time. We pored over their singles collections--that would be 45 rpm vinyl records, the 7-inch ones with the big holes in the middle--and we studied 12-inch vinyl albums, debating their strengths and weaknesses. We didn't have lots of money, so we had to scrimp and save and compare notes and choose carefully how we filled in our collections.

Remember 10-inch EPs? I remember one called "Short Player," by a guy named Michael Short, with a photo of him on the cover where the part of the photo with his legs had been folded under, so he was--get it?--a short player. As was the EP. It had about four songs, one of which was something about "How does it feel to be/ Back in the German Air Force?" We used to listen to stuff like that, give it a try after school. You might not like everything, but you'd hear some interesting music, music that might get you thinking.

For my birthday in ninth grade, Dan gave me a Tower Records gift certificate; I told him to choose what I should get with it, and that was the beginning of a musical fascination with Billy Joel that lasted for years. I remember buying the Yes album "Close to the Edge" and going over to Dan's house to play it, listening intently to the slow instrumental build--it was the first time either of us had heard it--wondering if there would ever be any lyrics. Finally when the music had built enough velocity to carry it, a bright vocal chord jumped in from nowhere, wordless.

I could go on.

Mom used to tease me about how much time I spent at Tower, but she caught the bug too. By the time I was in college, she was going there as often as I ever had. She opened an account at a bank with a branch in the same shopping center--just so she could get a safety deposit box there, but it was sure convenient. She knew when the annual book sale was. She started recognizing people who worked in various departments, and she made remarks about whether anyone with a normal hairstyle could ever get hired at Tower. Every Christmas I knew I could count on getting the new Tower wall calendar, a freebie but always with a particular art style. I still have a collection of them somewhere.

When I lived in New York, I shopped at the Lincoln Center Tower and the Greenwich Village Tower, plus the discount outlet behind the one in the Village. When I visited London, I made a point of buying some music with Tower price tags printed in pounds instead of dollars. And even with free and cheap music downloads available on the Net, I still get a thrill out of going through the art and liner notes of a brand-new album I've just unwrapped, as I listen to it for the first time. Other stores will still sell CDs and books and DVDs, but none will really have the culture of Tower.

I suspect Tower's been done in by Wal-Mart as much as it has by iTunes or Napster. Tower always had the depth to sell, say, an oddball Tom Waits import, or an N.W.A. album with lyrics Wal-Mart wouldn't support. But if the new Mariah Carey was cheaper at Wal-Mart, Tower lost a whole set of shoppers who otherwise might have been exposed to new music, or at least new places where soft flesh can be pierced. Water finds its level, but the free market may not be the best mechanism for a culture that wants to generate interesting art.

Tower will be missed--an old friend, almost a family member, if it weren't for that bizarre T-shirt.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Hills Are All Live Oak

Not a lot of fresh updates today; I've been burrowing through paper files, collecting numbers and researching accounts. Silver hillsides under a full moon as I drove north Friday night--it was bright enough to pick out individual trees from half a mile.

Friday, October 06, 2006

If It's Tuesday, This Must Be . . .

Seems like I'm always on my way somewhere these days: Get home, wash socks, pay bills, repack bags, take them down to the garage and put them in the car, start over.

Above is sunrise in San Diego, which was Tuesday morning; below is sunset the same day, on my way back home, from somewhere on the coast highway between Dana Point and Laguna Beach.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

It Must Be Getting Early

Cold weather causes the ground to freeze, making it more slippery but less dense. As a result of the lower density, its gravitational force diminishes. One of the net effects of this is that the sun tends to set further out to sea as the weather cools. (Everything I need to know about science I learned from the Web.)

I have been monitoring this effect closely this year, keeping a photographic record of the alarming slippage as the sun continues to settle further and further out to sea. So far, we have been able to retrieve it every morning, but if a strong current catches it, we could be in for some dark days.

Additionally, when the (hot) sun settles in the (cold) water, we tend to see lots of steam come up, resulting in more clouds. This contributes to the downward spiral in average temperature.

Difficult days lie ahead, but with fortitude and ingenuity we can restore the cycle of global warming.

For Everything There Is a Purpose

The old nostrum is that there's a tool for every job, and a job for every tool. But this one, frankly, had puzzled me when I first saw it. Part claw, part hammer, part tooth puller, part thumb cruncher: What job could this tool ever have been designed for?

Nature provides: Today I learned what (or whom) this tool was meant to be used on.