Monday, December 25, 2006

Chain Mail

As I pulled off the freeway at my home exit last night, my music randomizer landed on Aimee Mann’s song “Jacob Marley’s Chain.” The randomizer sometimes knows too well where I am, and what season it is. I’m nervous when machines know too much about me.

It’s been a busy season. I sent my family a message yesterday:

Just to make it official, I did not send any boxes or envelopes to any of you. Don't panic when they don't get there.

After I got the thermostat turned up last night and the water heater fired, I checked my e-mail and found the following from my sister:

I AM thankful to have you as a brother and to have all the family that we do. I don't think this year would have been the same without everyone. No One could do it alone.

I LOVE YOU For now and FOREVER!!

In the words of a guy who used to work for Jacob Marley, God bless us every one—especially the kid in the back who sneezed.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Year in Review

My friend Andrew picked up the meme from someone else; I'll keep it rolling. First line of first entry for each month of the past year:

March: Apparently anyone can get one of these blog things. You don’t need a library card or a Class C license or anything.

April: Daylight Savings Time starts in the U.S. today, meaning it's light enough to go for a serious ride after work.

May: The cop in the crosswalk is stopping traffic so we nutty cyclists can charge through the normally car-choked streets of L.A., in this case rocketing past the new Gehry-designed Disney Center.

June: Each sunset, like each snowflake, is an entirely unique cliché.

July: The sun goes down every day. I don't see why people make such a big deal of it.

August: It was Eddy Merckx who famously remarked: "You don't win the Tour de France by eating sandwiches and drinking mineral water."

September: In between listening to Bob Dylan's lush new album, I've managed to get out and turn the crank once or twice.

October: Cold weather causes the ground to freeze, making it more slippery but less dense.

November: reports today that the Web has more than 100 million sites, as of October 2006.

December: I'm not as good as I'd like to be at returning books, which I suppose is how I'm chastised for letting other people borrow mine and not return them.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Christians and Pagans

Amber called her uncle, said "We're up here for the holiday
Jane and I were having Solstice, now we need a place to stay"
And her Christ-loving uncle watched his wife hang Mary on a tree
He watched his son hang candy canes all made with red dye number three
He told his niece, "It's Christmas eve, I know our life is not your style"
She said, "Christmas is like Solstice, and we miss you and it's been awhile"

So the Christians and the Pagans sat together at the table
Finding faith and common ground the best that they were able
And just before the meal was served, hands were held and prayers were said
Sending hope for peace on earth to all their gods and goddesses

The food was great, the tree plugged in, the meal had gone without a hitch
Till Timmy turned to Amber and said, "Is it true that you're a witch?"
His mom jumped up and said, "The pies are burning," and she hit the kitchen
And it was Jane who spoke, she said, "It's true, your cousin's not a Christian"
"But we love trees, we love the snow, the friends we have, the world we share
And you find magic from your God, and we find magic everywhere"

So the Christians and the Pagans sat together at the table
Finding faith and common ground the best that they were able
And where does magic come from, I think magic's in the learning
Cause now when Christians sit with Pagans only pumpkin pies are burning

When Amber tried to do the dishes, her aunt said, "Really, no, don't bother"
Amber's uncle saw how Amber looked like Tim and like her father
He thought about his brother, how they hadn't spoken in a year
He thought he'd call him up and say, "It's Christmas and your daughter's here"
He thought of fathers, sons and brothers, saw his own son tug his sleeve saying
"Can I be a Pagan?" Dad said, "We'll discuss it when they leave"

So the Christians and the Pagans sat together at the table
Finding faith and common ground the best that they were able
Lighting trees in darkness, learning new ways from the old, and
Making sense of history and drawing warmth out of the cold

--Dar Williams
(lyrics reprinted from

Monday, December 11, 2006

Flying Down the Beach

Got out on the bike Sunday, a short ride, my first since Thanksgiving: an hour, about 12 miles.

The downwind part was great. It rained here the night before (and again later that night), and all day a blustery wind did its best to push the clouds away.

You see things when you're out riding. The water in Long Beach harbor was choppy, but I saw splashes that were different from whitecaps. I stopped my bike to take a closer look. I could not see what was making the splashes. Little splashes, like the splash a bird makes when it dives into the water to catch a fish, but there were no birds to be seen. Could it be the wind making whitecaps? I watched, and a series of splashes went off in rapid sequence, in a straight line across 50 feet of water, as if someone had skipped a stone across the tops of the waves.

I peered in close, hoping I'd see flying fish. That's the only cause I could come up with that would make sense. The boils were coming over a defined range of water, not all over the harbor. I didn't see any fish. I watched for signs of dolphins under the water, breaking the surface. Nothing. Just white splashes on dark green waves, and then the flashes subsided, and it was just the wind-blown waves.

When I hit the parking lot below the Art Museum, I headed up the hill, as I usually do, so my legs are used to pedaling on something besides all flat. Got to the top of the hill and looked out to sea, but there was no Catalina; the sky was blue but haze obscured the horizon. I could post a picture of what it looked like, but it would look more or less like the pictures I've posted before. The differences were all invisible: the wind tugging at me, the temperature drop. Maybe you'd notice more people wearing windbreakers and parkas.

I came rolling down the hill to rejoin the bike trail. At the bottom of the hill were some kids playing with kites in the boisterous wind. Kids at their best are normally not too attentive about bikes coming up fast behind them, but kids whose eyes were fastened to a kite were going to be completely unaware of me. So I slowed, watching the kids carefully, and eased past them in the joggers' lane. Lucky thing the jogger coming along in the other direction was paying attention to something besides the kids and their kites.

Further down the bike trail, after I'd got back up to speed, I saw another kite, a little in front of me, and I watched for the kid who'd be at the other end of the string. I looked behind me but couldn't see who was holding the kite. As I slowed and looked again, the answer came flying by me: An empty reel of kite string came skipping along the sand, faster than I was riding, and bobbed across the bike trail in front of me, following the kite.

I coasted up alongside a rollerblader who was watching the same thing and shaking his head. "There goes a loose kite," I said. The wind was pulling this thing along good.

"Not for long," he said, nodding after the kite. He and I stopped and watched, along with a couple of other people who had seen it go by but not done anything fast enough to stop it. The kite flew past the edge at the base of the beach where a telephone wire runs, and it tugged the string across the phone wire as it rose up over the bluffs. For a moment I thought the kite had enough gumption to pull the string all the way across the wire and fly off with the reel still trailing. But as I watched, the reel climbed into the air, swinging back and forth, and got trapped between the telephone wire and a metal switchbox on the side of the telephone pole. The reel was going no further. The kite was now a captive, though one with no master.

I rode on to the end of the beach, a few miles further along, turned around and started working my way back upwind. Now and then a mouthful of sand got lifted by the wind and thrown in my face. It wasn't as cold as I'd estimated when I set out. I got back to the spot where the kite had been caught, curious whether it would have sawn the string off against the phone wire yet, but no, there it was still hanging against the sky--distinctly aloft, out of anyone's reach, yet trapped. Equilibrium until the wind died. The telephone pole was flying the kite. I kept huffing and puffing my way home.

Later in the night I heard the rain start to spatter my balcony again. The pavement is still wet this morning.

But I know where there's a free kite, if you want one.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Beyond the Compass

I'm not as good as I'd like to be at returning books, which I suppose is how I'm chastised for letting other people borrow mine and not return them.

I've been dabbling lately in a borrowed book. I wrote a note to myself in the front of the book, to be opened after I had crossed a sea of time: "This is JMM's book, and you are a dip if you don't return it to her!"

The book itself is like a chatty blog from an old friend, an e-mail pecked out on a manual typewriter. The news events it names are still crisp and bright, and the writer's rumination as he wanders from one topic to another are still as enchanting as watching a grandfather search from pocket to pocket to find where he left his glasses.

He covers the dangers of accumulation--of not returning books to friends: "A home is like a reservoir equipped with a gate valve," he writes. "The valve permits influx but prevents outflow. . . . Under ordinary circumstances, the only stuff that leaves a home is paper trash and garbage; everything else stays on and digs in."

I can't say what made me want to read this book right now. I have been carrying it with me for many years--ever since JMM pressed it on me, telling me she knew I'd enjoy it. I cannot tell you when that was, but I'd be surprised if it was much after I left high school in 1982. It could have been well before that. I trusted JMM's taste when she said I'd enjoy the book; she knows how my mind works. And I have not ignored the book since then. But each book finds its time, and each time I picked this up and looked at it, I knew it wasn't time yet. Each time I have read a different book instead.

So this little bundle of essays comes to me from a great distance, measured not just in miles but in the slow transitions of a lifetime. The book I am reading was first published in 1962. When JMM handed it to me--when I penciled my note in the front--it was already not new; its thoughts were older than we were. But its age has doubled while I've kept the book, and then some.

More telling, my age has more than doubled in the meantime. The kid who wrote that note on the flyleaf was a stripling, a high-school wiseass who didn't know the note he was writing would be read by someone old enough to be his father.

And I can tell you I would have read the book differently back then.

I've been more places now, for one thing. The author writes about geographic details from the East Coast that would have been names on a map to me then; today they are neighborhoods I've been to.

He tells a story of sitting up winter days at his farm waiting to get a shot at a fox who has been raiding his henhouse. I could tell you stories of sitting up winter nights at my sister's house, reading to my niece a book written by the same guy, of the comic struggles of a fox father as he calculates how to feed his family by sneaking into henhouses, under constant threat from a watchful farmer with a gun.

The sojourner tells how he went up to Maine, to the Fryeburg Fair, to enjoy the cattle auction, and was almost tempted to buy a whiteface heifer. When JMM handed me the book, I had never been to a county fair, never bought anything at auction. (I've still never been to Maine.)

But these dispatches across space and time come to me as if they were written yesterday by a neighbor up the road. I am closer to the writer's age today than when I got the book; I think I understand the musings of the 55-year-old better today than I would have when I was 20. Even as I have been hiking further away from the date the book was printed, I have been climbing closer to the ridge in life where it was written.

I can tell you, though, that JMM was right, as I knew she would be. I'm having a great time mapping his thoughts, recognizing the turns in some trails, delighting at being taken into some nooks I hadn't explored before.

I could go on, but that's probably enough for now. I'll close with one final, mostly unrelated thought. The writer, an American of letters, quotes another American--a statesman--who himself found in the words of a third--a jurist, who had died well before either of these guys--an idea worth note:

"The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding."

In this little sheaf of essays, those words are used in a description of a dog's character, but I have no doubt the writer intended them to go further.