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Driving Mr. Kornbluth

On Sunday I drove a car by myself for the first time in my life.  It was exhilarating!  It was scary!

We just started doing back-to-back training (bike) rides on Saturdays and Sundays, as we prepare for our mid-August, two-day, 188-mile event — and I’d found that BART didn’t leave from Berkeley early enough on Sunday morning.

So, with Sara out of town, I was in the position of having to self-drive myself to Pleasanton (about 45 minutes away).

I put on the bike rack, secured my bike to it, and started on my journey, following the loud instructions of the Lady in My Phone.  A few minutes into my drive, I found myself, confusingly, in the middle of the street surrounded by temporary barriers.  An older, African American man knocked on my car window, and I rolled it down (feeling great pride in my having pressed the right button, mixed with embarrassment that I’d obviously done something wrong).  “We’re setting up for our Juneteenth celebration,” he explained.  “This is the one day of the year you can’t drive through here!”

I said, “May I just say two things?”

He nodded.

“One,” I said, “this is my very first time driving a car by myself.  And two, wow, do we need a Juneteenth celebration this year!!”

He smiled and moved a barrier so I could drive through.

I followed the Lady’s directions and — amazingly — ended up at the correct parking lot in Pleasanton.  I pulled into a parking spot under a tree, put the car in park, turned it off, and got out.  I think my legs were shaking.  I was elated and relieved — and then I remembered that I still had a challenging bike ride ahead.

The ride went pretty much okay.  Below I’m posting click-on-able maps of both of my rides last weekend.  I’m sorry I haven’t been keeping up with my blog reports on my weekly training rides!  I was kidnapped by my own brain and held hostage for several months — but now I’m back.  (I have done all the training rides.)

After Sunday’s bike ride, I realized that — for the first time — I could change into dry clothes after the ride … since I’d arrived in a car, rather than (as before) just on my bike.  It felt quite civilized to change — kind of like a grown-up.  I drove back home without incident (other than many internal thoughts of wild surmise, ecstasy, and, finally, relief).

In the couple of days since then, I’ve started to look around at the other adult-aged people in the world with the feeling that, just maybe, I might indeed belong to their tribe.

Perhaps this coming weekend (with Sara still away) I will drive myself to a ride or two again.  One of them may involve parallel parking, which I don’t yet know how to do.  (I’m Googling it.)


If you’d like to donate towards my big ride this season — 188 miles from Seattle, Wash., to Vancouver, B.C., on Aug. 15 & 16 (no car-driving involved!) — just click here.


Infinite Shades of Gray, Numerous Chins

Infinite Shades of Gray, Numerous Chins

I am now a badass.  This is entirely because of my new shades, which are prescription and change how dark they are depending on the ambient light.  I got them to use while cycling (everyone else on my Team in Training team seems to wear shades), but I’ve found that I sometimes wear them when I’m just walking around.  And, you know, I feel kind of different.  Not quite don’t-mess-with-me, but a little bit of a comfortable distance from some of life’s harshest rays.

Others in my (as yet unnamed) TNT speed group have taken to calling me Badásse, a Frenchified moniker that reminds me of early Godard, only without the cigarette.  Yes, they’re joking, but I must say: since I got these shades, I’ve felt stronger — cooler — on the bike.  This may simply be random variance, or it may have something to do with the hot (!) yoga (!) I’ve been trying out during the week — but until convinced otherwise, I’m going to say it’s the sunglasses.

Last week we did the ride that I dread every season (well, one of many): starting at Stafford Lake in Novato, then about 55 miles that include the infamous climb (after climb after climb) at the Marshall Wall.  Oh, and there’s also much wind.  Map and (if you click on it) details below:

Me at some bridge, in full road-cyclist regalia, just about to be unable to continue sucking in my tummy.

Me at some bridge, in full road-cyclist regalia, just about to be unable to continue sucking in my tummy.

The previous Saturday, on what was (I believe) my first ride with the new cool shades, we went over many bridges (well, at least two) — and as we spun through Vallejo, a scary-looking man seemed to glare at me as I rode by, but I just Trusted in the the Power of the Shades (and also smiled and said “Hi!”) and the moment passed.  I was wearing all the pretentious-looking bike stuff that people find so off-putting when cyclists clank into the local Peet’s in their weird, clippy shoes.  But amazingly, every weird thing you wear makes a practical difference on the bike: the stretchy pants prevent (well, reduce) chafing and cushion your butt, the jersey wicks out your sweat, the gloves minimize injury if you fall off your bike and cushion your palms, the clippy shoes conserve energy as you pedal, the sunglasses make you seem really cool, and the helmet– well, I forget what the helmet does, but our head coach, K.Sue, makes us wear one.

Of course, despite all these neat accoutrements, I spend pretty much every moment of each ride in terror that I won’t finish it — that it will be too hard, and I will let down my teammates, my donors, my ancestors, et al.  But being dressed properly at least means that, amid that terror, I will be as comfortable and safe as possible.

Below is a map of that two-weeks-ago, bridge-to-bridge ride (click on it for juicy details):

If you’d like to donate towards my big ride this season — 188 badass miles from Seattle, Wash., to Vancouver, B.C., on Aug. 15 & 16 — just click here.

Lessons Learned

Lesson one from this week: Never — never! — eat a big meal of Indian food the night before a training ride.  Late on Friday evening I had a delicious chicken-curry dinner from a local Indian eatery.  The next morning, about 10 minutes before our 8:30 a.m. “buddy ride” was to begin, I had a literally visceral understanding of my error.  Fortunately, our ride was beginning at the parking lot of the Orinda BART station, so I was able to zip back and use the BART restroom.  A short-ish time later I emerged, about 17 pounds lighter, and raced back to my teammates, who were already beginning to head out.  By the time I got myself sunblocked and on my bike, I was at the back of the pack.

Why are “buddy rides” called “buddy rides”?  I’ve never known.  Early each season, the Saturday training rides tend to alternate between “team rides” (in which we’re broken out into smaller “speed groups,” each with its own coaches) and the free-form “buddy rides,”  in which there are no sub-teams, just one big, blobby group.  I guess maybe I had a vague sense that this made us all buddies — bicycling comrades, if you will.

But on Saturday I found out the real meaning of the “buddy ride” — because I had a buddy for almost the whole ride.  One of the coaches, seeing me straggling near the back of the group, asked me to pair up with Emily.  Emily and I have been on a bunch of these teams together, and we’ve often been in the same speed sub-group (though, sneakily, she’s gotten faster than me in recent seasons) — but this was the first time that we’d ridden together throughout a buddy ride.  Initially, we made a bunch of wrong turns (mostly when I was leading), but Emily used the Google Map on her phone to find a way for us to get back on track.  As the ride progressed, we encouraged and joked with each other — especially during the toughest part, a very, very long ascent up Redwood Road.  I mean, it seemed infinitely long: you’d think, Just after the next turn, that’ll be the top — and then there would be more up.  But eventually we did reach the top — at which point Emily warned me that another tough climb (up Pinehurst) was approaching.

As we finally closed in on the last chunk of this 52-mile ride, I suddenly got the “buddy” part: it wasn’t just an amorphous group of riders — we had buddies, so that (as much as possible) no one rode alone.  Yeah, I know: Duh!  But I’d never before been so conscious of the benefits of having a ride partner.

So again, lesson one: no Indian food the night before a ride.  And now lesson two: biking buddies are cool.

If you’d like to donate toward my big ride this year (and thus help the fight against blood cancers), which will be a 188-mile route from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C., on Aug. 15 & 16, just click here.  To get juicy (well, maybe sweaty) details from my ride this week, just click on the map below.

Catching Up

When I started this blog, I intended to write an entry every day.  It hasn’t worked out that way: I notice, for example, that my previous entry was on July 10, 2014 — and that entry described something that had happened back on June 1 of that year.  The thing is, I have this cool app — Remember The Milk — that gives me a to-do list each day.  And one of the items on that list that recurs daily tells me to write a blog item.  At the end of each day I delete the items I haven’t gotten to — one of which, pretty much always, is to write a blog item — and the app generates that very same to-do for the next day.  Which I then delete.  And so on.

So let me just say that it feels really great to be writing this entry, if for no other reason than that I’ll be able to check off “Write blog entry” as done.

I find that a lot of my aspirations have to do with catching up.  Right now I’m taking driving lessons, and if all goes well I will get my first driver’s license on May 22, the day after my 56th birthday.  Also, there’s my senior thesis for Princeton, which was due in 1980.  Several years ago I submitted one of my monologues, Citizen Josh, as my thesis — but the current thesis adviser told me that, as he read the rules, I needed to add a section that was more, you know, thesis-y.  I’m working on that now. …  Well, I’m aspiring to work on that now, would be more accurate.  It could start happening at any moment.  I used to have a daily recurring item on my Remember The Milk list that said “Work on thesis” — but at some point, perhaps because of a stray keystroke, that item fell away.

*        *        *

I just tabbed over to Remember The Milk and added “Work on thesis.”  We’ll see if it sticks.

In the meantime, let me try to get caught up on my recent training rides with Team In Training (TNT).  This is my fourth season with TNT, which organizes events that raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.  That last entry I wrote was about my third cycling century (that is, 100-mile ride) with TNT.  This year — because most of my former teammates were doing it, because I’ve always loved Seattle and wanted to visit Vancouver, B.C., and because of the invisible hand of a possibly sadistic cycling god — I’ve signed up for an even longer ride: 188 miles, over two days, from Seattle to Vancouver, on August 15 & 16.  (If you want to donate towards my ride, you can do so here.)

My goal has been to write up each weekly training ride as an entry on my blog, but for some reason I’ve had a harder-than-usual time getting going on that this year.  So this first entry of the 2015 season will cover the first bunch of rides — after which, I’m actually pretty confident, I’ll get back into the weekly blogging rhythm.

*        *        *

I’ll start with last Saturday’s ride — a 48.7 mile slog through the great flatness of Vacaville, Calif.  If you click on the map below, you can see all kinds of details from my ride, like heart rate, cadence, and other records of my glorious suffering:

This — due to a couple of beautiful bar and bat mitzvahs I’d attended on recent Saturdays, which kept me from training on those days — was my first ride with my newly assigned rider group.  (There are lots and lots of riders on the team, and we’re separated out into different mini-groups, according to our speed.)  My group’s coach, Kieran, is terrifically witty, and so I’d anticipated that she would be relatively easygoing as a coach.  Um, no.  She’s an ass-kicker (though still very funny).  We were practicing pace-lining — in which everyone takes turns at the front of the single-file line of riders, presumably blocking the wind for everybody — and we were going at what I thought was already a pretty challenging pace.  But after a SAG (refreshment) stop, Kieran casually mentioned to me that she was going to try to get us to push the pace by a couple mph.  So instead of going about 14 mph (along mostly flatness, against a moderate wind), we were doing around 16.  Which was kind of okay, until the flatness subtly became a slight uphillness — at which point pushing the pace became way harder to do.

It’s a mystery to me how other cyclists can go so much faster than I can.  Just by looking at many of them, I can deduce that at least part of their advantage is that, unlike me, they are so thin as to be essentially weightless.  Gravity cannot find them.  Wind goes through them.  They are made of muscle and sinew and bone and very little else: they were clearly designed by God for cycling.  Okay, I get that.  But how to account for all these other speedy cyclists — people who, like me, are not at all skinny?  Why are they so much faster than me?  I have no idea.  It’s not like I’m not trying.  It’s just that there’s this, like, invisible molasses surrounding me, kind of like Pigpen’s dirt-cloud in the Peanuts comics.

Well, I did try pushing the pace, with sporadic success — but it was a strain.  Literally.  I could feel my back and one of my legs straining a bit to keep going that fast.  And then, a couple of days later (yesterday), my hip and lower back started feeling wonky.  So I’m a little intimidated about continuing with Kieran’s ride group — rather than, say, asking to move down a speed group — but as a Kieran fanboy I’m quite reluctant to do so.  We’ll see.

*        *        *

Here’s a map of my previous training ride, in Marin:

I remember that ride (a “buddy ride” — that is, not in our speed groups but just kind of all together) as being pretty fun.  Though lots of times it doesn’t feel fun on a moment-by-moment basis, except for when I’m going downhill.  What’s cool/weird is that I’m actually almost always — even when struggling up a steep hill — having kind of a great time: I’m on my beautiful bike, in lovely surroundings, with my wonderful TNT pals.  I just don’t fully feel my enjoyment till afterwards, possibly around the time I’m back home and soaking in Epsom salts while reading the latest issue of Bicycling magazine — or, as it’s known to cyclists, “bike porn.”

It hasn’t escaped my notice that two of the activities that have brought so much to my life recently — cycling, and volunteering at the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco — call upon their practitioners to live in the moment.  Actually, cycling (especially going uphill, and/or against the wind) forces me to live in the moment — just focus on the next pedal stroke: sometimes, near the beginning of a long ride, I find myself wondering how I will possibly become the person who has finished that ride, hours later; but it happens, over and over again.  Amazing, this time thing.

*        *        *

The ride before that one — also in Marin — brings up painful memories for me … not because of the ride itself, but because my new Garmin device, which tracks my every move on the bike and then uploads to the Internet, turned out to be glitchy and only recorded the first 27 seconds of a 22.74-mile course.  Thus the map below gives a severely truncated account of that day’s ride:

After the ride, I went to the amazingly helpful folks at Mike’s Bikes in Berkeley, where I’d bought the Garmin, and they quickly swapped it out for another one — which works fine.

It’s a little scary to realize how emotionally dependent I am on the upload from each ride — almost as if, without a map and stats I can point to, the ride never happened!  It’s an if-a-tree-falls-in-the-forest kind of thing.

*        *        *

Before that, I rode with my teammates around Orinda and environs:

And a week before that, we biked around Livermore:

Which leaves only the season-launching ride the previous Sunday, in Pinole:

The first ride of each season is always relatively easy, and is intended to lull the prospective participant into a false feeling of confidence.  This has always worked for me.  As the weeks go by, and the courses get more and more nearly-impossible, I will fleetingly think back longingly to that first ride.  And then I’ll get to the next nearly-straight-up hill, with the wind blowing vehemently into my face, and I’ll just have to pin my ears back and move ahead, one pedal-stroke at a time.

And then, the next week, I’ll do it again.  I know: it doesn’t sound like me, with all this persistence.  But it’s what’s happening.

Go figure.

*        *        *

Again, if you’d like to contribute toward my ride — and thus help to fight blood cancers, and to support cancer patients and their loved ones — you can do so here.

When You Are a Man, Sometimes You Wear Stretchy Pants

About a month ago (I’ve been resting my blogging muscles since then), I completed my third 100-mile bike ride — the accurately named “America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride” in Tahoe.  As with my two previous “centuries,” I did this one with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training (TNT — because, really, do you think they’d want to be known as “TiT”?).  Don’t want to bury the lede, so here it is: I had a blast!  I love my teammates!  And thanks to a bunch of very generous people, I was able to surpass my personal $2,700 fundraising goal, ending up with $4,238.22 to fight blood cancers and to support patients and their loved ones.  Thanks so much to everyone who donated, or who offered words of encouragement! A couple of big changes since my previous century ride:

  • New bike — a nifty “road bike,” instead of my heavier “hybrid,” which is much more suited for commuting than for very long (and hilly) rides.
  • Stretchy pants.
Just about to start riding in Tahoe (pants redacted).

Just about to start riding in Tahoe (pants redacted).

This second transition was arguably more nerve-wracking than the first.  I did not want to wear stretchy pants: I am a fellow who likes to preserve some mystery.  But my beloved (and sometimes intimidating) head coach, K.Sue, became increasingly adamant on this point.  As she saw it, I had already gotten so close to being a real, honest-to-God cyclist — road bike, “clipless” pedals (which means, paradoxically, pedals with clips), and such — but had stopped tantalizingly short: with my shorts.  The baggy shorts I favored were clearly knocking 0.000001 mph off my top speed, and this needed to be rectified.

So on June 1, amid thousands of other cyclists, I rode “naked.”  There was nothing between my lower parts and the warm mountain air other than a thin layer of stretchy stuff.  And it was … okay!  Someone on my team even complimented me on my shapely legs, though I think maybe she was kidding.  In any case, it felt like another step towards becoming the kind of person both of my brothers would see at Peet’s and laugh at — which is something.

Here’s the map of my ride; you can click on it to embiggen and to see all sorts of details (none of them involving my legs):


Postscript on “Josh Kornbluth Day”: Staying Amazed

Susan Duhan Felix has an automatic signature on her emails: “Stay Amazed.”

The one email she’s sent me that hasn’t had that signature (because, I think, she sent it from her iPhone) is the most recent: it came in response to an e-blast I sent out to let people know that I’m now artist in residence at the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco.  Pretty clearly, Susan Felix had meant to send that email to someone else.  Here’s the text of her email, in its entirety: “Mainly it’s interesting. I don’t think he’d be helpful. He’s very funny but unreliable and flaky.”

So, okay, she thinks I’m unreliable and flaky — but on the other hand: funny!  I’d call it a wash.

Susan Felix is the person who’d recommended that the City of Berkeley have a “Josh Kornbluth Day.”  That day — April 29 — things didn’t go as planned, as an aide to Mayor Tom Bates, Gregory Magofña, had spaced out on doing the proclamation; so my wife and son and I showed up at the City Council chambers, but had to go home, proclamation-less.

A week later, on May 6, I got an email from Susan saying that my delayed proclamation would be presented to me on “Tuesday.”  Since it was Tuesday when I got that email, I assumed (since she mentioned no date) that she meant the following Tuesday.

Boy, was I wrong!  That very day, during the City Council meeting, Mayor Bates announced that he was now going to present me with my “Josh Kornbluth Day” proclamation — and (as you already know) I wasn’t there!

Soon after, I got another email from Susan Felix, letting me know that I should come by the mayor’s office sometime and pick up my proclamation.  As usual, her message was signed, “Stay Amazed, Susan.”

So I wrote to mayoral aide Gregory Magofña, asking when would be a good time for me to come and get my proclamation — and about a month later I got a reply from him, apologizing for his delay in responding and saying I could pick up the proclamation whenever I wanted to.

Which was sweet and cool and all.  It’s just that there was one detail in his email that kind of jumped out at me: It was addressed to “John” — not to, you know, Josh.

And then I got that last email from Susan Felix, letting me know that I’m unreliable and flaky — but, you know, funny!

“Josh Kornbluth Day”: it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

Oh My God Something Really Gross Happened on My Last Training Ride I Mean Nothing Terrible Just Yowza!

So I stepped in some human poo.  Lots of it — a big, soft mound.  We were at our SAG stop — where kind volunteers offer us food and beverages — and I needed to pee.  I saw one of your garden-variety skinny cycling guys emerge from a path that led into the nearby woods and I thought (not unreasonably), Hey, that’s probably a good place for me to pee!  So I headed down that path, which was pretty narrow, and my focus was on some dicey-looking plants along the side: I was remembering my wife saying, “Leaves of three, let them be.”  So I’m looking left and right, worrying about leaves of three, when I stepped in something soft and gushy.  And big: my cycling shoes sunk in almost all the way.  And I thought, Please, dear God, let this be mud!  Only, it hadn’t been raining.  And when I re-emerged from the path, all my teammates started exclaiming (not unreasonably) that something smelled really bad.  I mean, it was epically awful.  People thought it might be from a nearby farm or something.  And I couldn’t get the stuff off my shoes!  The poo had glopped into all the nooks and crevices of the cleats, and up from there.  It was Biblical!  And I still had, like, 30 miles left to ride with my teammates!

I’m sure you stopped reading this disgusting account a while ago, so now I’m probably just re-living this horror to my own self … but, wow!!  I tried riding behind everyone else, but sometimes we all bunched up (like at a stoplight) and people would start yelling (quite understandably) that something smelled just awful.  And that something was me!  And there was nothing I could do about it!  (I mean, I’d used up a whole bunch of diaper wipes, and everything, on the damn shoes — it was hopeless.)

And now, because you’re not actually reading this, I’m going to tell you what happened when I first went to day camp.  I was, oh, I don’t know, maybe five or so?  And having grown up in Manhattan, I’d never been in nature before — which is to say, away from a normal bathroom.  And as I hiked with the other kids and our counselors, I realized that I needed to poo.  But there was no bathroom!  Finally, we got to this ancient Port-a-Potty type thing, and I was terrified to go in there.  But I really, really needed to go!  All the other kids were going in there, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do so.  Till finally, well, I just relaxed my sphincter and … you know. …  As we headed back to the bus, people started commenting that something smelled like poo.  I agreed, suggesting that it was perhaps from a wild animal.  This diversionary tactic became totally ineffective once we were actually back on the bus.  A counselor asked me why I had done what I’d done.  I don’t remember what I said in reply.  But I was, as you might imagine, quite embarrassed.

And then … 50 years went by, during which I never smelled strongly of poo (my own, or another’s).  Fifty years!  That’s a pretty good stretch of poo-less-ness.  But all good things must come to an end, and some bad things come from an end, and these two vectors of fate intersected on Saturday, because of a really, really inconsiderate cyclist with an impressive capacity for poo production (especially considering his overall skinniness).

At the end of our ride, there was — wait for it — a team cookout!  And no, I didn’t attend the cookout, of course.  Meanwhile, I noticed that sprinklers had gone on in a nearby field, so while everyone else was cookout-ing, I ran over and held my soiled cycling shoes up to the nozzle of a sprinkler.  My goal was to de-soil the shoes, but what this ended up doing was distributing the poo molecules throughout the entire shoe.  So I went over to where there was a dispenser of plastic bags for dog-walkers, and I took a bunch of them and totally wrapped up my drenched, poo-ey shoes (I had been offered a car ride back to BART, and I wasn’t about to inflict these shoes on anyone else!) and walked, barefoot and sad, back to the parking lot.  There were sharp things in the parking lot — splinters, and such — but what I’m telling you is, I just didn’t care!

Well, when I got back home I threw out those shoes.  Yes! — even though I’m broke-ass!  And I bought a new pair — because, well, POO!!  I know this was extravagant on my part, but before you cast the first stone, try riding a few miles in my old bike shoes.

And hey: otherwise, it was a lovely ride!  Here’s the map, which you can click on for all kinds of cool details (none of them, thankfully, olfactory):

And here are my two previous training rides:

This coming Sunday, June 1, I’ll finally be doing the big event: “America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride,” a 100-miler, in Tahoe, with my teammates from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training.  Thanks to everyone who donated towards my ride — it means the world to me, and to cancer patients and their loved ones!  (You can still contribute, if you want, by clicking here.)

I’m really sorry about the disgustingness of this blog entry, but I just had to write it, so that the healing could begin.

I mean, yeesh!

My First Death

Singing-BowlYesterday I took my first shift at the Zen Hospice Project (ZHP) in San Francisco, where I am the newly appointed artist-in-residence.  Since the kind of “artist” I am mostly involves talking about myself, people there (e.g., staff, along with relatives of the “residents” — the term used at ZHP instead of “patients”) understandably had (friendly) questions about what I might be up to: after all, a visual artist (say) might be expected to sit in a corner and do some sketching.  What would a monologuist do?

Well, it turns out, based on my first day, that what I do is be there.  Which was, for me, an incredibly profound experience.  Every moment I felt privileged — blessed — to be included in this remarkable community.

When I arrived for my shift (the volunteers work in three-hour shifts, preceded and followed by hour-long shift-change meetings), I learned that there were, at the moment, no residents!  Which is apparently a very unusual occurrence.  Was it something I’d said?  This sounds incredibly weird even as I type it, but there’s an eeriness to a hospice that has no patients in it.  (I think I’m going to use the “p” word from time to time.)  Kind of an almost unbearable lightness.  For the moment, this lovely house was … just a lovely house!

Except, of course, nurses and other staff members were still there.  And also — incredibly, to me, though this obviously happens regularly at the hospice — there was a person who was already dead.  She was a tiny, elderly woman, who had died only a few days after arriving there.  I first observed the bathing ceremony: Still lying in her bed in her pretty room at the hospice — clothed — with her hands crossed and her mouth (this was a powerful thing to see) agape, she was surrounded by her three grown children and what I took to be a son-in-law.  An RN named Jeff, who with his shaved-bald head and liquidly soulful eyes is someone you’d pick out of a lineup as who you’d want to run your death ceremony, made a gong-like sound by hitting a bowl three times with a kind of mallet.  Explaining everything as he was doing it, he simultaneously emptied two carafes — one containing water, the other a kind of tea made from a spice that, he said, had long been used at death ceremonies by Native Americans from the area — into a bowl.  He explained to the family members that anyone was free to do what he was about to do: dip a washcloth in the bowl and ceremonially wash the dead woman’s feet, hands, and face (he explained that her body had already been bathed completely by staff).

The family members seemed reluctant to participate in this way — which was fine.  That’s one thing that I really appreciated about the ceremony: the non-pushiness of it.  A lot of this non-pushiness came from Jeff: he made everyone feel okay just to be, and do, whatever was natural.

Everybody, I’m learning, responds differently to the death of a loved one.  This is, to me, something that is both remarkable and — when I think about it — also unremarkable, in the sense that we are all different individuals, with our own quirks.  It is, perhaps, the suppression of those quirks — the denial of our unique individuality — that makes so many ceremonies seem so false, so stuffy.  Years ago, when my father died, I felt, at the funeral, as if we family members were almost like extras — and, for that matter, that Dad himself was kind of a prop: Paul Kornbluth, in the role of the dead person.  In a way, I’ve spent much of my life since then trying, through storytelling, to restore his astonishing individuality.  Yesterday, as this tiny, old — now dead — woman lay there, no platitudes were said about her.  She was being celebrated, and her passing was being noted, and everyone could feel it in their own way — while at the same time being in the presence of others who were doing their own feeling.

A body that is no longer animated by breath, by hope, by love, is no longer a person: that was my experience yesterday.  I realize that this probably should seem obvious — but I guess it wasn’t obvious to me, until I experienced it.

Another thing that struck me profoundly, but is also (I guess) obvious: death is a totally natural part of life.  Death has always felt, to me, kind of like the sun: something that’s there, but you don’t (can’t?) look at.  Well, you can look at it.  You can look at it with the same eyes, and mind and heart, that take in the infinitely astonishing joyful miracle of a child’s birth.  And you can feel what you feel, and that’s you, and no one else should be able to tell you how or what to feel.  How we experience death — others’, and our own — is (I think) an important part of our personal autonomy.  Also: When we make death a separate category from life, we tear a deep gash into the fabric of our existence, and bear the pain — and the sense of incompleteness — from that fissure through all our days.

To put it in wonkish terms: In the program of life, death is not a bug — it’s a feature.

A short time later, downstairs — as the imposingly enormous and courteous guy from the mortuary went about moving the body from the room upstairs — one of the woman’s sons approached me.  “Excuse me,” he said, “but I wonder if you could tell me the significance of ringing the bell three times?”

I confessed to him, somewhat sheepishly, that this was my first day, and I didn’t know — but told him that every meeting I’d attended at the hospice began with three dings and then 10 minutes of “sitting” (meditating), which itself was followed by three dings.  The guy nodded.  Then he smiled a little smile: “I think I’ve seen them do it on Star Trek.”

I smiled back: “Well, then we know it’s got gravitas.”

I went off to try to find someone who could tell me why the bell-bowl had been rung three times.  The hospice was less populated than usual, due to the paucity of residents to be cared for, and I couldn’t find anyone who knew.  Everyone — including the family members — assumed that Jeff would know: I mean, he’s bald, and he’s spiritual!  Finally, I saw Jeff descending the stairs, carrying the bowl and other objects from the ceremony.

“Jeff,” I said, “can I just ask you a quick question?”

With a touch of weariness, he said, “No, Josh, I do not know why we ring it three times!”

So clearly the word had gotten around that I was investigating the issue.  And I thought: Okay, it’s time to stop asking about this.

Everyone next gathered outside, in a kind of garden area, for the second part of the death ceremony, in which people lay rose petals on the body before it (she) is taken away by the gi-normous mortuarian and his regular-sized pal.  I told the family members that, based on my researches, the Star Trek theory was clearly in the lead.  One of the daughters said, “We should Google it!”

Well, anyone who has been around me recently knows that I’m fairly obsessed with asking questions aloud to my new Android phone.  So excitedly, I pulled out my phone and said, “Okay, Google now!” (which makes it blurble to life).  I didn’t know how to word the question, so I looked desperately over to the family members, one of whom whispered, “Why three gongs at a Zen ceremony?”

So I said that into my phone, and after some more glurgling, it typed out: “Why three dongs at a Zen ceremony?”

I looked up from my phone apologetically.  I told the family members that, while Google was taking our question in a fascinating and unexpected direction, it seemed perhaps best to leave the matter be for now.  They readily agreed.

(For what it’s worth, this is my current theory of why three: Why not three?)

Later, after the body had been taken away and the family members had quietly and politely said their good-byes to us, I found out that this tiny old woman had, in life, been quite the spitfire.  In fact, not long before her final bout with cancer, she had loved going to the gym to Zumba!  And suddenly, in my mind, that dead body was animated into the living person she had been: I pictured her in tights — in the front row, dammit! — Zumba-ing like all get-out!

She’s dead now — but my God, she lived!  She lived on this Earth!  And she rhythmically swung her hips, and she smiled and sweated, and I bet everyone loved being in class with her.

About an hour later a new resident arrived.  After spending a couple of hours in his vicinity, I can already tell you that he is a remarkable person, with a deeply loving son and beautiful grandchildren.  I can report that I saw his young granddaughter tenderly stroke the hair of her even-younger brother.  I hope and pray that this man will still be there on Friday, when I return to the hospice for my next shift.

In the meantime, may we who are currently living take every opportunity to Zumba like crazy!  Turn the dial up to 12!  Bust a move!

[I will be doing a solo performance on Oct. 1 as a benefit for the Zen Hospice Project.  In the meantime, I plan to continue blogging here, as well as improvising about my experiences at some lovely Bay Area theater, and even — tech gods permitting — recording a regular podcast.  Details to come, in this space.]

Training Rides #8 & #9: Near-Bonk Experience

[For the next month, I will be posting dispatches from my weekly training rides with Team In Training (TNT), as I prepare for the 100-mile “America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride”  (AMBBR) in Tahoe on June 1 — all to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.  If you’d like to donate towards my ride, you can do so here.]

Me during the May 3 ride (after my near-bonk), with some of my TNT teammates -- each one of them a bicycling bad-ass and a lovely person.

Me during the May 3 ride (after my near-bonk), with some of my TNT teammates — each one of them a bicycling bad-ass and a lovely person.

I was climbing up a hill during last week’s training ride, in and around Half Moon Bay, when I suddenly felt like a machine that was overheating and out of fuel — which, I guess, is what I was.  I’d missed two full weeks of training and working out, but the early part of this ride had seemed to go okay.  Now, though, I was on this difficult ascent, and suddenly it wasn’t just difficult — it was kind of hallucinogenic.  So I did something I hadn’t done before, in (now) three years of endurance training with TNT: I got off my bike during a climb.

My body felt clammy now, and my legs were shaky.  I took a long drink from one of my water bottles (to which I’d added a “hydration mix” called Skratch), then wolfed down an entire package of super-sweet gummy Shot Bloks.  Possibly I was just on the edge of bonking, the dreaded affliction that comes upon all endurance cyclists at some point (I’m told): basically, your body runs out of fuel, and shuts down.  People have told me of crying uncontrollably by the side of the road and other yucky post-bonk manifestations; it sounds horrible, and usually you can’t recover from a bonk in time to finish your ride.

I was probably fortunate that the heatwave that attacked the Bay Area during the previous week had given way to a lovely coolness: had the temperatures been higher, perhaps I wouldn’t have been able to recover.  But the moments’ rest, along with the hydration and sugar rush, revived me enough to get back on my bike and finish that hill.

But then there were still many more miles — and climbs — left to go!  And what happened was, I reconnected with my speed-group teammates (I’d briefly gotten separated from them during my near-bonk experience), and I got a second wind (or something), and I mostly felt stronger and stronger for the rest of the 69-mile ride (you can click on this map to see more details):

Afterwards, I reflected on how there are two big, bad things you can feel on a tough ride:  One is pain — and that seems to be unavoidable, and even can become something you kind of enjoy (in a masochistic sort of way), especially after the fact.  But the other — the bonk — is a sudden negation of self, and it’s terrifying and sad and empty.  I didn’t go there last weekend, but I got closer than I’d like.

*       *       *

My previous training ride, two weeks earlier (see map below), was a tough one as well.  Starting and ending at lovely Stafford Lake in Novato, we did a bunch of climbing — including the notorious Marshall Wall.  The Marshall Wall goes straight up, into infinity.  Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but only a mild one.

Lots of aches and pains during this ride, but — thankfully — no hint of bonking.  And when it was over, I could eat anything I wanted to, guilt-free — which is a big part of the sport’s appeal to me (another part being the celebratory, post-ride Epsom-salt bath).

How I Celebrated “Josh Kornbluth Day” in Berkeley

What one intersection in Berkeley looked like while experiencing Josh Kornbluth Day. (Photo by Sara Sato)

What one intersection in Berkeley looked like while experiencing Josh Kornbluth Day. (Photo by Sara Sato)

A few months ago I got an email from a very nice woman asking me whether I would like for a day to be proclaimed “Josh Kornbluth Day” in Berkeley.  I was pretty sure she was kidding, but I wrote back and said, “Sure.”

A week or so later I got another email from her, asking whether April 29 would be a good day for me.  I wrote back, saying, “Sure.”

Then she send me a third email, asking me to draft the proclamation for Josh Kornbluth Day in Berkeley.  This threw me for a loop, as I have spent about a quarter-century writing in a style that leans heavily on self-deprecation.  So I did what comes naturally to me: I procrastinated.

Eventually the woman wrote back to me, asking (nicely) how my proclamation draft was coming along.  I read that email, clenched internally, and moved on.

Then, about a week ago, she wrote back — this time with more urgency.  Was I having a problem coming up with a draft?  Might I want someone to help me with it?  After all, Josh Kornbluth Day was rapidly approaching, and Mayor Tom Bates’s staff would need something to work with as they crafted the final proclamation wording.  I replied, somewhat testily, that it seemed weird to me that a city that was offering me the high honor of a day would not already know stuff about me; but of course, this was just some more procrastination on my part.

Later that evening, I finally wrote a draft of the proclamation.  I wrote about my love for the city of Berkeley, and about my pride in Berkeley’s progressive heritage.  I resisted the impulse to add a passage about the sense of entitlement that we in Berkeley often seem to fall prey to.  I also chose not to mention the feelings of dread and self-loathing that have, of late, frequently spiked my waking hours.  It just seemed to me that a “Josh Kornbluth Day” Proclamation should be more, you know, upbeat.

And then I sent in my draft proclamation to the nice woman, and she said it was great — and that now all I needed to do was show up at the City Council chambers by 7 p.m. on April 29.

So yesterday, April 29, my wife and son and I showed up at the Berkeley City Council chambers at 7 p.m.  And it turns out that, aside from that nice woman (who was there), no one else was aware that it was Josh Kornbluth Day.  Apparently, the task of finalizing the “Josh Kornbluth Day” declaration had been the task of an aide to Mayor Tom Bates, and that aide had spaced it out, and in any case had left the building for the day.  Mayor Bates and the nice woman told me that Josh Kornbluth Day would be rescheduled — and possibly even be extended into a Josh Kornbluth Week.

And so my wife and son and I walked home.  And I have to tell you, I felt great!  It was a beautiful evening, and as far as I knew all my loved ones were safe.  Plus, there was an overall vibe of disorganization, of fucked-up-ness, that — come to think of it — felt perfect for Josh Kornbluth Day.

So, okay, maybe in a week or so there will be another, official Josh Kornbluth Day event — but what I’m telling you is, it really was yesterday, April 29, 2014.  And it went off without a hitch.