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Archive for January, 2013

More Blogaliciousness!

3200 StoriesJust in case you might wish to read more of my neurotic ramblings than can be found in this space, I’ve just started guest-blogging for 3200 Storiesa website run by the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco — where I will be performing my next theater piece, Sea of Reeds, early next year, after premiering it at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley this summer.

They’ve asked me to do occasional reports from inside the process of creating the new show — and I just posted the first one, which can be found here.

By the way, it would be more accurate to say that I will be performing in my next theater piece — as Patrick Dooley, artistic director of the Shotgun Players and commissioner of Sea of Reeds, has challenged me (and my longtime director and collaborator, David Dower) to include other performers onstage.  You know, as in a “play.”  A weird concept for a longtime monologuist like me to grok, but I’m getting there!

Truck Left!

A Man, A Plan, A Port-O-San.

A Man, A Plan, A Port-O-San.

So on last Saturday’s training ride, a truck hit me.

Well, to be a bit more accurate — at the cost of some dramatic effect — a truck clipped me.

I was cycling uphill along a winding road near Pt. Reyes when all of a sudden: BANG! — there was this loud noise, which I soon realized was from the impact of a speeding truck slamming into my left elbow and the left edge of my handlebars.  The truck — a dirty white pickup — was going really fast (at least, compared to me — so admittedly, that might not be incredibly fast), and by the time I’d absorbed what had just happened, it was already way ahead of me.

I didn’t fall off my bike; I didn’t even stop pedaling — though I imagine that if the truck had just swerved a smidge more into me, things might have ended unhappily.  It turns out that my elbow had flattened the truck’s passenger-side rearview mirror.  This leads me to think — and I’m not normally a boastful man, at least about my joints — that I have really strong elbows!  Maybe my ancestors, when pondering the futility of their lives, assumed a particular position — elbows on desk, say — that, over the generations, led to an unheard-of toughness.  In any case, I can assure you that I feel totally fine!  My elbow has a little bruise, but it doesn’t hurt at all.  Although, as they say, you should see the other guy!

I caught up with that other guy — the truck’s driver — eventually.  At first, after he’d hit me (and let me mention that I wasn’t riding in the middle of the road or anything: I was as far to the right as I could go without falling off) and I’d watched his truck zoom away without stopping, I was pissed.  You know, New York-style pissed!  As I continued pedaling, as fast as I could go, I gestured after him with my hand, as if to say, Are you effin’ kidding me?  I tried to make out the license plate, but couldn’t.  By the time the truck disappeared around a curve, I assumed that I’d never see it again.

But then it stopped, at a turnout — and right away my anger at this apparent clip-and-run evaporated.  When I finally pulled up alongside the truck, and the guy rolled down his window, I found that I couldn’t be upset at all.  Because here was a big man with a little chihuahua on his lap.  I mean a really big (and bald) man, with this little tiny scared-looking chihuahua!  The man looked scared, too.  He kept asking me, again and again, “Are you okay?  Are you sure you’re okay?”  And instead of saying something snippy (like “No thanks to you, Mr. Erratic Truck Driver!”), all I could do was emit the little babyish sounds that I tend to make whenever I encounter cute little doggies (and even big doggies): “Oh, look at you!  Look how sweet you are — yesh you are!”  Etc.

Finally, the driver — having been unable to get me to say that I’d been hurt in any way (I hadn’t) — drove off.  And I had a fairly impressive story to tell my Team In Training teammates at the next SAG stop.

SAG stops are cool.  I believe the term is an acronym for Support And Gear — but in my experience with TNT they tend to be food-and-drink stations, usually run by volunteers.  (Often there are also Port-O-Sans.)  All SAG stops are magical and lovely things, but the best I’ve experienced have been set up by Jim Fenolio, whose daughter Jennifer was one of my teammates last season.  I believe Jim was going through (successful) treatment for cancer as we trained last year.  Here are some of the things that I remember being available to us weary riders back at my first-ever Jim Fenolio SAG Extravaganza:

  • Numerous, carefully sliced peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich wedges, with many different varieties of preserves (e.g., rose-petal-and-guava), which were labeled so you knew what you were getting.
  • Peet’s coffee.
  • Hot chocolate.
  • Teas, herbal and caffeinated.
  • Many types of pretzels and chips.
  • Eggs prepared in a number of ways.
  • Water.
  • Sea salt.
  • Steaming, hearty soup.
  • Manna from Heaven (or maybe Dublin).
  • AC/DC blaring from a boombox.

I’m sure I’m leaving out a ton of stuff — but you get the idea: It was the kind of SAG stop that makes you think it would be pretty cool if you could just live at a SAG stop.

Well, this time, among Jim’s offerings (and don’t get me started on the delicious meatballs!) were these rice-patty things that contained crab meat and a type of mushroom whose name I don’t recall but I know is popular among connoisseurs.  Jim explained to me that at one of his SAG stops on an earlier ride (one that, tragically, I had missed, as I had a gig in Florida that weekend), he had prepared a similar dish, but with another kind of fish (halibut, maybe?) — and that someone had mentioned to him that, well, it might be even better with crab meat.

Who the hell requests fancier ingredients at a SAG stop?  It put me in mind of these two little girls who happened to be playing “ice-cream truck” at the “tot lot” in Berkeley that I used to take my son to, years ago.  One of them said something like, “Welcome, customer!  What would you like?” and the other one said, totally seriously, something like, “Um, I’d like a scoop of cappuccino-mint gelato and also a lychee-lemongrass sorbet, if you would.”  Perhaps we have reached a point — and I am speaking here specifically of Bay Area bourgeois culture — where there are just too many choices.

In any case, Jim’s food (and the food of all the other SAG volunteers) was yummy.

Overall, the ride — nearly 61 miles in length, and 4,329 feet in elevation (but who’s counting?) — was quite challenging.  But I made it to the end (at Stafford Lake, in Novato) and was able to return home in triumph and experience the hot bath I’d been fantasizing about for lo, those many miles.  I’ll admit that — especially when the road got particularly narrow, and the winds became especially gusty — I sometimes got a bit jittery when one of my teammates called out “Car back!” (or, more bracingly, “Truck back!”), or when some skinny hotshot cyclist (not with TNT) came brushing past me without first calling out a helpful “Bike left!”  But that dirty white pickup truck hadn’t killed me, so it must have made me stronger.  Who knows?  Maybe, even now, at truck stops throughout Marin County, a legend is spreading — about a mysterious, indestructible cyclist with Elbows of Steel.  Mark me well, truckers of Marin: I will be back.  So drive carefully, keep your chihuahuas close, and keep your passenger-side rearview mirrors even closer.

I am training with the Leukeumia & Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training (TNT) to cycle the Solvang Century on March 9 — both to try to shrink my pendulous tummy and (more important) to raise money to fight cancer.  You can contribute to my ride by clicking here.  (As of this writing, I am 42 percent of the way toward my goal.)

Below are maps of my two most recent rides.  If you click on them, many additional details will be revealed to you.

Handlebarista™

IMAG0149

The silence of a lamb (or sheep).

On our ride yesterday I got really excited about the idea of an espresso-maker that you could operate while cycling.  Someone — I think our head coach, K.Sue — had noted that it was a beautiful day (at that point — later, just after the ride, it would get yucky) and the surroundings (in Pleasanton, or maybe it was Livermore just then) were lovely (rolling fields, distant hills, cows, horses, vultures [!]) and asked, rhetorically, how it could possibly be better.  I thought: a fresh, hot espresso drink!  A drink that we could prepare and consume even as we continued to ride!  But how?

My first idea was a kind of modified Beer Hat.  I’ve never actually worn a Beer Hat (I don’t drink beer very often), but as a slothful person I’ve always admired a device that could deliver beer (usually to a fan at a sporting event) without requiring even the exertion of one arm.  The problem with that plan, as best I could tell (I have no engineering background, nor in fact do I have any documented relationship to the physical world), was twofold:

  • The tubing (rubber, I’d imagine) might melt from the heat of the fluid.
  • The device (especially the tubing) would probably get gunked up with espresso residue, and might be difficult to clean.

So I moved on to what seemed like the next natural idea: An old-fashioned espresso machine that could be secured to one’s handlebars — a Handlebarista™, if you will.  To be sure, there would be challenges, among them:

  • Keeping yourself and your bike in balance while operating the machine.
  • The risk, as you frothed your milk, of some of it getting windblown into a fellow biker’s face.
  • Running out of sugar or tiny lemon peels.

But people probably brought up just as many objections to the Wright Brothers.  And sometimes you just have to show the world that something new can work before anyone will believe you.

As I tried to mentally hash over various capitalistic issues relating to the Handlebarista™ — how to fabricate all the parts locally, finding a fair price-point, permitting the Sur le Table chain to rename it Le Handlebarista™ — we finished a long stretch of flatland and began our ascent along the Altamont Pass.  Now, as often happens when I’m climbing, I thought mostly about the unfairness of our economic system, the shocking apathy of our universe toward human suffering, and how mean James Blount was to me in the sixth grade (though, from all reports, since then James has become an exemplary person).

Then came a brief, exhilarating descent, and all was (briefly) right with the world.

But that’s wrong, what I just wrote: Yes, all was right with the world when I was zipping (carefully) downhill — but really, it was just as right during the previous climb (and the tougher climb that followed).  Because I was alive, and my teammates were alive, and my loved ones were alive, and the woman our ride had been dedicated to by her law partner — a woman whose bone-marrow transplant is apparently not taking, and who faces enormous and terrifying uncertainty — is still alive.

At the top of the most difficult ascent, two of my teammates had paused so one (Lisa) could take a picture of the other (Chris) in front of a lamb.  (Maybe a sheep — I’m iffy on this stuff.)  I asked to have my own photo taken in front of this same lamb (or sheep).  (Mostly, I was grateful to be able to stop for a few moments and catch my breath — the last little stretch of climbing had been a doozy.)  And though the lamb remained silent (as is reportedly their wont), I thought I could feel it beam its spiritual encouragement of my Handlebarista™ concept.  Creatures know the importance of comfort.

I’m biking with Team In Training to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.  By March 9 — when I do my second Solvang Century (near Santa Barbara) with TNT — I hope to  have gotten at least $2,250 in donations.  If you’d like to contribute — which would be awesome! — please click here.

We do our training rides every Saturday (weather permitting), and after each one I post a description here on my blog.  Below you can see a map of yesterday’s ride; if you click on it, you can get all kinds of details (like speed and altitude) — though I forgot to wear my heart-rate monitor this time, so no pulse data (but trust me, my heart was beating the whole time).

Claude

claudelopezMy friend Claude-Anne Lopez — “Claude,” to pretty much everyone who knew her — died last week at the age of 92, after a long period of suffering with Alzheimer’s.  That this cruel disease would have ravaged such a brilliant mind puts even more in doubt the possibility that a benign deity guides our lives.  Claude was a refugee from the Holocaust, a self-created scholar who became a transcendently great writer — mostly on the subject of Ben Franklin — a woman who possessed a regal and ironic wit, and a flirt.  Though she made me a wonderful risotto (from a recipe, she said, by the mother of her late husband), she insisted that she had been a terrible housewife.  But her husband had been a professor at Yale, and even a “faculty wife” was permitted to perform such relatively menial tasks as transcribing some letters to and from Ben Franklin from the great man’s years in France.  (The Franklin Papers are housed at Yale.)  Those letters became the basis of her first book, Mon Cher Papa: Franklin and the Ladies of Paris – which received (deservedly) rapturous reviews and launched her (much more successful) post-housewife career.

I met Claude when I was researching a stage monologue about Franklin, Ben Franklin: Unplugged.  I was on the road, performing another piece of mine in Hartford, and realized that the author of Mon Cher Papa (still my very favorite book on Franklin) lived nearby, in New Haven.  I got her number from the editor of the Franklin Papers, called Claude, and found myself invited to meet with her at her home.  So on an off-day I took the Amtrak train from Hartford (where, by the way, Ben’s son William — who had become an ardent Loyalist — was once imprisoned; I think I know the feeling), and Claude picked me up at the station.  (I had explained over the phone that, like numerous other New Yorkers, I didn’t drive.)  As we got into her car, Claude cheerfully mentioned that, since a recent eye operation, her driving had become particularly erratic — an assessment with which I fully concurred after just a few swerves down the street.

Somehow we both survived that short ride, and after a restorative bowl of her mother-in-law’s risotto, I found myself in one of the best situations that a person could possibly experience: in conversation with Claude-Anne Lopez.  It was, I imagine, like being at one of the famous pre-Revolution French salons that Claude described so well — except that, instead of speaking in French (which I don’t understand, despite having studied it for several years back in grade school), Claude was using her delightfully French-accented English.  Claude had a love affair with Franklin that suffered only slightly from the fact that they lived centuries apart.  She met him through his letters — particularly those he exchanged with the many women who, despite his (mostly self-generated) reputation for sauciness, he largely celebrated for their intellect.  She did not idealize the man — see her book The Private Franklin (coauthored with Eugenia Herbert) for some dirt on his thorny family relations — but celebrated that self-schooled genius in all of his contradictions.  And she was passionate about rescuing that complexity from the caricature that Franklin’s icon had largely been reduced to in popular culture.

But above all, to me, Claude was a writer – a glorious prose stylist for whom the life and work of Ben Franklin had provided a sustaining creative spark.  Ben gave Claude a reason to express her own genius, and she returned that favor with her meticulous scholarship.  That a Jewish girl from Belgium could end up as a historical life-partner with “The First American” is — like much of reality — a tale that would be hard to imagine.  That I got to know her is one of my life’s great blessings.