On the Bike

Saturday I drove up to Napa to spend the night at my friend Pete‘s house. The idea was to get up there so that we could get an early start for this morning’s Tour of Napa Valley, an annual 100-mile ride up and down the valley and in the hills to the east and west. We hit the road with Pete’s friend and wine-industry colleague Peter Marx at just after 6:30 a.m. Pete’s half-serious goal was to finish the ride in six hours, which is a little faster than I’ve ever done a century.

The route starts with about 10 miles of perfectly flat valley-floor road for a warmup — a warmup needed especially this morning because it was foggy and chilly. Then it heads up Mount Veeder, a long gradual climb (about 1,300 feet in all) that gets steep in the last mile and a half or so. That’s followed by a short descent, short climb, then a long, steep, twisting, technical descent, another very short rise, then a long, straightforward downhill run back into Napa. After that, you cross the valley and head up one of the two main north-south routes, Silverado Trail (the other is Highway 29). It’s a flat to slightly rolling ten miles, followed by a short, gradual climb on Highway 128 up to a small reservoir (Lake Hennessey), then a longer but also gentle uphill along one of the creek’s that flows into the lake. The lunch stop was at mile 66 in Pope Valley, a still pretty remote ranching and wine-growing area; after that, there’s a moderate four-mile climb up a road called Ink Grade (rule of thumb: anything with “grade” in its name means you’re going to work), and after that two or three miles of hilltop rollers before a long, very fast descent back toward the valley. Eventually, you wind up back on Silverado Trail, southbound this time, and it takes you nearly all the way back to the start.

Did we make it in six hours? Not quite. There was just enough hill-climbing to keep the linebacker types, like me, from going real fast. I descend like a safe coming down the road on casters — very elegant. But my advantage comes on long, flat stretches where I can just get out and motor; I’ve gotten pretty good at maintaining a pace — not racing speed; more like taking-care-of-business speed. We all worked pretty hard all day and made it in just over six and a half hours. Bottom line: We were still having fun at the end.

Tonight? Tired, and hungry, too.

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The Place


As mentioned a few days ago in this space, I went with Thom, who’s going to be a sophomore at the University of Oregon this year, up to Eugene in search of a house to rent for him and a couple of friends. One part of the job was easy. Unlike Berkeley, where there are comparatively few rental houses on the market, Eugene seems to be full of places to let.

We got to town Tuesday evening with a list of four places to check out before dark. None was just right — either a little far from campus or a little sketchy looking (in one of these places, the tenants had changed the locks and the landlord couldn’t get in for an apparently unannounced showing). Wednesday morning, we checked Craigslist and the local paper, the Register-Guard, which had about 80 houses listed for rent and about half a dozen that were big enough and close enough to campus to look at.

One of those was the house above, on Potter Street, about a mile south of campus. It’s on the plain side but looks like it has been well taken care of; it’s got wood floors, a big, largely junk-free backyard and a full basement with a washer and dryer. That’s what we could tell from the outside. We called the agent from the street in front, found out there were no applications in for the house yet and that we could see the inside the next day if we were still interested. To apply, we needed to get paperwork not only for Thom and his roommates but on a cosigner for each.

“Paperwork” meant giving Social Security numbers, driver’s license info, two pieces of ID (including one with a picture), and agreeing to a credit check for each applicant and cosigner. The challenge was that of the three roommates, only Thom was in Eugene at the moment. One was in suburban Portland and the other was on a family road trip to Utah and Colorado from his home in Wyoming. But having a deadline — we wanted to be back in Berkeley on Thursday night — helped. Using email, cellphones, faxes, and the walk-in printing setup at Kinko’s, we managed to put together complete applications for everyone by the time we met the agent back at the Potter Street house at 11 a.m. Thursday.

The house looked like it would be a good place for the three guys. We drove to the agent’s office and dropped off the applications, checked out a couple other houses just in case Choice A didn’t come through, then hit I-5 and drove home. Friday morning, we got a call from the agent: Thom and his buddies got the place. I didn’t expect it to feel like an accomplishment, but it does.

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Today’s Time Waster

Via YouTube, a 3-minute video of a trolley ride in North Berkeley, circa 1906. The route is northbound on Oxford Street, eastbound on Hearst, then north on Euclid). The split-level portion of Hearst looks much the same today in terms of the road configuration. Virtually all of the buildings shown in the picture — some big, gorgeous Victorian homes, mostly — burned down during a wildfire in 1923 (and JB, midway through the clip, look for what looks like a Norfolk pine on a hillside to the left; its presence interests me just because that area of Berkeley was settled probably no more than 40 years before the date of the image — 50 tops — and the size of the tree suggests it might have been one of the first Norfolk pines transplanted to the Bay Area).

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Eugene, Late

Up Interstate 5 again today for our unofficial first visit of the 2006-07 University of Oregon school year. Gas is three bucks and up everywhere you go, and if there are fewer people on the road than during the late cheap gas days, or if the ones who are out there are really driving smaller cars than they were before, I still need convincing (I’m the one to talk, driving a ’98 Dodge Grand Caravan — Grand, mind you — that at its most economical got about 26 miles to the gallon. One hundred and forty thousand miles into its career, it does well to get 23 miles per gallon, though the way we tend to drive on I-5 and like roads — 75 or 80 if people will let us by — doesn’t help matters).

Anyway. Thom and I are up here for a couple nights. Our mission: Find an off-campus place for him and two of his buddies to stay for the coming year. So tomorrow and Thursday, we’ll be looking at places and saying to each other, “Can’t believe they think they can get $1,500 a month for that dump.” Hopefully, we won’t be the payers of that $1,500. Wish us luck, wherever you are.

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Family, Land, Work, Farming, Food

To read: “Eat, Memory: Family Heirloom.” It’s a short essay in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine by David Mas Masumoto on family, land, work, farming and food:

“… Our … farm in California was exploding with life. Peaches and nectarines were blooming, and the grapevines were pushing forth pale green buds with miniature bunches. In three months, if all went well, we’d gorge ourselves on peaches. In six months, the bulbous grapes could be dried into raisins.

“But the weeds flourished, too. Innocent-looking for a day or two, they kept growing, spreading thick over the landscape. Soon a tangled mass of fibers would compete for water, nutrients and sunlight, stunting the development of my crops, robbing fruits of the essentials they need to grow fat.

“The physical work was breaking me. Organic farming is not simple. It’s easy to want to be environmentally responsible, but it’s a damned hard thing to achieve. You cannot replace tedious labor with technology or equipment. If I miss a few worms, an outbreak could ensue. I can’t fix things with a magic spray. It’s like catching a bad flu with no medicine readily available. …”

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Potato Man

Calbee's Mr. Potato

Eamon and Sakura — our son and his wife — are staying with us for a few weeks in transit from their two-year stay in Japan to their permanent digs over in San Francisco. They went shopping the other day at the Tokyo Fish Market here in Berkeley. Among other things they brought back from their expedition: an 80-gram bag of Calbee Seaweed & Salt potato chips (“Every time fresh Calbee Potato Chips now have the irresistible full flavor of Seaweed and Salt,” the package says. “Try it and add to your favorite shopping list today”). Calbee’s a Japanese snack food firm that the company history says started in Hiroshima after the war. In 1970, it opened up Calbee America and started marketing its products here; mostly, I imagine, in ethnic food stores like the Tokyo Fish Market.

For the record: The chips are great. Light. Not too greasy or salty. The seaweed flavor: subtle. Give me more than 80 grams next time.

But the arresting part of the Calbee chips experience for me: The appearance on their label of a cartoon character wearing a sash labeled “Potato.” He’s got an “uh-oh!” sort of expression on his face that seems less confident than you might wish for from a brand spokesman; he bears a cousin-ish relationship to Mr. Peanut, but without the monocular elegance or cane-inspired suggestion of swagger.

I’ve given this way too much thought.

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Belatedly, an Anniversary

Hard to believe that, yet again, I’ve let the anniversary of the Chatsworth Wreck pass with no mention. For newcomers, the wreck took place about midnight on August 10, 1887, when an excursion train to Niagara Falls plunged off a small trestle over a culvert two and a half miles east of Chatsworth, Illinois. If you’re not from the town or one nearby, or if you’re great-great-grandparents weren’t on the train, or if they didn’t just miss it, you’ve never heard of the event. But about 85 people died in the wreck, one of the deadliest train accidents in history to that point (though, thinking about it, already dwarfed by other transportation disasters, like the sinking of the steamboat Sultana on the Mississippi immediately after the Civil War).

In the past, Chatsworth marked the anniversary with gatherings of survivors and rescuers, the latter sometimes exhibiting souvenirs taken from the train. Once, about 35 or 40 years ago, a Chicago psychic named Irene Hughes was invited to the wreck site for a midnight gathering at which she tried to channel images of the event. Apparently not one to disappoint, she sat on a chair in the middle of the now little-used Toledo, Peoria & Western tracks and offered a few random images — for instance, a train crew running for help and the suffocating sensation of a victim trapped in the wreckage. She swore she hadn’t researched the event beforehand.

Next year: The disaster’s 120th anniversary. Wonder whether Chatsworth has anything special planned.

Desire Desire Desire

Just happened across a Stanley Kunitz poem in my email inbox before heading off for bed late on a Saturday night with nothing to offer to the world outside these walls. An excerpt:

“… Outdoors all afternoon

under a gunmetal sky

staking my garden down,

I kneeled to the crickets trilling

underfoot as if about

to burst from their crusty shells;

and like a child again

marveled to hear so clear

and brave a music pour

from such a small machine.

What makes the engine go?

Desire, desire, desire.

The longing for the dance

stirs in the buried life.

One season only,

and it’s done. …”

A poem’s magic: to take me outside these walls, to put me in a Massachusetts garden hearing the crickets.

So Long, Evildoer; Hello, Fascist

The Associated Press is leading its story on Bush’s reaction to the newly reported terror plot with an emphasis on the president’s use of the phrase “Islamic fascists.” The Times’s website editors follow suit by headlining the story “Bush Focuses on ‘Islamic Fascists.’ ” The implication is that this is a new coinage to describe what in a simpler time we could shove into the general Evildoer file.

This might all be just academic, but the president and his people began using a close variant of this idea last fall, when Bush gave several speeches — including one at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage — where he described “Islamo-fascism:”

“… The tragic images of innocent victims can make it seem like these terrorist attacks are random and isolated acts of madness. While these killers choose their victims indiscriminately, their attacks flow from an ideology and a terrifying vision for the world. Their acts are evil, but they’re not insane. Some call this evil Islamic radicalism; others, militant jihadism; still others, Islamo-fascism. Whatever we choose to call this enemy, we must recognize that this ideology is very different from the tenets of the great religion of Islam. This form of radicalism exploits Islam to serve a violent, political vision: the establishment — by terrorism, subversion, and insurgency — of a totalitarian empire that denies all political and religious freedom. …”

The New York Times Magazine on Sunday carried a long essay on the Israeli-Hezbollah war by the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levi. The piece not only offers unqualified support for Israel’s military strategy to date, it declares the conflict inevitable and part of a new global struggle against yes, fascism:

“When I arrived in Israel, it was the anniversary of the day the Spanish Civil War began. It was 70 years ago that the Spanish generals set off the war — civil, ideological and international — that the fascist governments of the time wanted. And I could not help thinking about this as I landed in Tel Aviv. Syria in the wings . . . Ahmadinejad’s Iran maneuvering . . . Hezbollah, which everyone knows is a little Iran, or a little tyrant, taking Lebanon and its people hostage. . . . And behind the scenes, a fascism with an Islamist face, a third fascism, which is to our generation what the other fascism, and then communist totalitarianism, were to our elders’.

Given the history of the past century, one dare not simply dismiss the suggestion we’re up against a new breed of fascism. But now that the suggestion is made, you have to wonder if this — Iraq, Lebanon, resort to blind military might employed with no plan about a future, no parallel attempt to understand or come to grips with the rage fueling support for our enemies — is the best we can do in response to such a threat.

Pedestrian Matters

7th Avenue and W. 34th Street

Early last week, we were in New York. I spent most of one hot afternoon at the American Museum of Natural History, on the Upper West Side, and afterward decided to walk down to Penn Station — nearly three miles on the wandering out-of-towner’s course I took — to meet Kate, who was coming in on a commuter train from New Jersey.

Always striking about New York: the number of people on the street, at all hours; and of course, the effect is magnified at the end of the work day as you go from the placid precincts of Central Park West toward Midtown. A commuter crowd mobbed the area around 7th Avenue and West 34th Street, a block up from the station, all going home to the suburbs.

Standing at that corner (above), I was conscious of something I’d been seeing all along my walk: The New York pedestrian’s habit of stepping off the curb when waiting for the lights to change, crowding right up to the traffic lane in some cases getting ready to hustle across against the light if there was an opening in traffic — unlikely on 7th Avenue, not so unusual on less-busy side streets. For a visitor, the New York walking style seems aggressive, disorderly and even dangerous. But it is fast: The only places I got stopped along the way were major intersections. The key is keeping your eyes open and remembering that the drivers you’re looking at are aggressive, too, and that the laws of physics are against you in a collision, even if you think you have the right of way.

It’s a fundamentally different way of street thinking from the prevalent attitude in the Bay Area. In California, state law gives pedestrians virtually universal right of way (with the obvious exceptions: against red lights, for instance). The law aims to make it safer for pedestrians to cross the street, but its effect actually goes well beyond that: It has created a sense of righteous entitlement among pedestrians, who by their behavior apparently believe that all considerations — courtesy, common sense, drivers’ reaction times, night-time visibility, the aforementioned laws of physics — have been suspended by statute.

Yeah, a less car-centric world would be a much better place in many ways. And we ought to make the streets safe for everyone who uses them. But planting the idea in people’s heads that they can step off the curb into the path of a speeding car — and that the car will stop, damn it — promotes naivete and selfishness more than safety.

Some suggestive stats: According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration numbers, in eight of the 10 years between 1995 and 2004, the most recent statistical year available, New York state had a lower pedestrian fatality rate than California. On the other hand, New York appears to have a much higher percentage of pedestrians killed at intersections — consistently on the order of 40 to 50 percent of the state total compared to California’s 25 percent or so. For the past several reported years, “improper crossing of roadway or intersection” is the top listed factor in pedestrian fatalities in New York; in California, that factor is in a dead heat for No. 1 with “failure to yield right of way” (which I take to mean pedestrians’ failure to yield).

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