Monthly Archives: November 2007

Where Do You Hurt?

A friend emailed me that Randonneurs USA, the organizing group for cyclists who do long, nutty rides of the type I’ve been trying for the last several years, is conducting a survey of riders who went to Paris-Brest-Paris this summer. PBP is not the longest or nuttiest of the rides, but it’s long and nutty enough (750-plus miles) and it’s older than any of them, including that big French tour race thing they do every July. I realized a sort of cycling dream by finishing PBP in 2003; I went back this year — it’s a quadrennial event — and succumbed to a sore Achilles tendon (and, yes, soggy morale after a prolonged ride in the rain).

Anyway, the survey includes a question on physical problems that riders might have experienced during PBP. The list itself says more than I ever could about the nuttiness rampant in this kind of event. Without further comment, here’s the litany of possible symptoms, ailments, and physical breakdowns from the survey:

numbness or tingling in fingers

numbness or tingling in toes

hot foot

swollen feet

Carpal Tunnel wrist issues

loss of toenail(s)

saddle sores

arm or shoulder weakness

Achilles tendon issues

Shermer neck (inability to hold head up)

disorientation or dizziness

visions or hallucinations

respiration issues

inability to swallow

headaches

leg cramps

digestive issues (nausea, vomiting)

falling asleep on the bike

acid reflux

hypothermia

mouth sores

genital injury

blurred vision

None

Other

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Wednesday at the Ponderosa

You know — the Cartwright place; not the steakhouse. This could also be called Late Discovery Wednesday.

Last night, one of the local public radio stations broadcast a discussion from a month or so ago about a singer/songwriter named Nick Drake. I had heard something of his story before: a wildly talented and deeply depressed singer/songwriter in the late ’60s and early ’70s; he made just three albums in what I would suppose you’d call the British-type folk-rock style — think Fairport Convention and Richard and Linda Thompson. He died in 1974, in his mid-20s, a possible suicide. His music never went away, though. The albums didn’t find a big audience, but they survived because the fans were devoted and sometimes influential. From listening to the program last night, it sounds like Drake’s big posthumous break was having a marketing guy at Volkswagen happen across one of Drake’s late songs, “Pink Moon,” and decide to use it as the soundtrack for a commercial (you can watch it on YouTube). That was in 2000, and the sudden mass exposure of the song moved 5,000 copies of the “Pink Moon” album in less than three weeks — more than it had sold in the two years between its release and Drake’s death.

Out of curiosity, I went looking for the Volkswagen ad. I remember it, though I wouldn’t have guessed it was on the air seven years ago already. Four young people in a Cabriolet or whatever those little Rabbit-like convertibles are called. They drive along beautiful moonlight roads and arrive at a roadhouse. They pull into the parking lot and are greeted by the yahoo-like carryings-on of their peers. Disgusted, too in touch with the wonders of the night (thanks to the car), they soulfully head back out to the open road. There’s no dialogue; just a minute of the Drake song, which is pleasant enough but not world-shattering. As commercial’s go, it’s a pretty good one (another VW favorte: the couple driving through the New Orleans French Quarter in the rain, where absolutely everything they see on the street — people walking, people unloading a truck, a guy sweeping the sidewalk, another guy dribbling a basketball — happens in time to the car’s windshield wipers. That one would have worked better without dialogue, too; it’s also on YouTube).

There are some Nick Drake videos on YouTube, too (sort of; there’s apparently no extant film footage of him playing, so people have just pieced together moody still images). “Pink Moon,” for one. And one called “River Man,” which is a lovely minor-key ballad that prompted me to see if iTunes has any Drake stuff. They do. I wound up buying a compilation album, “Way to Blue.” If you’re in the market yourself, go to AmazonMP3 — the album is three bucks cheaper than it is on iTunes (also, Amazon’s songs can be played anywhere and come without the digital-rights management limits that Apple imposes on most cuts at the behest of the record companies.

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Tuesday at the Hacienda

Now that telemarketers have stopped calling — for the most part, anyway; that do-not-call list actually has worked for us — my favorite phone moments involve recurring wrong numbers. For a long time, we had a guy who’d call and say, “Hi. Is Victoria there?” He kept calling and saying exactly the same thing in the same tone of voice long after it was obvious that the voices he was hearing at our number had no connection to Victoria. On the other hand, he must have been getting in touch with Victoria sometimes and then occasionally misdial and get us. He has moved on.

The last few days, someone has wrong-dialed us twice. Our exchanges have been brief. I answer in my usual cheerful general American way: “Hello?” The first time, I got a confused snort in return; it was enough of a vocalization that I’d guess the caller was an older woman; she hung up immediately after her flustered snuffle. Today she called again. “Hello?” This time the snort sounded a little incensed. “I think you have the wrong number.” Another offended-sounding huff, and then she hung up.

I’m looking forward to our next talk.

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Today’s Top Research

My foray into matters of Irish Americana tonight has me reading about the Irish community, German Americans, and World War I. Yes: Irish Americans and German Americans made common cause to try to keep the United States out of the war. Ireland’s longstanding grievances against Britain motivated the Irish; support for the Fatherland inspired the Germans. I’ve found lots of interesting and informative stuff on the topic, but I wound up searching the New York Times archives for stories about William Jennings Bryan’s role as an advocate of U.S. neutrality.

I found one precious item from June 1915, a week or so after Bryan had resigned as secretary of State because he could see by President Wilson’s reaction to the Lusitania sinking that his argument didn’t stand a chance in the administration. The item is about a speech that Bryan was supposed to make in Chicago to the Sons of Teutons. The group had invited Bryan, thinking he would inveigh against U.S. ammunition shipments to Britain and France and renew his call for an embargo. But when the Sons of Teutons found out that Bryan instead intended to urge the warring parties to enter peace negotiations, they met him at the train station and said the speech was canceled. At least that was the Times’s version of events.

I came across a more recent item, too: a March 1967 piece by historian Barbara Tuchman (“The Guns of August,” etc.) published in The New York Times Magazine and titled simply, “How We Entered World War I.” I haven’t read Tuchman’s books for decades, but this article is a reminder of why her histories are so accessible: she was a great writer (and yes, a capable historian, too). I found this in her description of the American and German diplomatic struggle over limits to submarine warfare: “Each time during these months when the torpedo streaked its fatal track, the isolationist cry to keep Americans out of the war zones redoubled.”

“… The torpedo streaked its fatal track.” I’ll remember that one for awhile.

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World Toilet

Toilet crusade: From Seoul, the AP reports that the World Toilet Association opened its inaugural conference yesterday. “To the celebratory rhythms of a percussionist beating on toilets,” the story says, representatives from the U.N. and dozens off governments began deliberations. The surprise, for me: the association’s purpose is so serious — to reduce disease and death by providing proper sanitation facilities for the half (almost) of humanity who lack them — that there are dueling international toilet groups. The World Toilet Organization — www.worldtoilet.org — sponsors a World Toilet Summit, a World Toilet College and annual World Toilet Day (November 19 — we just missed it). The johnny-come-lately World Toilet Association, the one that’s beating on toilets in Seoul, sums up its mission this way: “Toilets are essential to life, human health, human development and the environment. Wisely managed toilets mean better health, prosperity and environmental sustainability. On the other hand, poorly managed toilets bring about vicious cycle of diseases, poverty, environmental degradation and a loss of human dignity.”

Both groups are led by someone named Sim — the WTO by Jack Sim, a Singapore real-estate mogul and sanitation activist who first founded a group called the Restroom Association; and the WTA by Sim Jae-Duck, whom the AP says is known in Korea as Mr. Toilet for his efforts to improve sanitary facilities in before the 2002 soccer World Cup held in Korea and Japan. As part of his campaign for toilet awareness, the WTA’s Sim has built himself a toilet-shaped house.

At a speech he gave in August at Malaysia’s National Toilet Expo and Forum, the WTA’s Sim said that on average, most people will spend two to three years of their lives going to the toilet. And though most of us think we know what a toilet is for, Sim expanded on its role:

For the establishment of the World Toilet Association, I visited many countries around the world and witnessed many regions at the risk of secondary transmission of contagious diseases owing to lack of toilet facilities. I could see that especially many countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America were facing serious toilet issues.

Most of these regions and countries were too poor to invest in toilets, and it seemed that their people also considered this reality as a given. That was when I realized the importance of changing people’s perception. I wanted to tell leaders of countries all over the world:

By changing toilets, you can change politics.

By changing toilets, you can change people’s lives.

By changing toilets, you can change the world.

Ladies and gentlemen, a toilet is no longer a place for mere defecation. It should not remain out of our perception and awareness any more. The toilet is a “sacred place” that saves human beings from diseases. It is a place of “contemplation” that provides the philosophy of rest and emptiness. And it is a central space for living full of culture.

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Thanksgiving Notebook

Today: Barbecued bird. Here is today’s indispensable advice (with accompanying video).

The blog: It has been going four years today. Which is shocking, considering that it hasn’t yet swayed the course of the planets, the Earth’s magnetic field, or empire. I’ll keep trying. And thanks for reading.

Today II: For a lot us us, today will always be that day. And to mark the occasion, The New York Times publishes yet another (but brief) consideration of what happened.

Today III: And what else? The kids will be here — I never thought I’d hear myself say that. I’ll talk to the rest of the family, wherever they are today. And that’s enough to be thankful for right there.

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In Memoriam

The Oakland Tribune runs an “In Memoriam” column on its obit page — a place for people to post paid notices commemorating relatives who have died. You’ll see items appear near the birthday or death anniversary of someone who has passed away, or near the holidays. This morning, the following appeared below the pictures of a mother and two adult children who died during a six-year period:

My Angels the Holidays are here again. But with you three gone to a better place. There is no Holidays for me. I went to a couple of times with the kids. But I can’t take it without you. So I just stay home. I feel better at your home. This will always be your house. For you were not only my Wife, you were my best friend, my right hand pal. With you Rita and Larry gone, there is little or nothing left for me. The good Lord new that all three of you were suffering too much. So he opened his arms and took you to a better place. My Angels I miss you all so much.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS

Your Husband And Son

God Bless

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Personal Transaction

At our hometown landmark coffee shrine — for us in Berkeley, it’s not enough to have good coffee; it has got to be a rite — we ran into an old friend. In the course of a few minutes, she tells us about the five-thousand-dollar bike she just bought. She tells us about all the money her son is making as a computer programmer (tastefully, she doesn’t name a figure). She tells us about a client who has developed a “clunky,” “hard-to-use” piece of group-collaboration software that he wants to try to sell to schools. Despite her description of the product, she thinks we ought to start using it today. A friend of our friend appears, and the friend, whom we’ve never met, starts telling us about her kids and how much money they’re making. Our friend’s friend leaves. I tell our friend that I’m going back to school to get my B.A. “Your B.A.?” she asks. “That’s ridiculous.” I tell her I found it surprisingly easy to get back into school. “Sure,” she said. “They want your money.” Then the friend’s friend, who in addition to being described as a professional Brazilian jazz flautist is also a real-estate agent, calls to say that she’s found a house that our friend must buy. Thus concluded the visit with our friend.

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Family Weather Report

Berkeley: Sunny, 53.

San Jose: Partly cloudy, 54.

Eugene: Mostly cloudy, 36.

Chicago: Light drizzle, fog/mist: 46.

Tinley Park: Overcast, 50.

Brooklyn: Light rain, fog/mist, 45.

Dublin: Scattered clouds, 43.

Oslo: Freezing fog, 32.

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What Gives

After a rare four-day hiatus, I imagine my reader asking, “What gives?” This would be a swell intro to a heartachingly warm essay on Thanksgiving, but I’m in a charitable enough mood that I’ll spare my reader that pleasure.

Anyway, the four-day vacation was occasioned by a writing project — no, check that: a research project, mostly — on various figures in Irish-American history. The work, which I’d describe as incredibly rewarding except for the money, is for a pictorial history of Irish Americans that I believe is coming out next year. I’m one of a small group of writers doing mini-essays on a variety of subjects and people: Irish women in the (American) Civil War; the Irish-American lawyer who helped bring down (Scottish-American) Boss Tweed and his Tammany Hall cronies; the tensions between poor immigrant (“shanty”) Irish and striving, upwardly mobile (“lace-curtain”) Irish; Chicago newspaperman Finley Peter Dunne and his famous creation, Mr. Dooley; and Nellie Bly, whom you might call the first of the muckrakers.

The challenge of all this is to say a lot about remarkable people in very few words. To do that confidently, I feel like I need to have a good basic understanding of who they were and what they did. Which is where the research comes in; and of course that’s a joy, except for the money involved. I guess I already said that.

Still, beyond the money, there’s the chance encounter with some compelling person or story or piece of historical research (someone else’s) that is a reward in itself. Today’s best example: I noted that there’s a disagreement on the birth date of Nellie Bly (nee Elizabeth Jane Cochran): some sources give it as May 5, 1867, others as May 5, 1864. In trying to resolve this in poring over the sometimes poorly written and produced websites that mention Bly, I noticed that the Wikipedia entry goes with the 1864 date, a fact that was footnoted. The note, in turn, referred to “Kroeger;” that’s Brooke Kroeger, author of a 1994 Bly biography. I had come across her book, “Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist,” both on Google Books and at Amazon. But since the text wasn’t searchable, and my task allows scant time to do something radical like go to a library, I skipped over it for more accessible resources. After seeing the Wikipedia entry, I searched Kroeger as well as Bly and landed on the biographer’s website. And bingo: Kroeger includes the text of a beautifully written 1996 article she wrote for the Quarterly of the National Archives that lays out the state of Bly scholarship (virtually nonexistent) when she set out to write the biography as well as a wealth of absorbing detail on Bly’s life and career that she discovered by way of the Archives.

An editor I worked with once referred to the “pure pleasure” of reading a well-crafted story. That’s what I felt reading Kroeger’s story of discovering hidden dimensions of her subject’s life: a deep satisfaction and admiration at seeing someone conscientious and artful at work. Now I need to take the time to read her book.

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