Archive for category: Idiosyncratic Celebrations

The Wind in My Hair and My Feet on the Pedals

22 Apr 2002
April 22, 2002

Today’s Primo Giro Grande della Bicicletta con il Giorno Correttamente Gonfiato delle Gomme, a celebration of my first bike ride of the year! The April weather has been unseasonable warm, more like June. Warm, dry weather is my favorite, just like the summers of my SoCal youth. Coworkers are complaining about the heat while I’m ready to sunbathe on the sidewalk in front of my office. I’m in a good mood and have temporarily suspended all new entries onto my fret list.

April 22, 2002 horoscopeI usually don’t look forward to my first ride, more specifically preparing for my first ride. The tires are always flat and, in the past, have required the mandatory walk to the gas station to fill them. The pump never seems to fit the valves quite right and the gauge is never accurate. When I was 14 I temporarily lost all hearing in my right ear when I overinflated my bike tire and it exploded. Ever since then I have been a little gun shy. The sound of compressed air sends shivers down my spine (via my middle ear).

This year I was determined to make this a more humane and pleasant experience. I loaded the bike into the car and drove the five miles to the bike shop where I hoped I wouldn’t need an appointment to get some air. When I arrived there was a line in front of the repair department. Obviously, I wasn’t the only one ready to ride. I inched forward as I watched those ahead of me leave their bikes for repair and pickup the first week of May.

When I reached the front, my associate was able to help me right away. While I had his attention I asked if there was a pump that might make these initial days more pleasurable for me. His eyes brightened. He had just the model I was looking for. And, he assured me, it had a gauge I could count on.

The early part of the bike path, even with its ups and downs, is basically downhill. I was careful not to overdue it this first time. Last year I, um, hurt my groin on a ride that featured one of those high velocity workout CDs. A good beat always gets me going. But I went too far. After consulting with my friends who are real and talented bicyclists (and who admonished me for wearing earphones on the path), I bought a pair of padded nylon shorts. I looked the part this year. And I felt protected.

My route is just over 7 miles roundtrip. The premiere ride is as much a sightseeing voyage as it is a workout, looking at all the improvements to the path the county has made during the offseason: felled trees and asphalt patched and smoothed. Then there is my reintroduction to my fellow pathees: other bikers, a few inline skaters, and the walkers. I’ve got a great bell to alert those I approach. But on this first trip it seemed like there were numerous newbies on the trail. “Ding, ding.” “Diiiinnnngg!” “ON YOUR LEFT! Thanks!” Some didn’t hear me. Those who did often didn’t know what to do: move to the left or right—a momentary hesitation that could end in disaster. I temporarily forgot the essence of these rides. I took a deep, deep breath to recenter myself.

The halfway mark approached and I began to anticipate the uphill return. The first ride of the season is usually a labored affair. I work out two to three times a week during the year but my first joyride is never easy. I have to gear up at least one gear level the first trip to make it easier to pedal up the inclines. The weather was warm and I gulped down the breeze as it hit my face. I began my ascent. As I pedaled I checked the gear. It remained at my low, downhill setting. I was amazed.

In retrospect, I underestimated my strength. For Christmas I had bought myself a pedometer at Brookstone. I’d always wondered just how far I walked each day. I figured taking my daughter to school, then walking 20 minutes to my office (not to mention the afternoon pickup) had to amount to something. Yet I was more than surprised to see that over the course of a day I walked over 10,546 steps. That translated to five miles (and over 500 calories) every day. Twenty-five miles a week!

This was the first conclusive proof I was in better shape than last year. And it made my day. As you get older you begin to look for signs of the ultimate downhill ride.

I’ve never been the studly type. There was a period in the 80s, though, when one might have remarked on my buffness, but that was another town, another life and even some other person. It was an attitude I couldn’t sustain. Appearances mean something different to me now. Given the choice, I’d rather be healthy than merely look the part these days.

Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t mind having a little more hair and a little less waist, but my primary goals in life no longer include tight pants and a shirt open to the navel (think Saturday Night Fever—yes, I’ll admit to that—it’s easy in retrospect for haven’t we all evolved?). Wait, I’d better put that in more contemporary terms: no shirt with dragon tatoo prominently displayed on my bicep; my boxers just peeking out beyond my button flys at the waist (think Abercrombie and Fitch—minus their highly questionable Ts).

Watching my blood pressure and cholesterol, not eating any carbs after 3 pm, and separating paper and plastic all seem much more admirable traits these days. Happy Earth Day!

Finding More Than My Hat

21 Dec 2001
December 21, 2001

It’s ¡El Día Más Corto del Año Pero de los Días Está Consiguiendo más Largo y Soy Día Feliz!

This is one of my most favorite holidays! Yes, it’s the advent of winter (my second least favorite season) and I am not a cold weather person. BUT, the days are finally getting longer. The sun will not rise any later than it did today nor will it set any earlier. And I now have my personal equinox day to look forward to!!

horoscopeA few early winter discoveries I’ve made: First, I love these!! They make my feet feel toastie and keep me just a little happier during DC’s looong winter (remember?). They are soft and unlike any wool sock I’ve ever worn. I was turned onto them at LL Bean when I was shopping for winter boots.

I tried on a few pairs of boots but settled for these. They’re more like hiking boots but my urban wintering doesn’t require anything heavy duty. And, they have a nice high arch with a seamless tongue (the shoe and tongue are one piece of leather), just perfect for sloshing around the snow muck of DC streets. They’re not insulated so I asked the salesman what type of sock he’d recommend. That’s when I hit paydirt. But he said I could get them half price if I could drag myself to one of their factory outlet stores. It took me a few weeks but I finally bought an 8 day supply! I’m much happier than I’ve been in weeks.

The second discovery I made (which isn’t really winter related but is so interesting I’ve just gotta mention it) is that if you work in a large corporation and want to encourage interpersonal interaction send an email to “everyone” in the office telling them you’ve lost something.

My hat will not stay on my head. I am constantly losing it, albeit temporarily. And, of course, it’s one of my favorites: a beige baseball cap with a G on it. I bought it at another factory outlet last summer (it pays to have a last name that begins with the same letter as a large apparel chain that has no qualms about plastering their product with self-referencing symbols).

So, earlier this week, I lost it again. I had it at lunch and made sure I made a mental note not to leave it at the restaurant. I don’t even remember my head being cold as I walked back to the office in the chilly afternoon breeze.

I had just gotten one of those office emails addressed to EVERYONE seeking someone else’s missing item and decided to do the same. It was late in the day, I sent it, and went to pick up my daughter from daycare. When I arrived, there it was hanging in her cubby!! One of the teachers at the lunch had picked it up (by the way, I also found my long lost umbrella at the daycare that day too—where is my mind?).

The next morning people at the office began stopping by my cube to ask if I’d found my hat. Others, when seeing me with it on, came up to me exclaiming: “You found your hat!” I suddenly found myself at the social apex of my bureaucracy!

The effects of this have lasted for days. Just this morning a coworker stopped me as I was running into the men’s room. “Did you ever find your hat? he said. “My wife thought she’d lost her credit card and even remembered the store where she was sure she’d last used it but it was at home the whole time! And then there’s my mustache comb. It’s always getting lost, only to resurface months later.”

Who says the internet has depersonalized our lives?!

Moving Forward on a Number of Fronts

10 Dec 2001
December 10, 2001

If you remember, I was consumed by preparations for our annual Leaf Blowing Festival. While the weather has been incredibly mild for a DC fall and it seemed more like May than November, the festival was a smashing success! We had a bumper crop this year and the dry weather made it a breeze to blow (it didn’t make my allergies any easier, though)!

The Closing Ceremony was attended by thousands. The roar of the crowd was deafening. It took a lot of work but it was worth all the hours of planning, raking, blowing, and showering off leaf dust. This year’s festivities were worth the sacrifice. Amazingly, a Hollywood-bred film crew documented the finale (Quicktime 2.2 MB).

* * *

horoscopeOn another note, as an artist, I revel in the time I have to myself to work on my own projects. But with a full time job and a family it’s not easy finding the time. After 9/11 I realized how important being creative was to me. It was one of the few things that truly gave me some control in my life. With the attacks and the anthrax scares, diving into new ideas was incredibly life affirming. And this has been a rich last two weeks for me.

I’ve just upgraded Dichotomy: It Was a Matter of Time and Place, my site about 9/11. My first idea was to have both Witness and Participant accounts come up randomly next to each other. However, as I got submissions of stories about that day, relationships between entries began to surface. And I wanted to be able to connect some of these stories. So, thanks to the incredible help I got from my programmer, Sharon Denning, I am now able to connect entries in a number of ways: either between categories or within the same category. The stories people are submitting are pretty amazing.

I’ve also made some major changes to Life Outtacontext. Basically, it looks the same but the backend is now being powered by Movabletype. I’ve tried other weblog management tools but this really fits! And, I’m really appreciative for all the help Ben and Mena have provided, both in their application as well as in our dialogue.

On the frontend, you might notice two new buttons at the top of each month’s page. These allow you to change the font style and size of the text. Those of us who need slightly larger type might want to choose the “Larger Serif” font. Check it out. Paul Sowden, a 17 year old wiz from London is responsible for developing this javascript solution (thanks to Jeffrey Zeldman from A List Apart for turning me on to Paul’s work!)

In addition, you can now leave comments about the stories you read here. At the end of each piece is a link to the comments section. The number in parentheses is the number of people who have left their mark about that story. Since I’ve just added this feature (again, part of Movabletype), it’s a little quiet around here. But I’m hopeful that will change. You can still sign up to be notified via email when I’ve posted a new entry [try to fix a bug in the notification interface —hold on]. That, too, is a link after each story.

Thanks to everyone who helped. I could not have completed these projects with their help. This, too, is life affirming.

Spores, Spores, and More Spores

28 Oct 2001
October 28, 2001

Spores, spores, spores! That’s all we’ve been hearing about here in DC. And it’s clear those pesky little things are harder to control than the CDC originally thought. It is making me just a tad nervous.

horoscopeBut what’s really on my mind this weekend are spores of another kind: mold spores! For the month long La feuille Souffler la Fête (or Festival De Soufflement De Feuille, depending on which web translation page you use), what better way is there to put a positive spin on my yearly encounter with my handy dandy leaf blower than making it sound so, well, so much fun!

Our annual Leaf Blowing Festival takes place from approximately the middle of October to the middle of November. With about 80 trees on our “plot” of land, that’s a bunch o’ moldy, mildewy leaves! And, despite fun activities for children of all ages, I have yet to convince any of my friends, acquaintances, or people walking down the street to join in.

Be that as it may, like precautions others are taking with more deadly spores, I too use protective gear. Dust mask, baseball cap, and protective eyeware are always in place. Ear phones attached to my industry-approved and inspected Walkman fit snuggly on my head. And, finally, my Toro Leaf Blower, Model 1540. Never have I felt so prepared to face my fate and the elements. I am ready.

The first blow of the season requires special attention. First, I have to find where I left the blower. Then we have to assemble all of our extension cords from around the house. We have one of those wheels we can wrap them all around. Makes it easy to carry.

And then it’s time. After only 8 years I’ve developed a pretty good system (coming from Southern California, my only previous Fall experience was clearing away a few palm fronds). Oh, I’ve tried the rake (too many blisters) and I’ve tried the tarp and rake combo (not bad, but I’m not convinced). But I really think it’s simpler and more elegant to just blow.

I remember our first year here with nostalgia. We had just bought our blower when suddenly one early morning, as we were both laying in bed, we heard them coming! The county! They come twice a season to suck up leaves we’ve all placed neatly by the street and if you miss the opportunity, you’ve got to bag and get rid of them on your own. I jumped out of bed, grabbed my clothes and raced outside. Luckily, they were starting at the other end of the block. I still had some time. My neighbor rushed over with his rake yelling, “It’s too late for me so I’ll help you!” I felt like we were racing against the elements to get our crop harvested before an early blizzard. What team work! What a sense of community! It was invigorating.

I vary my approach depending on initial conditions—how many leaves have fallen; has it rained? Rain is a leaf blower’s nightmare. Wet leaves ten deep turn to cement. Blowing does no good and raking is hardly any easier. The weather leading up to this year’s inaugural event was perfect. Nice and dry. And with my new Toro lawn mower, I was able to mulch the early crop twice.

Blowing is contemplative. While I’m clearing the leaves, I’m clearing my mind. And it’s an anal-retentive’s version of heaven (not that I am one of course): one walks around with a huge and powerful phallic device, herding a wild herd of leaves. You must control them! First this way, then that. As you do, you see the fruits of your labor immediately and experience an incredible sense of accomplishment. You are one with the world.

And, of course, as soon as you are finished, a few days later you get to do it all over again!

Following Directions: The Road to Nowhere

14 Jul 2001
July 14, 2001

horoscopeIf you remember, back in May Le Premier Fauchage de Pelouse du Festival de Saison marked the beginning of the lawn mowing season. You might also remember that we’ve been having trouble with the belt that propels the lawn mower around our palatial estate. By June it was slipping off so often it no longer made mowing a pleasurable experience. I hired a local guy to do it while I took the mower in for service.

It took 3 weeks to get the estimate informing us the crankshaft was bent (the probable reason for the belt problem) and that it would cost us $382 to fix our eight year old machine. I knew I should have heeded the instructions not to mow over stones and roots! Time for a new unit.

I went to the library, scoped out Consumer Report’s recommendations and headed back to the hardware store. Fran, the lawn mowing expert, recommended Toro. “We get very few mechanical problems with them,” he volunteered. CR concurred. Sold.

“Now all I have to do is put the handle together?” I asked. “Yes, that’s it. Everything else is ready to go.” By the time I got it home it was too late to get to work so I unloaded the box in our garage and waited for the next weekend. Which was today.

This morning I took apart the box and began to read the manual. Let’s see, there’s a lower handle and an upper handle. Where’s the lower handle? I compared what I saw in the illustration to the parts sitting on the garage floor. I can’t find it. Am I blind? Possible. But, how could I forget! I’m also mechanically challenged!

You see, if someone actually shows me how to assemble something, I can do it. After all, I am a visual artist! And visual demonstrations seem to click for me. But if someone tells me how to do something, I often have a difficult time following what they’re saying. A good manual could remedy the situation. But when’s the last time you truly found one that explained things as they really are? It takes me a while to figure out the lower handle is simple missing.

Back to the hardware store, which is not around the corner but a 40 minute roundtrip. Jimmy, the store’s second-in-command mowing expert hands it to me saying this happens every so often (a little too often for me: this is the second time in as many years a part has been missing from something I’ve had to put together). I now have everything I need.

I gather all the pieces and follow what appear to be the directions for handle assembly. But when I’ve completed the task I have one wobbly handle. This can’t be right. I reread the instructions word for word (almost like I’m translating a text from a foreign language). You see, knowing that I am a mechanical nitwit, I’m starting to question whether it’s me or them. I used to write technical manuals for a living (trying to save the rest of the world’s mechanically impaired) and this step-by-step set of instructions is just not following my reality.

This time I look at every bolt and every supposed hole they screw into. I am looking at the printed diagram with a magnifying glass to see where I am going wrong and finally discover it’s not me! Glorious day, it’s not me. It’s them!

Let me quote from the manual and show the picture that comes with it. Tell me what you think.

Assembling the Handle




Handle InstructionsRemove the four handle bolts and knobs that are installed in the lower handle (two bolts will have flat caps and two will be contoured to fit the handle).

Swing the lower handle back and the support brackets up, aligning the brackets with the holes in the handle (Fig. 4).

Secure the handle to the support brackets with the two flat handle bolts and two knobs, using the height adjustment holes on the brackets that best suit your height requirements (Fig. 4).

IMPORTANT: Use care to prevent pinching or stretching the cables.

Note: If handle height is not satisfactory, adjust it by installing the handle bolt and knob through a different set of holes.

Can you understand what they’re saying? Step 3 says: “Secure the handle to the support bracket with the two flat handle bolts and two knobs…” Doing this is what gave me a very unstable handle!

I looked at Fig. 4 again. And I looked. Trying to make sense of what it was really telling me. Wait! The flat head bolts are actually attached to the casing of the mower (my #5 in red), not the support brackets! One pair of contoured bolts attach the handle to the support brackets. That’s it!

And so, fellow readers, with a few twists of the automatic wrench the handle was assembled. My visual acuity abilities now as strong as the lower handle, I proceeded to take this baby for a spin.

Celebrating Equinox Day

01 Mar 2001
March 1, 2001

horoscopeYesterday was my Personal Equinox Day. That’s the day when the sun is shining both when I leave for work and when I return home. This celestial event changes every year, depending on my schedule. This time it was later than usual, since I’ve been staying later at work. It’s an uplifting moment to realize you no longer have to rely on flickering mercury vapor street lamps to find your way home.

Spring is my favorite season. I never had this feeling, growing up in L.A. We had seasons but the changes were more subtle than the extremes of winter and summer here in D.C. I never knew the sight of a daffodil rising above a bed of dead leaves could make me feel so good!

Fall is my least favorite time of the year. I have to rake millions of leaves (I never had to do that in L.A., just a few palm fronds every now and then), suntan lotion commercials are replaced by cold remedy commercials on TV, and you can no longer wear white shoes and belts! As the sun sets earlier and earlier, I get, well, ok, I’ll admit it, I get a little depressed. The extra hour of sleep you get with the end of daylight savings time is not enough to offset the bleakness awaiting you when you awake.

I thought I might have SAD a few years ago so I borrowed a special bank of lights from a friend. I would sit in front of it for 15 minutes every morning, while I ate my breakfast, but to no avail. Coffee, alone, did a much better job of lightening my spirits.

© 2001-2015 Jeff Gates ISSN 1544-4074