ruminations


A few days ago, in reaching up to pull down some low hanging dead branches of a backyard tree, this marvelous thing came with them (click it for the bigger picture):

Camouflaged, I hadn’t known it existed just above my head — and by the looks of it probably for a long time, too. It also looks like it hadn’t been used in a while. It is about eight inches in diameter. It is beautifully constructed.

Careful I was in parting it from the boughs that held it for however long. And I set it upon the patio table, where I showed it to Susan. I’ve marveled at it several times since. And wondered how many chicks might have successfully flown from it  over however many years it had been in service.

I brought it in today to photograph it, and I’ve decided to keep it on my desk for the time being. For inspiration. I find myself of late questioning myself  across a pretty broad spectrum. It can be disheartening. I am trying to accomplish things, but frankly haven’t. Thus there a lot of things I’m doubting right now. But one thing I can safely — and without regret or recrimination — say that I could never do is build such a masterpiece using just my feet and my mouth.

The birds who built this had none of those doubts. They just did it. Because no one told them they couldn’t. Especially themselves.

In response to a post by fellow Blogging.la’er Lucinda Michele, which upon her return after a few weeks away in Death Valley and Seattle left her questioning whether she might be falling out of love with our unfair city, I added the following comment that picks up on what she beautifully had to say about the significance of jacarandas and then I go on to somewhat sum up my relationship with my native place. Certainly people far more learned, wise and better expressive than me have captured the essence of this place, but in re-reading it and porting it over here, I like to think that if I didn’t put my finger square on something, at least maybe I brushed it with a hopefully unpretentious hangnail. Of course, on second look have the urge to edit, but I’ll leave it as it ran on blogging.la:

Jacarandas, like so much we hold beautifully iconic here in the city, are imported. Set dressing for an epic motion picture in which we are transients in a transplanted scape, irrigated by elsewhere’s water, developed by the makers of make believe and designed for us to travel it removed and isolated in climate-controlled cabins within rolling steel boxes. On top of that every now and then its true faults are revealed, falling the walls and spinning the power lines like jump ropes as it tries to shrug us off. It is no wonder our ties to this place can be so tenuous and become so disconnected.

For me, the on-offs of one’s relationship with Los Angeles is part of its overall charm. There are peaks and valleys in everything none more figurative than L.A. and none more literal than Death Valley where five miles as the vulture flies one can go from Badwater’s lowest point in the western hemisphere at 282 feet below sea level, to the 11,049-foot Telescope Peak. Whether standing between love and hate of this sprawled city or in between those two desert landmarks I can marvel at both extremes.

And by “funny” I mean not at all. Unless contriving a conflict is funny.

As teflon-coated as I like to pretend I am, I do get and remain peeved by trivial affrontations for far longer than necessary or required, and my rule of thumb is if I’m still stewing more than a day later, then it’s time to vent. Well, here it is a day and a half later and in my head I’m still telling the jackasses to fuck off, so of course it’s time to loosen up the pressure valve.

I had just started my pre-ride spiel to the awesome group of cyclists who had gathered in the parking lot of SilverSun Plaza for the Watts Happening ride when this semi-haggard, possibly hungover guy who looked foul-mooded enough to have been able to find easy fault in butterflies or a beautiful day, interrupted me with a demand for my attention as he passed by.

I obliged Sir Surly who then wasted little time in condescendingly chiding me for what he perceived as my obvious lack of consideration in allowing my fellow cyclists to loiter directly in front of SilverSun Liquor the overpriced booze farm that anchors the east end of the garish stripmall. He instructed me that our presence there in the lot along the front of the repository of drowned sorrows  at such an apparently high alcohol-demand hour of 10 a.m. was bullshit because it was preventing patrons from accessing the store’s two nearest parking places and thus in the span of the 30 or so minutes spent gathering there we had dramatically impeded its sales and thus were in the midst of inflicting great negative impact both upon the proprietor’s livelihood and the phantom patrons’ convenience.

His advice, in so many words, was for us silly cycling second-class ingrate lot hogs to stop being dicks and understand that the world doesn’t revolve around us, because it more appropriately revolves around his and the booze dealer’s sour grapes.

Let’s go to the neverminds, shall we?

Nevermind:

  1. That there were plenty of empty parking spaces in the lot.
  2. That we obviously would have moved had a driver chosen to park in one of the two in front of the store where we were — but none did.
  3. That several of the assembled cyclists had actually patronized the liquor store.
  4. That by delaying my opening remarks the idiot was actually keeping us there longer.
  5. That the grumblebum made an argument that didn’t at all pertain to him when he showed himself to be a  pedestrian when he walked from me to the corner in order to cross Sunset Boulevard — perhaps to see if there might be an impromptu Alcoholics Anonymous session taking place on the other side of the street at Cafe Tropical.

I wasn’t sure what this jerk’s vested interest was or what motivated the blindside, but  in the interest of not really caring and also not wanting to provoke the assbag into provoking me into getting all foul-mouthed and demonstrative, I basically shooed him on his way with “You are absolutely right, sir. Cars rool. Cyclists drool. Have a great day!”

Then I turned back to my riders, trying to remember what I’d been saying before being so rudely interrupted, and dang if the liquor store’s Sikh proprietor in all his mustachioed, bearded and turbaned glory was standing in the doorway skewering me with a glowering glare as if I had insulted something dear to him.

I tried to ignore the burn of his stare while getting back on track, but I could only withstanding the searing heat for a few moments until I diplomatically offered to the elder not to get his headwrap all in a bunch because we would be on our way in a matter of minutes. The contemptuous codger kept his laser gaze leveled at me for several deathless and silent seconds before finally nodding almost imperceptibly, as if it took every fiber of his arrogant being.

True to my word, I finished up my speechifying shortly thereafter and we were soon on the road away from the assholes of the morning and on to what turned out to be a most awesome 32-mile excursion to South Los Angeles and back. In leaving I did none of the below, but had toyed with letting the owner know that:

  1. As an area resident and past patron he’d never have to worry about me buying anything from his store again ever.
  2. That I’d be back next Saturday morning to gather riders together in exactly the same place for the Frank Lloyd Wride. And the Saturday after that for the Two Rivers Ride. And the Saturday after that for the Black Dahlia/West Adams Ride. So get the hell used to it.
  3. I’d be strongly encouraging that all of my fellow riders set neither a foot or spend nary a nickel there.

ballonaIt’s not actually this visible at night. This is an 8-second exposure of the creek
and bikeway looking downstream
near the Duquesne overpass in Culver City.

Nevermind after dark, some consider biking along Ballona Creek during the daytime a risk simply not worth taking. As recently as last month there was a report of the latest in a series of assaults that goes back years, this one taking place on the bikeway about halfway between the 405 Freeway overpass and Inglewood Boulevard.

Ironically it happened on the same day that the renovation/beautification to the bikeway’s entrance at Inglewood was formally dedicated, with officials and dignitaries lauding the results to the people and media in attendance as an important step toward making the creek more welcoming to the community.

Not more than a couple hours after all that feel-gooding, a cyclist notified police that as he was biking about a quarter-mile east of Inglewood, he passed a male on foot who surprised him by sending a wild roundhouse his way — missing, thankfully — as he pedaled by. When the cyclist stopped a safe distance away and turned to find out what the hell just happened, the suspect motioned for him to come back, but he wisely just kept going and called the cops, who again demonststrated their chronic lack of familiarity with the channel by repeatedly asking him what “street” he was on at the time of the attempted assault.

So why do I make it a point to ride along the creek bike path, especially at night? For two reasons. One, because not to do so for fear of being mugged is just not how I roll.  And two, because it’s the most efficient and serene — and frankly, safest — way for me to get from the office in Westchester to Culver City.

Fact is, in the two-plus  years I’ve been biking from Silver Lake to work and back, I’ve been on Ballona Creek at night somewhere between 200-300 times. And the worst I’ve directly encountered was a belligerent malcontent in the form of a recyclables scavenger — possibly mentally challenged — who repeatedly called me a “faggot” as I passed. In fact, since I’ve seen him several times in that stretch of the creek  between the 405 and Inglewood and he’s always surly to me it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s a local and perhaps then the the same guy who swung so unprovoked at the cyclist in the incident mentioned above.

forebodeForeboding or fascinating? Found last night on the
bikeway near the Duquesne access point in Culver City.

I do it for another reason — I’ve said it before and it’s the same reason why I ride the streets: to disprove those fearful perpetuators — most recently Councilman Tony Cardenas at a recent meeting who trotted out the old tried-and-true myth that cyclists on the streets in L.A. take their lives in their hands whenever they ride.

Shut. Up. Especially if at best, Cardenas rides maybe once a year… probably on Bike To Work Day. And accompanied by a police escort.

I’m sick and tired of our officials. Either they’re showing up for a few minutes in Mar Vista to pretend a bikeway is suddenly more welcoming or they’re throwing such fearful exaggerations out under the guise of hopeless empathizing — as if that’s enough. It’s not.

It was way back in August when I first started attempting timelapsifications of my morning and evening bike commutes and uploading them to YouTube. My main motivation was simple: to counter the festering perception that bicycling in Los Angeles is an unsafe practice. So far so good.

Fast forward to a couple days ago when I get an email notification of a comment to this video of my morning commute I posted to YouTube back on August 15:

The comment reads: “I like how you paced that Lexus at :36. Shows you how slows cars can be. But that’s a big commute, why don’t you just live closer to work or work closer to home? I would hate a 1 hour commute in ANY form of transportation.”

My response was basically to say that I love where I live and I enjoy where I work and bicycling between the two is a joy so I see no need to change either. But since making that reply I’ve mulled the question and confess I find the commenter’s position to be… let’s go diplomatic and call it a “quaint.” The person’s implication is that homes and jobs are pretty much things you can exchange as if life was one giant fully stocked drive-through convenience store, with a very liberal return policy.

Sure, I understand and respect that one person’s hour-long commute is another’s nightmare, and I also understand that we all have our limits. For example, I’d probably draw the line at a bike commute of more than 20-miles each way. Not that I wouldn’t do that, but there’d definitely be some alternating vehicular action involved as I just wouldn’t do it e-v-e-r-y work day like I’m attempting to do this year.

But there’s more to it:

  • There’s the fact that the 30-mile roundtrips I make allow me to keep my weight at a comfortable 215-220, even though I am long past the junkfood-free days of meticulous and methodical calorie counting and portion control that allowed me to drop from 263 pounds to 208 over the course of the first six months of 2006.
  • Further on the fitness tip, my biking regimen has put the $70 a month I was literally giving away to the downtown YMCA for my unused membership back into my pocket. The streets of Los Angeles are my health club.
  • And since we’re talking money howsabout the $1,000-plus I saved on gas in 2008?
  • Not only that but as an alternate commuter my office building’s transportation program subsidizes me to the tune of about $30 a month.
  • I’ve hammered this aspect home many times before, but one thing you can’t put a pricetag on is the street-level awareness one gets from pedaling through the varied communties that make up this town. You have no choice but to acknowledge and absorb what’s happened or happening around you. And while not everyday yields up an exciting new discovery, at my commuter cyclist’s pace well outside the four-wheeled box I strengthen a connection between me and my city that is priceless.

Even with all those pluses, it may still add up to one big minus to those who can’t fathom having to travel such a distance and timeframe, much less do it by bike — and I can see there POV. Shame they can’t  or won’t see mine.

Any resident whose done their time here in Los Angeles recalls fondly the period before and during the 1984 Olympics when a variety of misconceptions and misjudgments left Los Angeles a veritable commuters paradise. There are probably a variety of factors contributing to those glory days, but by and large the easy one to cite is the large enough percentage of residents who veritably fled the city fearing gridlock, terrorist acts, and too many tourists.

None of which occurred, and as a result there was no better time to be an angeleno in Angelenoville. Not only could you proudly bask in the glow of the glorious games, but you could get wherever you wanted to go quickly and easily.

I know this first hand because at that time not only was I commuting from Sherman Oaks to Santa Monica College for classes, but I also worked as a courier for a company located in the Cahuenga Pass, and my route would take me from there to downtown to mid-Wilshire  to Beverly Hills — even to Westwood on occasion.

Speeds between points A and B suddenly increased dramatically. The transportation grid was practically devoid of traffic snarls. In a way it seemed as if some mighty being had gripped the edges of the city and stretched it. The place seemed bigger, more open.

It didn’t take long after the closing ceremonies for the honeymoon to end and Los Angeles to shrink back to its clogged and crowded ways, but for those coupla/three weeks: the city was the autopia it had been envisioned to be. Sing it loud, Randy Newman: We Loved L.A.

I get a tiny sense of that bygone, once-in-a-lifetime feeling each holiday season — especially the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Schools are closed. People are traveling. There’s usually a bit more good will in the air.

This year was no different, but also seemingly augmented positively by the artificially low gas prices, and negatively by the current state of the economy. More people hunkered down this season. Though happy to be buying gas that was $2-$3 lower than it was in the summer,  a lot of people did less, with less.

One rainy night a week or so before Christmas I left work and the 405 to the 10 to the 110 to the 101 was almost as if I had the whole stretch to myself. I got home in an unheard of 20 minutes. And biking? There were streets I’d travel down for blocks and blocks and blocks — streets like Figueroa and Venice and Jefferson — and not be passed by a single vehicle.

It was kinda spooky, but a good spooky.

Now we’re back to the bad kinda spooky. I had my first “Get offa the fuckin’ road!” yelled at me from a car last weekend. Such verbal abuse disappeared when gas sailed past $4 a gallon. Before those astronomical prices, a snark-laden “Get a car!” was something I could count on from passing motorists or their passengers on a pretty regular basis. But with gallons of regular coming in at $4.50-plus that shut those insulters up and all of a sudden it was my turn to gloriously yell “Get a bike!”A victory of sorts, but not a very satisfying one. I’m not one to kick anyone when they’re down.

By all accounts, the surprise plunge in gas prices should have brought the haters back out, but it didn’t really. It certainly put a lot of people forced to explore alternate transit methods back in their cars, but maybe the sudden savings brought relief mixed with a smug but chastened satisfaction and that kept their yaps shut.

Of course that was short-lived. Gas has been steadily creeping back up and now hovers around and above the $2 mark. Any rationalization at how relatively low it still is gets gnawed down by fear that it’ll keep going back up and up and up and up and finally realize that dreaded $5-per-gallon mark.

In conjunction with the post-holiday roadways back to being stacked up, the upward creep of gas costs may be helping to piss people off. In addition to a general increase in irresponsible and inconsiderate driving, it’s highly unscientific but I’m just getting a more negative vibe from more drivers. I find myself cut off more and crowded a bit closer by passing vehicles. There’s greater lack of patience from people behind me.  At the end of my morning commute yesterday I got a slow start at the head of the left turn lane when the arrow went green and the driver of the car behind me laid on the horn. Hard.

A lady sped by me a couple days ago not much more than a foot away and when I gestured the international sign of More Cushion Please as she moved ahead of me she looked in her rearview mirror and just shrugged in a “get over it” way.

Coincidence or fluke? Maybe. Like I said these observations are as unscientific as my low/high average method for calculating how much I saved in gas costs biking this year:

$1.89 (low) + $4.69 (high) / 2 = $3.29 average per gallon x 315 gallons not used = $1,036.35

But as I continue and even increase my biking and gas savings, I’m not going to dismiss the incidents or pretend they’re not on the rise. Instead I’m going to once again realize the honeymoon is over and it’s time to armor up with greater awareness, caution, care and tolerance.

And maybe a stun gun.

It may not be readily evident, given my frivolous rants about Dodger Fan Douchebags and finally heeding Susan’s call to get my photos from our fantastic Mexico vacation up on Flickr, but these past few days I’ve been pretty beaten up by a combo of things: exhaustion and overload from the longest presidential campaign ever; continuing uncertainty (or rather a shortage of willing optimism) over how the election will end up; anxiety over the economy; the total helplessness that accompanies raging Southern California wildfires that choke the air with smoke and ash; and lastly the death of John McGraham, the homeless man who was murdered late Thursday evening on 3rd Street (less than 1.5 miles — as the crow flies — from our front door) by person or persons unknown who decided that it was perfectly acceptable to extinguish a human life by pouring flammable liquid on him and igniting it.

I can deal with all the other crap mentioned above. The fires will evenutally be contained. The votes will be counted. The markets will go up and down and up and down. I can muddle through all that. But not so quick can I get beyond being shown indisputable proof of our capacity for evil and as a consequence I pretty much spent the weekend on my ass in a fine foul funk.

Monday morning on my way in to work I visited the shrine erected in John’s memory by grief-stricken family members and outraged residents, and I was drawn somewhat reluctantly to revisit it after dark on the way home that night. I lost track of time standing before it with other members of the more immediate community. I read and reread the cards and letters that had been posted. I took stock of the items that had been left. A bottle of Dr. Pepper. A can of Coca-Cola. Two cigarettes. A box of matches. A meal in a plastic bag. Flowers. Stuffed animals. Candles, candles and more candles. Was there irony in those flames flickering in tribute to a man burned to death? I didn’t know.

I was too busy standing there in silence alternating between sorrow and seething hatred and praying for the power to see what soulless beast could do such a thing. Just show me God. Just point me to where such demons scurry and I will seek out the monsters and be no better and far less merciless.

Of course, nothing.

Ridiculous though it may seem, I even entertained the idea of confessing to the crime. I had feelings of literally wanting to be punished because of the guilt by association I felt at being a member of a species that can commit such base acts of ultra violence and depravity. But then my better, less martyr-minded half took control and led me to a more proactive mission: to put good in the world. Not in some monumentally impossible effort to cancel out such badness — because there is no canceling it. But rather to respond to such evil by by being more accepting and helpful and tolerant and considerate and respectful and assisting in my everyday life.

Evil may have its inevitable place in this world, but my response is to kill it with a thousand kindnesses.

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