Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The unfit traveler

One thing my trip to San Francisco demonstrated to me is how fearfully out of shape I've become. I haven't exercised in months, because I finally reached the point where I just couldn't force myself to do this thing I had always hated doing. (Rather amusingly, my sister was reading on the trip a book on staying fit and feeling good for women "of a certain age," that included a section headed "All the best people hate to exercise.") I knew I would feel better -- though I always feel terrible immediately upon finishing an exercise session -- knew my increased stiffness was due to no exercise, knew it was affecting my stamina, which isn't good at the best of times.

But it took all that hiking up steep hills to convince me that I needed to bite the bit and start exercising again. It wasn't just the Streets of San Francisco, though there I was usually bringing up a limp fourth (Ellen, who exercises regularly, and seems to be made of energy, was always way out in front and never even seemed winded). But there were other demonstrations.

We got in on Wednesday morning, and after lunch Fae suggested we go to nearby "Windy Hill" (which turned out to be appropriately named) from which you can see both the sea and the bay. I later learned, thanks to signs along the trail, that this is part of the Windy Hill Open Space Preserve of San Mateo County. The climb up to the top was neither that long nor that steep, but Fae and I vied for who would get there last. Near the top, in the first "open space" (most of the way up we had scrub brush on one side, and a hillside covered with scrub brush on the other), I saw a bench, and practically cried Eureka. But we weren't quite to the top. Ellen and Jim were already there, taking pictures of the bay. And if you looked off to the west, there was a slim line of the Pacific Ocean, gleaming in the sun. All very nice, if a bit nippy, but I'd been given my first taste of my out-of-shapeness.

Then, Fae's idea for Thanksgiving afternoon, when we were waiting for the turkey to roast, was to walk "up the street" to where one of their neighbors ran a miniature train around his back yard every holiday. Fae knows I love trains, and thought I'd enjoy this. Which I did -- it was an adorable little train, complete with whistle which the "engineer" blew as we went around curves -- but the walk up and up and up the winding, winding, winding street to the neighbor's house had me ultimately collapsing on a guard rail to catch my breath and slow my heart rate. I felt like a little old lady. Since their retire-ment Fae and Jim have been doing a lot of walking, and it has obviously paid off.

So, Melody, it's time to get off the bed where you're taking that nap, or get off that computer where you're doing that admittedly fascinating genealogical research, or get off that couch where you're watching the latest episode of Bones or Fringe or Lie to Me, and EXERCISE.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Where I left my heart

Went to the San Francisco area for Thanksgiving, with my sister Ellen. I had invited myself to the home of friends Fae and Jim months ago, and when Fae was having a hard time coming up with additional people to invite, I boldly suggested my sister. I knew Ellen had never been to San Francisco -- and while Fae and Jim actually live in Redwood City, about 20 miles south of SF, I knew we would be going into the city at least one day -- knew she could use a special little holiday, rather than sitting at home alone (her only son lives in Hawaii, and was not coming home for Thanksgiving), and felt sure Fae and Jim would enjoy her -- she is a pleasant, agreeable, and very funny person -- and that she would like them (they are pleasant, low-keyed, very hospitable).

It was a really good trip. Even the flying was relatively hassle-free. No, we did not get patted down, or put through a machine that would enable some stinker to put our naked images up on the Internet. Indeed, at none of the airports we went through -- Portland, Maine, Denver, CO, Colorado Springs CO, or San Francisco -- did we see anyone being patted down or zapped with radiation. Nor were we cursed with weather delays. The only real delay we had was in Colorado Springs, when the United agent informed us over the intercom that the flight attendant had "called in sick," and the person who would be replacing her would be arriving at about the time the plane was scheduled to leave. Even then, though we were about half an hour late leaving, we "made up the time?" (How? By flying faster? If that was the case, why don't they always fly faster?)

When we went into S.F. on Black Friday, which, far from being black, was a beautiful, sunny day, I was reminded of why it remains my third favorite city in the world (after London & Paris, and just before Boston). It's beautiful, cosmopolitan, unique. Ellen was the expected delighted by it. We managed to do most of the things she wanted to do. We strolled up Grant Avenue into Chinatown (yes, "Grant Avenue...San Francisco... California...USA!"), and later enjoyed dim sum in a little tea house on an alley off Sacramento Street, (next door to the Willie "Woo-Woo" Wong Playground). We walked up Nob Hill and wandered through the quite gorgeous Fairmont Hotel's lobby, and one of its shops, full of beautiful Indian fabrics, rugs, clothing, decorative boxes, etc., none of which had price tags on them (both Fae and I were afraid to ask the price of anything). We also paid our respects to the Ritz Carlton, which was properly elegant, but not so grandiose as the Fairmont. We took a Powell Street cable car down the hill to Fisherman's Wharf, to join the thousands of other tourists, and the hundreds of seagulls. Ellen got her picture of Alcatraz, and the Golden Gate Bridge.

The one thing she had wanted to do that we just ran out of time and energy to do was visit Haight Ashbury, where I lived for six months in 1966-67 (see Note of June 23, 2008 for some of my reminisces ). But we went home to Redwood City and enjoyed a Maine lobster dinner at a favorite spot of Fae's and Jim's, the Old Port Lobster Shack on Veterans Blvd. -- and yes, we were all amused by the irony of this girl from Maine having Maine lobster in California, but hey, I never have it in Maine because I can't afford it -- and then went home and crashed. A good day, a good visit all around.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Former masters of the earth

I have been trying to plough my way through Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life, by Scott D. Sampson. I am as fascinated by dinosaurs as any 10-year-old boy, but while the book is certainly interesting, and informative, it is also pretty heavy going, at least partly because of all the mind-numbing words like ornitho-mimosaurs, hadrosaurs, ceratopsids, not to mention all the proper scientific names of particular species -- Deinonychus, Tenontosaurus, Coelophysis. I never realized there were so many.

There are a number of concepts I've had a hard time wrapping my mind around, the biggest being that of "deep time." The (approximately) 4.54 billion years the earth has been around, that's an example of deep time. The "160 million-year tenure of dinosaurs," that's deep time. We're not talking a hundred years, not a thousand years, or even ten thousand years -- the approximate length of time human society for which we have plentiful evidence has been around -- we're not even talking about 4.4 million years, which is about how old the oldest humanoid (not human) remains thus far found have been. The last of the dinosaurs died out about 65 million years ago (that's 10,000 x 10 x 65), and this was at the end of their "160 million-year tenure." How can I possibly think intelligently about that kind of time span? And how can self-destructive humans ever hope to compete with that record for longevity?

Of course, they weren't all the same dinosaur species during that 160-million-year stretch. Just as in the more recent past, species came and went, evolved and died out, due to one cause or another. I never thought about that, but living creatures are certainly going to change, evolve, over that long a time span.

Another idea I have trouble with is that the birds of today are the descendents of a certain group of dinosaurs (interestingly, not the flying kind, like pterosaurs, but "small, carnivorous dinosaurs [that] found a way to be-come airborne," and that "managed to eke through the extinction bottleneck that brought an end to the Mesozoic." Admittedly, if you sit and watch a bunch of birds, you can spy very predatory and rapacious be-havior, but that's the closest to anything dinosaur-like that you can easily detect. But at least I'm glad to learn that no one is claiming that birds are the descendents of T-Rex.

One very interesting and highly plausible idea Sampson has introduced me to is that the weird horns/stiff neck "ruffles"/rooster-like crests/and other adornments many dinosaurs sported were less likely to have served as weapons, as originally thought -- many would have been very ineffectual weapons, because of their locations -- or even to assist in getting at or eating food, than to have served as attraction mechanisms for the opposite sex. After all, that's the purpose served by any number of oddities in the animal kingdom today. The elaborate spread of the peacock tail, the brighter coloration of the male of many bird species, the antlers of the deer, the red bottom of female baboons...all of these serve a primary function of attracting the opposite sex. I like to think of a female triceratops spotting a nearby male and thinking, "My, look at the frill on that big guy. I'd like him to be the father of my children."

Only, of course, not really thinking it, but intuiting it. Enabling the reproduction dance to go on, and evolution to continue on its ponderous but ineluctable way.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Oh they have to win they have to win

All right, I'm willing to concede that professional sports are more than "just a game." They're a competition to see which team is better trained, in better shape, with more finely-honed skills. But what I don't get is why fans identify so totally with their favorite teams. It's one thing if your kid is playing on the little league or the high school team, if a team you're cheering for is from your alma mater, even if you've long since left the place. But just because a professional team is called the Philadelphia Phillies or the Texas Rangers, does not mean it's made up of a bunch of home-grown boys. The Rangers have players from California, Arizona, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, just to name a few. And every professional team is the same. So what are the fans so invested in? What is it that makes them so hysterical when "their" team wins, so morose when it loses?

This kind of fan fanaticism is something I truly do not understand, and my inability to do so is one of the things that makes me feel I am not a member of the human race. Maybe one of my psychologist friends can explain it to me. Watching game four of the Series, I was amazed by the people in the stands that the camera would catch, some of whom looked tense and miserable, as if they might cry at any moment, some of whom actually looked as though they were praying, many of whom just looked depressed. All because it really did look like "their" team was going to lose (which it did). And of course when a favored team wins the fans jump up and down, scream, cry, hug one another, and, when they get out to their cars, drive up and down the streets with horns blaring, screaming out the windows.

Why? Why is winning or losing so important? What does it prove? That a particular team, for that game at least, was better at their job than the other team. But their expertise has literally nothing to do with the fans, or I guess I should say the fans have nothing to do with their expertise. Are not responsible for it, cannot take credit for it, really have no right to feel proud of it. And remember these are not local boys -- many of them will be playing for other teams in a year or two or three. Winner's hysteria seems to be saying 'this team, whoever it may be made up of at the moment, has a name and a home base connected or close to where I live and they've won; therefore I'm ecstatic, feel triumphant.'

And Melody doesn't get it. Is it just the old us-against-them mentality, played out in sports? A kind of tribalism, that sometimes seems genetically fixed? Melody herself is such a weird spectator of sporting events that she can actually appreciate a good play by the other team, instead of despairing because it results in them scoring a point, or otherwise furthering their cause. And I have such a strange idea of good sportsmanship that I think in a situation like the one on Monday night, when the Series was lost to a team that just plain played better, someone over the loud speaker should have called for a round of applause for a game well-played by the winning team, and should have gotten it, from a bunch of disappointed, but gallant, Ranger fans. Wouldn't that have been cool? In the best of all possible worlds...