Friday, October 14, 2011


I tutored until 8 tonight, and after having nearly run into a rattlesnake in the dark on Westridge a few nights ago (a nice but somewhat busy-bodyish woman assisted me; lighting up the road and pointing out the snake on the side, before chiding me for not having a light in a not totally friendly way. Although I suppose she had just pretty compellingly demonstrated the need for a light. I've ordered one. Anyway.) decided to avoid the mountainous night and head to the Drake Outdoor Track at UCLA, which Yelp told me was open to the public. It was, although I accidentally parked a twenty-minute walk away.

The UCLA undergrad scene is a whole other post. Basically, I was walking around seriously reconsidering the wisdom of 17-year old James' decision to go to college on the East Coast.

But the point of this purportedly brief post: sprints. I train in medium distances (like 7 to 12 miles), intervals (2:30 fast; 2:30 slow), and shorter distances (4-5 miles, fast). I haven't done sprints in years. It is amazingly different. First of all, it is freaking awesome to not be managing yourself at all: to know that your only job is to go absolutely as fast as you can. I found I couldn't quite keep that mentality for a quarter-mile, but I could for anything sub-0.2 miles. It also hurts; when I launched into the first real spring, my knee immediately started screaming bloody murder. I'm almost certain this isn't indicative of some problem (my knee is indeed stupid, but it's just stupid), and was simply my body not having any sense of or adjustment to this crazy kind of movement where you're belting forward. Stride is all different: my temptation was to run long, but I'm pretty sure I was faster striking short and fast. Lastly, it just feels bad-ass and wonderful: you are tearing past everyone else on the track and just _moving_. Also, you can totally cash yourself out in less than 30 minutes.

So there you go: sprint update! More tk.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Ballad of Axle: Part, the Second

Bug Bath

After a couple of days, Axle was behaving like a healthy, happy kitten. She played with her ball, she ate wet food and drank milk (and was insistent about their provision), she very much liked to be petted and to fall asleep on my chest or my lap.

She also, however, clearly had some fleas. I suspected as much, and on her second day in my bathroom i spotted one. So I bought a flea comb to check and brush her out, and yuck yup fleas.

Little kittens are apparently too fragile for the chemicals you’d usually use on cats to kill fleas. What the interwebs instructed me to do, instead, involved this:

I shit you not.
The idea is you bathe the kitten in dishwashing soap and then have the Vaseline to hand to dab any fleas who try to escape. This does not kill the eggs – you need the chemicals for that – but does eliminate the hatched fleas and as such makes things nicer, aids in the long-term goal of flea eradication, and of course has all sorts of other salutary effects for the kitten since it is bad for the health to have fleas.

Here’s the video, which is really all you need. 

The aftermath was rough: a shaking, shaken kitten whose world took some time to reassemble itself around her. But Axle is nothing if not resilient: after about 30 minutes of gentling and drying she bounced back, and her coat was notably cleaner and softer. It was also, if you're wondering, very effective flea-wise.

Almost dry.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Ballad of Axle: Part, the First

Find and Retrieve

My friend S. is anxious about driving. She’s anxious about driving at night, about parking, about spacing out and getting into a fender-bender. So she may have already been feeling a little rise of nervousness as we approached her car last Wednesday – a rise of nervousness even before we heard the frantic meows coming from underneath, beside, inside her car. We couldn’t figure it out: I looked under the car and alongside and we saw nothing, and it eventually became clear that a cat was somehow involved in the undercarriage of her vehicle and was pretty unhappy about things. Then, we saw a piece of paper clipped to the windshield wiper:

We popped the bonnet to look down into the engine- the meowing was louder now, but still no visual. We were fussing around, unsure what to do, when Good Samaritan #1 came up. Blond guy in an undershirt, athletic shorts, flip-flops: very much of an LA evening. He asks us what’s up and we tell him, and he tells us how his brother’s mother-in-law was in a similar situation and a random stranger came up and started meowing to the cat, and coaxed and cat-whispered it out. S. and I looked at each other – this seemed too much like a thing a dude in athletic shorts of an LA evening would say – but then I hesitantly started meowing and immediately our hiding cat went nuts, meowing back. I’d been making clicking noises with my tongue to no real result; I had always assumed that cats instinctively like tongue-clicking noises, but in that moment I realized that this assumption was borne of the fact that my father trained every cat we had ever had to respond to that noise, by clicking his tongue when he feeds them. Apparently, that was conditioning, whereas the meowing is truly instinctive.

But we still really weren’t getting anywhere. We’d spotted the cat’s face through the engine – a tiny little face, a kitten face. And we had stuck our arms in and harassed the kitten to see if we could grab it out, which had only succeeded in sending the cat scurrying back to somewhere else mysterious in the inner undercarriage workings of the car. So now P., the Samaritan in athletic shorts and flip-flops, was on his back underneath the rear of the car with his phone stuck further underneath the car, providing what little light it could. This was when Samaritan #2 came up, a kind woman named E. who assessed the situation and brought out more lights and some broomsticks and poles and other implements for reaching up under the car to goad the kitten loose. P. was really the active player here – we mostly stood back and watched as he, halfway under the back of S.’s car, nudged and harassed the kitten until eventually he had his hand on it he had his hand on it but he lost it and across the street just in front of a couple of cars driving past (we all gasped) shot this little mercury dark slip of kitten who then rocketed underneath another car and got herself cowering in the same damn position.

At this point it had been almost 45 minutes; S. had a flight in the morning so she left. P. had definitely done his part, and after some desultory assessment by him and E. that we indeed were back to square one they both reluctantly peeled off. We put the note that had been on S.’s car on the windshield of this new car, hoping that the drivers would see it, somehow treat the kitten right. The kitten, which was clearly very tiny from the look we’d all gotten at it, was still just scared nuts and meowing meowing meowing from underneath this new car.

I sort of found I couldn’t walk away. It was after eleven thirty – we’d been working to retrieve this little animal for over an hour by the time I was alone and realized I wasn’t going anywhere, at least not immediately. I sat down on curb next to the kitten’s new hiding car and made occasional lame “meow” noises, which would pretty reliably get “meow meow meow meow meow” responses from the kitten. After about ten minutes of that, I half-heartedly put my head under the car but couldn’t see anything. I think I was very close to giving up; perhaps I even had my bag on, ranging back and forth in front of the car. This happened twice, I think. But I sat back down both times, and then I had this moment of wondering what the fuck I was doing: okay so I clearly felt bad about leaving this kitten, but also what was I doing to effectively rescue it? Nothing, I was sitting here meowing. So I tried to up my game, my commitment; I semi-lay down kind of on the grass by the car, snaked my head underneath it and reached my phone out and turned the screen on to uplight the car’s bottom and there: the clearest look I’d had yet of the kitten’s face. It was a cute face: dark with tabby streaks, kind of tufted and long-hair looking and wild-eyed, staring back at me from its spot hidden amongst the complicated plastic underworkings of the Lexus.

This fortified my commitment to somehow figuring something out. I lay my bag down for good and put on my sweatshirt to semi-shield myself before laying down in the gutter (it wasn’t so bad, as gutters go; dry, no visible stuff although of course lots of stuff) next to the car. Now, lying on my back with my shoulder and arm under the car, I could reach up and not reach the kitten but at least be in a position where I could imagine reaching the kitten, under slightly altered circumstances. I did this for awhile, trying to figure out how precisely to alter the circumstances, until maybe 15 minutes later E. poked her head back out of her apartment – which was a ground floor unit right by this new car – to check up. She asked if I could use a light and a broomstick and absolutely yes I could, thanks – my phone’s battery was dying and I had had its demise in mind as the dark moment when I’d actually lose my only tool in retrieving this animal and perhaps have to actually give it up as hopeless. But now, thanks to E., I had several good lights (including this neat one on an adjustable tripod) and some broomsticks, &c.

I used the sticks to try to gently coax/pester the kitten out: I could get her to come forward but not far enough, and we went back and forth – me pushing her towards an opening where I could almost reach her, her going forward a bit and then hopping over the stick to sidle back into the recesses of the car. I took off my sweatshirt because it was hard work, and rode along on a shifting mix of three main motivations:
  •         This is a small frightened animal and it can be helped if I’m resourceful enough to figure out how
  •        This may be someone’s pet, and it can be returned to them if ditto       
  •     This is a challenge, and it is hard but definitely solvable, and there are people who solve unstructured challenges and people who say “oh well whatever” after trying their hand at unstructured challenges, and sometimes life gives you small chances to demonstrate which kind of person you want to be

These different motivations swapped pole position; the basic story I think – none of this was quite explicit – was that this was of course a small thing in the big picture but it was a situation that could have a happier ending or sadder ending, and it might actually be up to me to determine which it was.

Oh, this whole time – both under S.’s car and under the new car – we’d placed the leftovers from the fancy dinner that S. and I had just had, which we hoped (foolishly) would coax the kitten out.

Around maybe 12:15 or 12:30, E. and her husband J. reemerged. I think they had seen me out there and decided to help, because there wasn’t much awkward, “so, what can we do?” They just kind of went to work with lights and sticks and further coconut milk lures. The shape that “work” finally took was this:

E. very resourcefully found an LA DOT sawhorse and put it in the road, so that someone could more safely lie down on the side of the street with traffic to nudge the kitten towards the sidewalk side of the car with a broom handle.

J. lay in the gutter curbside, trying to nab the kitten.

E. stood by the LA DOT sign, adding additional protection from the cars going by by waving her flashlight along the ground kind of indicating “hey, person on the road right here.” It was still pretty nerve-wracking lying on the street side of the car.

I lay in the road street side, and figured out a way to push the kitten where we needed it to go – first snaking the broom handle through one opening in the car’s undercarriage, then out and into a second once the kitten had advanced beyond a certain point.

We were doing okay with this – J. said he came close to nabbing the kitten a couple of times (he had on gloves, for the inevitable scratching and biting; we’d actually instituted these gloves as early as P.’s attempts), but it wasn’t quite working. So J. and I switched; I showed him my one-two shove method, and then got down on the curb side of the car to see if his nudging would be more successful than mine.

AND IT WAS. J. had the great idea to switch to a fluffy feather duster thing that created a wall of stuff impossible for the kitten to navigate against, and back and forth we scooted the little animeal, getting it pretty close but not close enough to grab – close enough to touch but then the kitten would hissing and shy back extremely quickly (E. confided later that she was doubtful, at this point, about this cat being domesticated/domesticable). Then, finally, the kitten left an opening: an inch of her tail hanging down from the car’s undercarriage. I had the gloves on by now so I grabbed that inch and quickly but as gently as I could worked my way up so I had the whole tail by the base, something to hold onto. At this point the kitten is yowling bloody murder and E. comes around and very smartly starts telling me to ignore its yowling, you know you’re not injuring it (I wasn’t, I was confident about that), just hold on and get it out of there. By gradually moving my hand forward, without releasing the cat ever, I got it by the backside and was able to slowly extricate the yowling little mess from underneath the car as it clung to every bit of apparatus it could.

Upon which kitten removal E. and I were rewarded by a dark, bedraggled, spitting furball of a kitten trying to kill both of us (both our hands got a bit marked, although mine were really pretty fine as I had on gloves) and just protesting the world and also – as became clear a couple minutes later – freaking taking a huge poop right on my shirt. But I pressed the crazy little animal to my chest and we went into E. and J.’s house where they generously gave me a new shirt and we all waited to see how the kitten would respond, whether it was freaked out by the experience (as we all suspected) or really truly was a feral cat that wanted no part in us. 

Very quickly, it became clear that this cat was not feral, was not undomesticable, but was quite the opposite: she quickly switched from trying to kill me to trying to burrow into me, to the extent that once it was time to leave and put her in the cardboard box that E. and J. nicely set up we had a hard time getting her out of my arms, she was clinging so nutso.

I brought her home, by which point the clock said that it was a bit after 2 a.m. S. and I had approached her car and heard the meowing at around half-past ten. I put the kitten in the bathroom because I have cats from which she had to be quarantined and vice versa, gave her some milk and some food, and sat there as the formerly howling chaos became a very cuddly, very grateful kitten that sat in my lap and fell asleep, purring as loudly as the cars she'd been hiding under hours before.

I named her Axle.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Range, Concluded

I sold Range yesterday for $900. It was sad; I had a final rush of longing as I saw her chained and hoisted up onto the flatbed tow truck to take her away. But, it was time to go.

When I first wrote about Range, I said I just wanted her to run. So yeah the thing is she stopped running. The sequence:

Overheating: looks like I’m out of coolant

Hrm. No way to fill coolant because it keeps on leaking.

Wow, smoking engine. Can’t drive her like this.

Tow to Sherman Oaks Exclusive, a Range Rover specialist with a good reputation (that is well earned, as far as I can tell). Get the bad news: it’s probably either a head gasket or a radiator core. We’re looking at $1500-$4k of repairs.

Second opinion confirms this.

Magically, the coolant stops leaking (Sherman Oaks Exclusive flushed the coolant out and that seemed to help). She stops overheating. I entertain the idea that this’ll be Range’s final quirky victory: running for another 30,000 miles with the “Check Engine” light on but running fine.

Overheating again. Cue video at top of this post.

So, within 4 months of buying my first car I sell my first car. It’s hard to sell a semi-operable car, and I almost fall into a couple of traps of selling her for almost nothing, but in the end find a few willing buyers through CL who bid each other up to $900 and that’s what she goes for.

Let’s look at the numbers to put the whole thing in perspective. I bought Range for $3300 on April 2, 2011. I put $250 of work into her in the first ten days, so let's add that to the tab. I sold her on August 10, 2011 for $900. I’ll imagine, then, that I paid $2650 to rent her for that period. That’s a period of about 17 weeks, so $156/week. That compares favorably to the $400 to $700 per week that I get on Orbitz to rent an SUV. So from that perspective, okay. It was a reasonable rental. Plus, I got to fall in love with my first car and acquaint myself with a kind of car – big, comfy, off-road capable, knockaround – that I like. It’s honestly not hard to view it this way and just kind of be like, you know: okay. If ish happens, this isn’t such bad ish.

That said, I now no longer really have the liquidity to buy a car, and there’s another wrinkle I feel I should mention. I bought Range for way too much. This was a thing I discovered rudely when I had to price her for resale. This rankles and is complicated, because I bought her from friends whom I’m pretty sure thought – and still think, probably – that they did me a favor. But, here are 3 commonly used sites’ valuations of a 1993 LWB County Range Rover in better condition than Range when I bought her; I don’t mean better condition anticipating all these problems, I mean even assuming that none of these major issues arose:

$1225 (average trade-in)
$3225 (clean retail)
Kelley Blue Book
$1750 (private party sale, good condition)

$928 (private party sale, average condition)

Now, in an important way this is all my fault. I should have checked these numbers more carefully before the sale. I certainly should have had an independent mechanic look at the car (as my uncle over and over recommended), which could’ve saved me all this. But it does, well it sucks that someone whom I thought was looking out for me actually sold me a car for more than two times its sale/trade-in value, and 27% over what even a dealer would have sold me the same car for – actually, what a dealer would have charged me for a slightly cleaner/better condition version of the same car. My bad. My bad my bad. But man; it’s so disappointing. And, as I said, all the more so because I’m sure this person still thinks they did me a favor, so I don’t know how or whether to broach this, or even if it’s worth it or what the purpose could be.

So, anyway. No more Range. Not a big deal – it’s not like anybody got hurt. But boy, did I let myself get burned on this one.

I still love you, Range, for what we could’ve had and so briefly did.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

“You’re as old as you move.”

Roger Machado said this to a group of us training with him this evening. Machado is a really impressive martial artist and teacher of Brazilian jiu jitsu, and the session with him tonight was great.

He offered this as an inspirational thing: if you stay fit and moving, you’ll feel great for a long time. He told us about a 74-year old student of his who moves better than some of us do, and he talked about his uncle – one of the famous Gracies, I don’t recall which – who was rolling (what they seem to call randori in BJJ) into his 90s. I don’t doubt this; I’ve myself trained with masters in their 60s and 70s whose strength and flexibility were extremely impressive – not “for their age” but just plain impressive: you did not want them to hit you.

So I thought Master Machado’s comment was apt and inspiring in that way. But I particularly liked it because it contemplates the vicious flipside with more honesty than phrases like “you’re only as old as you feel,” which has a connotation of its being your fault if you are (i.e., have allowed yourself to feel) old. I’ve had, and I imagine many people reading this have had, family members who aged very quickly after an accident that impaired their mobility. “She was doing fine, but then she broke her hip and it was like she aged 5 years in six months.” People whose mobility is gradually taken from them by arthritis or other degenerative condition, similarly, often speak about and mourn it in explicit terms of well, I’m old now.

So it’s a goal, yeah; but it also feels like an honest address of how things are. 

I better keep icing this knee.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Westridge, 2nd Pass: Downhill / Low-Slung / A Lesson

Westridge is one of many trails along the spines and canyons of the Santa Monica Mountains. Its trail head is a few minutes’ drive from my house, ascending up into the hills through a nice neighborhood to reach the actual start of the fire road that leads out into the mountains. It’s a great run and a great bike ride. I’m not so great at the bike ride part yet, as this post will attest.

This is the Nike Radar Tower, which you reach after about 3.5 miles along the trail. It used to be part of a radar defense system against Soviet attack. Now it’s a nice lookout: you can look northeast up into the valley 

or southwest into the mountains and canyons of Topanga State Park. 

It’s a common turnaround spot, and on this day, my first day back biking after hurting my foot, it seemed good enough.

The trail actually has two parts: the fire road and the single track. The fire road is straightforward: it’s the road for official vehicles to drive in the event that they need to be there, and it pretty consistently goes UP on your way to the Nike tower (very tiring) and down on the way back. The single track is way different. It’s a rocky, craggy, narrow trail (one person abreast, often semi-overgrown with grasses) that traces the very spine of the mountain, so it’s always swooping up and down and up and down. I suppose it has to overall trend in the same way that the fire road does, but it doesn’t feel like it. I was once told to run out on the fire road and back on the single track, because then “you’re never going downhill.” That’s definitely how it feels.

I was going to ignore the single track on this run because (a) hurt foot and (b) it’s too hard for me. It’s actually more the steep descents than the challenging ascents. I can’t do the descents; they’re too steep and shale-y and I’m not yet a good enough biker. But as I was zipping briskly downhill on my way back along the fire road I caught site of this crest and thought it would be a great place for a picture to share with folks and so I took the ascent and got my shot.

The problem was that I now had to get down. After a couple of fails (dismounted) and near wipeouts, I faced another steep downhill and used the appearance of a man and his ridiculously low-slung dog approaching as an excuse to pause, brace myself, and figure out if I actually wanted to try to go down this thing.

The man comes up, I say hi. He says hi. Late middle-aged guy, sunglasses and pepper hair, lean and tan. The sort of guy you might expect to be out with a low-slung dog hiking the single track at 3pm on a workday.

The ridiculously low-slung dog hunkers on up, smiling and plucky. As he’s still about 10 meters away the man – either wildly misreading me or simply self-conscious – apologizes that, “he’s hurt his hip, or else he’d be hoofing it.” I allow that I think he’s doing pretty great, and the little dude chugs on up as we encourage him.

They turn to leave. I start to go down in my clearly incompetent way when the man’s voice comes back.

Have you ridden this before?
No, I’m learning it.
Well, as a guy who’s done it hundreds of times, the thing on the steep parts is your butt.

I regard him.

You get your butt out back, behind the seat, and then it’s easy; you can actually slow to a step (he mimes putting pressure on the brakes) 3, 2, 1. (he throws his arms out to the side: “I have stopped”) And you know: rear brake more than front brake, and don’t stop to suddenly or you jam your balls all up.

I’m nodding during this but it’s a total revelation to me. I suppose I had imagined that there would be tricks and techniques to trail biking, but I’d never actually heard any and it sounds like this is going to be enormously helpful. I thank him and he and low-slung happy trundle on.

I give it a try. Oh, he also recommended that I try this out on this bit right here, since it’s not too steep. In this, he is wrong. “This bit right here” is steep as shit and I’m pretty sure I’m going to totally eat it going down. But his advice turns out to be fantastic. It’s hard at first, but after a little while I’m able to descend veeery slowly, basically working the brakes the whole way, but pushing my butt back more and more and feeling out how that changes my center on the bike.

I’ll keep posting on the Westridge single track. I have a feeling it’s going to be a theme of the next few months, getting the hang of it. It’ll be a great day when I can actually ride it.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Not Thieves

Not Thieves

This is all about Craigslist (CL) and material things. It’s about some specific reasons I think you should buy things on Craigslist, if you are planning on buying things anyway.

I had been chary of buying on CL. I’d sold stuff and I knew I was honest, but I wasn't so sure about other people. It seemed like a hassle and it seemed risky. And then my sister convinced me to try it with the first item here, the Ikea desk, and I really haven’t looked back.

Lesson #1: If it is a commodity-type good, check CL
Desk: Ikea Glass Top and Sawhorses
Proof-of-concept. I was with my sister, about to buy this Ikea glass-plate + sawhorse = desk. New it’d have been around $120. I am about to buy it at the store. My sister thinks to check CL. The exact thing I want is being sold for $40 a block away from where I’m staying. I’m torn; it means calling someone, what if it’s gross, what if it seems shady, etc. But I go ahead and call. The next day I meet Stacie, my lovely neighbor, and talk to her about the neighborhood, the move between Los Angeles and London and how her British husband is just nuts for the weather here, the difficulty of finding a rental as nice as theirs (a small but stylish house). Friendly neighbor stuff. Get the desk in I’d say “practically new” condition at a 2/3 discount.

Lesson #2: If you’re willing to put in legwork, you can buy computers and tech on CL
Computer: Ridiculous Quad Core AMD Phenom II Gaming Rig
I have wound up buying a bunch of computer stuff on CL, but one particular experience changed how I’ll purchase computers in the future. I wanted a gaming system: something powerful and graphics-y. I was worried about electronics and computers on CL: no comfort of a corporate warranty that will probably screw you over but at least will for sure be there to screw you over. I nonetheless thought I’d poke around. I found Steve, who is fantastic and if you are looking for a performance machine seriously get in touch and I’ll give you his info. Steve takes me through a very involved self-education process about this purchasing decision, involving motherboards and graphics cards and upgrade capabilities and my research into comparable systems. About 20 emails, many long. This obviously makes Steve a customer service hero (and also possibly explains why he struggles to make a lot of money doing this). It’s worth noting that it also took up my time, so if you’re not up for that this process may not be for you. But I was game to get a little educated; it was part of my goal with a nicer system. I eventually stop faffing around and one weekend drive to pick up the system. Steve shows me how to install a graphics card and teaches me a number of extremely useful things about BIOS controls that I’m really glad to know. Again, if Steve-who-sells-computers is some kind of crook, he’s going to a lot of trouble to create an office space and real-world identity that both corroborates his larcenous cover narrative and makes him pretty easy to track down again. Which I’ve done repeatedly with several small questions, all of which were also immediately dealt with. When I thought the fan was a little noisy, Steve simply sent me a new one without my asking. 

Steve is an audio engineer who does this for some extra money, though to hear him tell it his margins are tight because he’s squeezed by supplier power on one side – as a very small scale retailer, he doesn’t get the components for much cheaper than I could – and competition from other custom builders. Looking at the cost of the components of the system, I think he’s being straight about that. The superiority of this experience to the one I had in mind initially – spending twice as much money for less computer loaded with bloatware and with limited support – has been completely revelatory. I don’t think I’ll ever go back.

Lesson #3: You can get nicer stuff than you would otherwise
Initially, I have trouble finding nice beds on CL. There is nothing nice, mostly pretty crappy Ikea beds for super-cheap. Then there’s another category of $1000+ very nice beds, but that’s not for me. I go to see a cheap Ikea bed being sold by a really sweet design student: it’s exactly the bed that my sister and I had agreed I should under no circumstances buy. But after trolling for five or six days, I find this bed. Again: nearby. Thanks to Range, I can pick it up myself. I pay $325 all in, which is more than I’d planned to spend on a bed but now I have a nice bed, which is a first. I just would’ve never bought a bed this nice new or even at retail used prices

Further and more importantly: yes, I had to drive and pick this up myself. But again that afforded me the chance to meet someone. Joseph and I chatted about his moving in with his girlfriend, my absolutely-not-moving-in with a girlfriend of any kind, some restaurant tips in West Hollywood and some guidance on good less-crowded beaches for surfing.

Lesson #4: Hold out for what feels right - sometimes you get really lucky
Chair: Some Kind of Upholstered Pneumatic Office Chair
I wanted a nice chair. I was talking to a broker; a guy who runs an online business that sells used office furniture through CL and other outlets. We were negotiating over this fancy office chair that sells for $800 or so new that he was selling for $250. I tried to get him to come down a little – everyone comes down a little on CL, sometimes more than a little – and he wouldn’t. He was weird about responding: delayed and elliptical and always all caps shouting. So the morning that I had sort of planned to go get the chair from him (but hadn’t yet heard from him to confirm), I took a quick look on CL. And less than 30 minutes later I was handing Hakim five dollars – FIVE DOLLARS – for a less fancy but very nice pneumatic adjustable office chair in great condition: clean, no scratches, no nothing. FIVE DOLLARS, for a chair that was a ten-minute drive away, from a dude whom I chatted with for ten minutes about my move and his favorite bars in Santa Monica.

Lesson #5: You can buy bikes with a clear conscience. But it’s hard.
I shared the common concern that I might be completing a market for stolen goods by buying on CL. The more I bought on CL, the more naïve this seemed. I definitely had a few interactions with people that seemed shady or off-rhythm. So I just dropped the communication and didn’t buy from them. I’m confident that, if anything, I was overly cautious and kyboshed transactions with some completely legitimate people.

But bikes were harder. I had been warned that they’d be harder, and they were. It was just the percentages: a much larger fraction of the posts seemed obviously shady, and I had many more off-kilter interactions. Including several with what I took to be obvious red flags: two sellers who disappeared entirely at requests for a serial number to check the bike against stolen bike registries, for instance. I had sort of given up, particularly because bikes are complicated toys and I don’t know much about mountain bikes. But I was lucky and had some help from awesome friends who kept trolling, so the happy if unexciting conclusion to this story is that once again CL delivers.

There is no way that Oleg and Marina stole these bikes. They invited me into their home. They had men’s and women’s bikes that fit each of them, and a new daughter and no time to use them. They commiserated with me about the fact that I had neither a wife nor a fiancé nor, no, not even a girlfirned who might be interested in buying the hers bike to match the his I was purchasing. Oleg laughed at me kindly when I offered my car keys for him to hold while I took the bike out for a test ride. They were just a married couple selling a bike, and my willingness to buy means that it got sold and means I got a really solid entry-level mountain bike for an approximately 50% discount.

I applaud you if transact on CL, and exhort you not to turn up your nose if you don’t. Be cautious and thoughtful and all of that, of course. But there’s good stuff. For cheap. I saved, by my estimate, around $2000. And you'll be part of a nice, sensible way of efficiently allocating unused stuff. It's a good marketplace! For me going forward, it’s always going to be the first stop.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


This is Range. You’re pleased to meet her.

I purchased Range for $3300 from my friends. She’s a 1993 Range Rover with a “Long Wheel Base” and a zillion miles on her. The price was going to be $3000, but then some work was required at the last minute so it got raised to $3300. And, within ten days of purchase, she needed to have her high-pressure hose (the one that conducts the power steering fluid from its reservoir) replaced because it was leaking for $220. So let’s put her price at $3520. If you look at the prices on this is not a great big steal, but it’s a pretty good price.

I suspect the Nada quote is misleading. I would’ve wound up spending more than that, and then more importantly because Range and I are in love. I like how high she sits: the heads of men in sports cars are literally beneath my knees; I’m looking down on them from the mezzanine. I like how Range drives: the shocks aren’t exactly pillowy, she’s loud and feels powerful and sure, particularly up canyon roads and craggy dirt roads, where the 4WD comes in. I want more of that, more offroading and tracks that require all four wheels.

Range has some heft on her, and the whole “just throw stuff in the back, it’ll fit” is practical and amazing. Bikes, scuba gear, furniture. A lot of freedom and flexibility comes with a big car.

Drawbacks as well, yes. Gas mileage: abysmal. Like 15mpg on the highway. Turning radius: very wide. Parallel parking only in large spaces. I see why people say “I wouldn’t want to have a big car” and sometimes I envy the drivers of zippy little whips.

But none of that matters when you find someone you really connect with. Range and I understand each other. She’s rusty and messy and banged up, but fundamentally sound and well-made. No fussiness or worry: dings and bangs and rust and scuff is already written all over her, so nothing cosmetic is going to change the picture. Her color is “Roman Bronze”, and it is great. It is Roman Bronze. She’s screwy: you have to wait for 30 seconds after turning the engine over to put her in drive. Why? I have no idea why, just wait for those little lights to off and you’re good. Rear hatch doesn’t lock. Rear right side window off its track, only goes up and down “manually” (grab window from both sides, muscle it). Sun roof really needs some WD40, which I can never remember to get.

All I need Range to do is run and be her bangaround rough-and-tumble self. She’s no jalopy – she’s Roman Bronze. And she’s a passport to things that are good things; to camping and mountains and biking and rivers. I’ll post any dramatic updates, but until informed otherwise she’s the one for me.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Some Thoughts on Wireless

note: "wireless" is a 2-syllable word.

Wireless video:
mistake. But wireless headset?
Worth the extra dough.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Supermans I and II and the Virtue of Aesthetic Forms

I almost certainly saw Superman as a kid, but I didn’t really remember it beyond certain iconic scenes and shots I’d seen since (“Who’s got you?!”). I watched it again recently; I enjoyed it a lot. Mostly I was moved and charmed by Reeves and Kidder: it really captured her sense of total wonder at him, which translated into my experiencing the wonder of him. “Superman”! A beautifully nice super man who flies and is so good! Magical, if it actually lands.

I also found the movie silly, maybe inevitably; I buy that Richard Donner deserves credit for making the film more serious and less silly than it might’ve otherwise been (and thereby clearing the way for Singer, Nolan, &.) but it still reads to me, now, as a bit goofy and campy.

I happily continued on, however, and watched Superman II, forgetting about the fact that there are different versions: one by Richard Donner and one by Richard Lester, the latter being the theatrical release after some Hollywood creative differences stuff between Donner and the films’ producers, the Salkinds. So I stumbled into the Lester version, and I was totally appalled. It’s a slapstick trivial mess, tonally very different from the first film and much less successful. The magic of the relationship between Lois and Superman, which really has elements of myth about it in the first movie (flaws and all), is brought down to a telenovela level of interest and complexity. Any rules about Superman’s abilities go out the window: he can just do anything (e.g., project giant red energy net “Superman S”s from his chest). All the corny gagsy bits with the pedestrians in the street, muttering funny things during the super-fights and losing hair pieces. It’s awful; upsetting and awful.

I sorted out the version thing and re-watched the Donner version, kind of suspecting that I might be overdoing this and wasting my time. I also watched the bonus features, which include an interview in which he tears up a little when he talks about being taken off the films, and about what might have been: how Lois and Superman’s relationship could have grown, in particular. Watching his version, I found that I was almost immediately captured by the same sense of lost history. The Donner cut of Superman II is a stronger movie than Superman. It integrates with the first narratively and stylistically in a deeply satisfying way – which is to be expected, since they were made as an integrated pair. Most of all, it builds on and enriches the Lois and Superman connection. This is due, again, in no small part to how just awesome both Reeves and Kidder are; the scene where she shoots him was the screen test, and they’re still both awesome. Its quality is mostly in the overall construction and tone of the film, though. By engaging me in those characters and that relationship, the film drew me into its wonder and epic-ness and I gave me a world that looks mostly like my own with a few notable exceptions. It’s a place that I, like Donner, am sorry I didn’t get to go back to more.

I’m choosing to write about this Lester/Donner version thing because I see it in terms of a problem of large commercial feature films gone wrong, which is in turn a facet of many failed creative efforts: a sense of not-thingness, of being just the aggregation of a bunch of creative workstreams, incentives, and market demands rather than the product of a vision. In addition to the fact that I personally found many of the elements of the Lester version annoying, the whole thing simply failed because those elements didn’t fit together to create an integrated whole. They were overlaid on Donner’s foundation, and none of it sat together at all. I don’t think this is a necessity of commercial film, by any means: Pixar makes movies that are very coherent and vision-y. I thought a nice thing about Avatar was how it also avoided this; say what you like about the script or facile political commentary, Avatar definitely has thing-ness: it’s the product of a unified and coherent vision and fits together as such.

When you sufficiently degrade the thing-ness of a thing, it becomes an insult to its category. I’m thinking of books now, particularly business books. Many of the books I had to read in business school were not really books; I don’t mean the textbooks, of course, or essay collections, which were naturally compendia and meant to be such.  I mean things that were supposed to be “books” in the sense that we generally conventionally mean it: long-form prose with an aesthetic, logical or narrative through-line. Things that are together with themselves. Even crazy books, books that are formally nuts, have this: Naked Lunch has it.
This is not to say that these non-book books contained no good content; being smart or elevated or “good” is not the essential quality that makes a book book. But piecemeal things put together with absolutely no regard for form are in important ways not “works”. I think that’s the key: with absolutely no regard for form. This may stem in part from biases I developed in grad school, but a total alienation from the integrity of aesthetic form seems to be to blame for a lot of aesthetic clanginess.

That’s all I’ve got on this. I think the upshot is to really be sure you get the Donner version if you ever watch or rewatch Superman II

Monday, April 25, 2011

They Did Not Want Karate

A good friend and I joke about this urban legend (maybe. check it out here) which boils down to a really tough karate expert asking a would-be assailant, in calm fashion, "Do you want karate?"

I was thinking of this as I set out from my fancy apartment in my fancy LA neighborhood to see if this already deeply satisfactory area was going to completely ace it by providing a good dojo in walking distance. I had found a place online that looked promising: it was a club, rather than a commercial dojo, and it practiced a form of karate related to the ones I'm familiar with. I was rehearsing little speeches in my head: explanations of how I had studied Shorin-Ryu (so different!) Karate and my progression through some belt ranks in two different forms of that school, and how I would ask if I could train with them instead of just watching this first day. I was also wondering if I'd even like Shotokan, which is what this dojo practiced - I've never done it but it's apparently pretty different from Shorin-Ryu.

All moot, however.

What I was met with, after awkwardly making my way through a chain link gate that looked like it was really meant to be locked, was a scene from a white-collar Caribbean prison after everyone has fled the city. Manicured grounds, gates everywhere, locked institutional buildings on a whole campus, playground, track. No karate. A maintenance man helpfully pointed me to the "bungalows" in the back (they were bungalows, he was right on) but had no idea about any karate. Some people were in an auditorium, but they were seated and holding scripts and one looked like he was about to play piano.

Martial Arts in Walking Distance #1: Fail. I told myself it was my own darn fault, but not even. I totally tried to call. Next: Krav Maga and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.