Monday, September 14, 2009

Streets of Fire

Dan bought me a bike today. And when I say a bike, I mean a road bike. Not a mountain bike, a touring bike, a cruiser or a hybrid bike. I am now the proud owner of a jet-black Cannondale Synapse Alloy 5, featuring “relaxed geometry and advanced vibration-damping properties.” Also, it cost about as much as my wedding gown.

Bikes have changed a lot since I was 161 and rode my 10-speed Schwinn Varsity in a road race in Mason, Ohio and came in second. For one thing, they are made of space-age materials, and the fact that my new bike is made primarily from aluminum and not carbon is, apparently, going to be a major source of humiliation for me. A carbon bike costs about twice as much as my new ride. Dan kept saying, “Here, lift this! Feel how light it is!” and I would lift the expensive bike, but the weight differential (approx. 20 ounces, as far as I could tell) was imperceptible to me. Bike snobs of the world, shun me.

My redemption will be in the “componentry”, as Dan calls it, or the “clicking stuff” as I call it. When I rode my Schwinn, as I recall, the shifter was a little metal thingy that sat on the right handlebar. It had the numbers 1 through 10 on it. Thus, you clicked to the number you wanted, and that was the gear you were in. Something like that. Now, the shifters are little paddles built right into the brake thingies.2 The little black paddle does one thing and the bigger one does something else, and the right one goes up and the left one goes down, or vice versa. Anyway that’s how you shift the thing.

And don’t get me started about the damn pedals. Did you know that bikers have to wear special shoes that they clip into special pedals so their feet are actually attached to the bike? Here’s me, falling over. Thud. I think this is written in the same Rulebook that dictates the long tight black padded shorts and the snug zip-up jersey with writing all over it that is supposed to make you look like you’ve been in the Tour de France even though you are riding down Foothill Boulevard past the Toyota dealership. But I digress.

Dan took me to Helen’s Cycles in Santa Monica, where I already know I am not going to be cool enough. I mean, come on, Santa Monica! We saw a dude drive up in a white Beemer convertible, unlit cigar hanging out of his mouth, white polo shirt with the collar flipped up, stacked little female companion by his side. He was like a tv character, seriously. Like maybe the cocky film producer who gets decapitated on CSI.

But Dan bought his bike there and really likes the place. He's become a real expert on bikes since he took up road riding with his sons; he tends to become an expert at everything he gets interested in. He took some cooking classes with Sam: ask him about pasta making sometime.

So we go in to look at this one Cannondale that’s on sale, and after a while I am out on the street test riding bikes. Damon, our sales person, talks technical stuff with Dan – “so this one has 105s, not Tiagras” “the head tube is a little longer, I think it fits her better” – while I pedal up and down a side street and try not to look foolish.

“How do you like this one? How does it feel?”

Dan wants me to get a bike sooo bad. He is already picturing the two of us out on the road, touring wine country perhaps, or cruising down the PCH.3

“It’s good,” I say. I have ridden exactly two Cannondale bikes, up and down the same side street in Santa Monica, and the main thing I am thinking is “wow, this seat is really crushing my lady business”. But I also want a bike. I want to recapture the feeling of complete freedom, riding through the countryside in Mason4, the wind in my hair5; I also want to be able to climb two flights of stairs without panting, and riding a bike is the only form of exercise that appeals to me whatsoever. So I say, “It’s better than the other one. I like it.”

He tells me it’s an excellent bike. I am completely dependent on him as far as this purchase goes. I look at Damon helplessly and say, “It’s like taking a 12 year old to a car dealership.” And even though it’s a bit more than we wanted to spend, Dan gets it for me. And then he gets me the bike computer. And the bike bag with the spare tire in it. And a pump and two water bottles that attach to the bike frame, and a new helmet, and some lights for the front and back, and some of those obnoxious padded shorts (which my lady business will appreciate, I’m sure).6 Oh yeah, and some gloves. Damon magnanimously takes 10 percent off the accessories for him.7 We load the bike into the minivan, and all the way home I map out the places I am going to ride. Good thing Dan’s driving.

Now we’re home, and it’s dark out, and I am actually looking forward to getting up early and going for a ride. Which, if you know me, is a miracle. Look for me on Foothill Boulevard; I’ll be the one wearing bike shorts and a Springsteen t-shirt.

11978. Same year I saw Bruce on the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour. Damn good year.

2 Give me a couple of weeks, I’ll know the right names for all this stuff.

3 I, on the other hand, expect to be cruising around the Rose Bowl parking lot.

4 Which has long since been razed and paved and overdeveloped into “Cincinnati’s Top Suburb”. I’m not lying. I was there recently, and they have banners flying along Tylersville Road, where I used to ride, crowing this great honor recently bestowed by Cincy Magazine.

5 You didn’t wear helmets back then unless you were in a race. It was awesome.

6 I did not get the Tour de France shirt, or the special shoes and pedals. Yet.

7 Which just about covers the 9.75% sales tax in L.A. County.

Life and Flames

"Among the notable things about fire is that it also requires oxygen to burn - exactly like its enemy, life. Thereby are life and flames so often compared." ~Otto Weininger

Monday, August 31st, 2009.

I am standing on a hotel balcony overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It is dark. I can hear the steady soothing crash of the waves, and although it is one of my favorite places to be, tonight in my mind’s eye I can also see the ocean turning into a monster, pounding at the earth that confines it. I look at the ocean and I can see fury, because today I left fury behind: a slow-moving, insidious fury that burned and choked La Crescenta, the town where I live and breathe, the place I call home.

It’s been burning since Wednesday. On the news tonight they said the Station Fire was over 164 square miles, the size of Las Vegas. Every morning we awoke to sick yellow haze and floating ash-flakes, delicate and light as snowflakes, lighting on our clothes and hair and cars but not melting, just sitting there, gray and dirty and toxic and sneering. The ash fell and the air was thick and we coughed and stayed inside. Each day we coped; each night we stood with our neighbors and pointed at the flames up the hill, wondering what would happen next.

Sunday morning, I started to feel like my bronchial tubes were trying to claw through my chest. Sunday night, my friend Becki and her family were on Day Two of mandatory evacuation from their house, a mile up the hill from us. Sunday night another friend told me about the 2 a.m. wake-up robocall telling her to evacuate. Sunday night I stopped watching the flames, turned off the news, took an ativan and surrendered.

Sleep is a wonderful thing, when your body is worn down from an oxygen-starved environment and the effort of keeping things normal for your kids, even though normal surrounded by fire is kind of like birthday cake surrounded by ninjas: things you haven’t had to deal with simultaneously before. Plus you probably haven’t ever personally dealt with ninjas, either.

So Sunday night I was sleeping soundly, as you can imagine, when the phone rang at 2:17 a.m. Before I even checked the caller ID, I knew what it was. LA CO SHERIFF said the phone. This is a mandatory evacuation, said the robovoice.

But it was a mistake. Somebody had pushed the wrong button. Within 25 minutes of our first fumblings with refugee status, we learned that we could stay. Within 5 minutes of that determination, I was asleep again, this time on the couch, because the bedroom smelled like smoke from the trips out to the garage. Dan tells me he got the “oops” robocall after I went back to sleep. Didn’t hear a thing. Yay, ativan.

I was in a peaceful, floaty dream when Dan came out to the living room cradling Alabama, our old cat, and whispering urgently, “Leanne, you need to wake up. Bama’s dying.”

Now, coming out of a deep sleep, it sounded a bit like “Emma’s dying,” and Emma is my 8-year-old daughter, and I was just about to scream when he said “she was under the bed and howling” and I realized it was the cat, who’s been very sick with kidney disease. She was 16 and probably couldn’t take the bad air.

It was 6:30 a.m. on Monday, day six of the fire, and I took one look at her and knew this was it. The vet’s office was not yet open, and the emergency vet was too far away. We wrapped her in a towel and Dan held her and she trembled slightly, her eyes blank. I caressed her sweet black head and whispered in her ear, “I love you Bama, thank you for being the best mama kitty,” and she gasped three little gasps and was still. I nuzzled her anyway and we were silent, and my hand crept over her chest and made sure there was no heartbeat and no breath and Dan said, “I think she’s gone.”

Numb, I made a fresh pot of coffee while Dan dug a deep hole beneath the bougainvillea in the back yard near her favorite sunning spot and we buried her right away, before the kids were awake.

The radio was on, and the dire news reports about the fire were more of the same. Raging out of control. Air quality was “borderline hazardous”. The evacuations started 4 blocks north of us. And fire crews were planning to set controlled burns at the top of our street in an attempt to keep the blaze from destroying homes in our area.

I sat listless on the couch, clutching my coffee, tears in my eyes, but I was too tired for even the effort it took to sob. Dan sat down next to me.

“I’ve been thinking. I’m going to take the day off. Let’s go to the beach.”

Alabama died at 7:20. By nine we had booked a room at a lovely hotel in Oxnard, right on the beach. By 11 a.m. the kids and the bags were in the van. I stopped at Baja Fresh for a big iced tea, got some cash, gassed up and drove as fast as I could away from the smoke and fury in my beautiful mountains.

It’s now exactly 12 hours since we hit the freeway. Dan spent the day with us poolside in the cool, clean air, and we all had dinner by the harbor. We had ice cream and watched the sunset. Dan went back to take care of the dogs and the house.

The kids are asleep. My lungs are lighter by small degrees, and I sit on the balcony listening to the waves.

But I’ve watched an out of control fire from my front yard, and I’ve held my kitty as she died, and it’s taking a little more effort for me to feel comforted and not overwhelmed by nature. So I close my eyes and breathe. It’s good to breathe.