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Dear friends,
Hope you are all well. It gives me much pleasure to write to you after a long time with a story about my trip to San Francisco in the summer. I was going through a difficult time last year and around August decided to take a break from work and life in DC for two weeks. It turned out to be a very good decision. I have written about the things that I found interesting during this trip, which is almost everything :-) Hope you find it interesting to read. It took me the last ten weekends and thirty pages over assorted pastries in several coffeehouses around town. Here then, is all the angst, all the euphoria, all the heart opening and soul searching, uncut and uncensored. Only you can tell me how it all hangs together. I can't bear to read it anymore :-) Look forward to hearing from you, whether you have any frank comments about this or just to let me know how you are doing.

Yours,


Sankar
P.S: Word document attached. This is also my first multimedia presentation :-) You can see the annotated pictures related to various things in this story on http://www.flickr.com/photos/sankarx/

Click on “San Francisco pics” after you get there. [Make sure you set your options to “view title and description” if viewing as slideshow].


Of Cats and Men
Preface

8/25/07
Hope the summer is treating you all well. If you have any pets I hope they are doing well, too. It gives me much pleasure to write to you, as I sit here at Crumbs and Coffee enjoying free wi-fi, a banana and a cup of skim milk (total: $2.50), life passing by in front of me on Columbia Road.


When I was a poor graduate student (as opposed to a poor associate professor) at CalTech I rented a room in an old lady’s house in Pasadena for a year. Roberta was in her late seventies, feisty as a terrier, living independently and managing four rental houses in downtown LA on her own. She lived with four cats, named Sita, Lea, Tammy and Prissy (in the order of her adoration) and a yellow mutt named Robbie (after herself) who she claimed was a Sheltie-Collie and Labrador mix. Robbie and I got along very well. I took him for walks, let him run in the park and endured his constant licking in awkward places. But the cats were a different story. Only once during that whole year did one of them, namely Sita, slip into my room and stay there. She kept me awake for a good part of the night by making her bed on top of my blanket. (Roberta said that it meant she thought I was special, and that I must feel very honored). I figured cats didn’t care much about anything, spending most of their time lounging and staring at nothing in particular. As far as I was concerned they might have been living in a different planet.
Now I know that I was wrong to dismiss them like that. If you wish to know exactly how wrong, please go ahead and read this story of my ten day trip to San Francisco. Oh, by the way, San Francisco is a great city. There is much about that, too.
Of Cats and Men

8/25/07
It was getting close to the end of summer, and I was getting restless and ready to get out of DC for a little while. My good friend Chris who used to be in DC had been asking me to visit him and his fiancé Rachel in San Francisco for sometime. He moved there a few years ago. Once I was talking to him about going on a retreat somewhere and he told me I could stay in his place, taking care of the house and their cat while they were away. I thought this summer might be a good time but kept putting off booking a flight because I wanted to finish the math problem I was working on. By the end of July I felt worn out, physically, emotionally and spiritually by work and by life in general. Though I was making progress on the problem I was nowhere close to finishing it, and beginning to see diminishing returns. Unfortunately due to our conflicting schedules I was going to be able to spend only one day with him. Nevertheless, I felt that it was worth it. Who knew when the next opportunity would arise? I’d be visiting him in San Francisco for the first time and my visit could also be of some help to them.


Thus it was that I ended up spending a week all by myself in his house with his cat while he and Rachel were away touring New England. As we discussed my visit he told me about all the wonderful places to see and things to do around San Francisco. I told him that my plan was to do absolutely nothing. No work, no social activities, no TV or spending time on the Internet and e-mail. In other words, a complete break from life in DC. I did want to do some biking and spend time at the beach but mostly a lot of rest and recuperation. He warned me that San Francisco in August was pretty chilly and though his house was close to the beach one probably wouldn’t be able to go swimming. He also kindly offered me the use of his bike. I wanted to carry as little as possible and was glad to hear that he had a washing machine in the house. I surprised myself by managing to use just half of my small backpack to put everything that I needed. I did pack a sweater, though.
I set out on a warm Thursday afternoon on the first leg of my journey taking the metro train and then a bus to BWI airport. I arrived with just over half an hour to departure but found that the plane had been delayed by an hour. Then I had a quick burrito at Zona Mexicana, which was packed to capacity with other passengers waiting for their planes, sharing a table with a friendly and well built businessman type who spent the whole time twiddling with his blackberry. We agreed that such delays could be helpful by letting us do things that we otherwise didn’t get time to do. After I got done with the burrito I returned to the gate only to find that the flight had been delayed by another hour.
So then I went to the bookstore looking for a book to gift Chris. I got Kurt Vonnegut’s “A man without a country” and went around looking for a place to sit down and read. It took some walking before I found a place because there were people sitting everywhere - along the walls, on the steps, on the floor. Looks like a big weather system had thrown the air traffic in the northeast into complete chaos and people had been waiting for hours. Considering all the mess and frayed nerves I must say most people behaved admirably. I saw one woman break down sobbing and a man demand that he get to speak to a supervisor. I must also credit the Southwest personnel for their patience and down to earth handling of everything.
I ended up waiting about five hours, and managed to finish reading Vonnegut’s book. “This was as close to a memoir as he has written,” said the blurb. So it was a very informal book, and hence perhaps more intimate. You shouldn’t read it if you hope to feel good about America. But if you enjoy dark humor and brutal honesty then you’ll find plenty in it. Whether or not it cheers you up, it will grab you by the boots and shake you up. Basically he felt that the current way of life in America as well as the policies of its government are destroying the planet and exploiting the poor. (By the way, do you know why George Washington is buried on the side of a hill? I don’t either, but Vonnegut quotes this apparently well-known joke as an example of how fear is behind a lot of humor).
While waiting I ran into my colleague Dick and his wife, traipsing along the hallways, seemingly enjoying the delay as well. To be more precise they ran into me. Dick seemed to be in a rather good mood. They had been waiting for their plane to Albuquerque, along with their daughter. Finally after waiting for five hours I arrived in Phoenix around 1 am, only to be told that the next flight is not until 7 am. The ticketing agent managed to get me the last remaining seat on the 7 am flight to Oakland. I called Chris to let him know of the situation. Then I slept continually, slouched in a chair near an escalator. Perhaps the reason that I hold on to the handrails while using escalators these days is that for several hours I was sitting, sometimes awake, sometimes dreaming, while an electronic voice drilled “Caution! Hold on to the handrails’ into my ears the whole time. In the early morning I went for a little walk outside, enjoying the desert air and the giant cacti. I got a nice view of the whole valley from the top of the parking garage.
Finally, my 18 hour odyssey ended when I arrived at Oakland airport. It was almost as long as a trip to India. What a relief it was to see Chris at the airport! He seemed as affectionate and pleasant as ever. As soon as we got out of the airport, I exclaimed “Wow, it is so cold” and he said “It is such a nice, warm day!” almost simultaneously. He was talking most of the way, excitedly describing the sights along the way. We spent some time at his office and then drove to his house. His house is almost near the top of a hill, about 500 feet above sea level. The roads leading to his home were frighteningly steep. Of course, it all was absolutely normal to him. Just before reaching his house he took me up a long, steep flight of stairs to the top of the hill and we had a stunning panoramic view of the beach, the bay, the golden gate bridge, downtown, and the hills of Twin Peaks.
After we got home Chris showed me around the house and introduced me to Margo. Margo is a black, white and dark grey tabby named after Margo Timmins of the rock group Cowboy Junkies. “So this is whom you are going to take care of,” he said, stroking her neck. He then had to wash his hands because Rachel had put some flea poison on her. Margo gave me a rather indifferent look but it didn’t feel unfriendly. It might not have been love at first sight but she didn’t seem to be a bad sort. Looked like we might get along fine. “The poison has made her kind of lethargic,” Chris added. “Normally she is very social. You guys will be okay in a few days.” I decided to let her come to me if she wanted, rather than approach her directly. As I said before, I had this notion that cats didn’t give a damn about people anyway. Also lately I have been feeling burnt by the direct approach, especially with females. Not that I am capable of anything else but at least I can be judicious about the kind of person I inflict myself upon.
One of the reasons that Roberta the old lady in Pasadena (who rented a room for me) liked cats was their independence. An ardent Anglophile (like most Americans, I think), she loved English customs and manners and liked the fact that her independent nature was reinforced by the cats. Especially Sita, her favorite. Apparently cats got to be this way from the manner in which they approached humans from the wild. Scientists think that unlike dogs, they were not taken up and domesticated by humans. But rather they took up residence amongst humans because humans brought grains that in turn attracted rodents. Chris thinks that it could also be a carry over from the solitary hunting habits of their wild ancestors. I too, love and treasure my independence. I looked forward to several days of quiet solitude, just sitting and doing nothing in particular, while Margo did the same in her own universe.
In the afternoon I slept for a few hours and when I woke up Rachel had already arrived. It was the first time I had ever met her and by the end of the trip I felt really happy that Chris had found someone like her. Of course, he seemed to be a bit more domesticated but I guess that goes with the territory. We cooked dinner together -in fact I had offered to either take them out to dinner or cook for them. When he was a bachelor in DC Chris lived almost entirely on smoothies (sometimes I suspected that he lived just on air). So I was pleasantly surprised when he cooked up a tempeh dish that would have done any gourmet restaurant proud while the broccoli curry dish that I cooked with much ado ended up disastrously, starting with the burnt split peas. “They make it taste a little crispy,” consoled Rachel. We were joined at dinner by their neighbor Lisa who works from home and often takes care of Margo while Chris and Rachel are away.
After a quick tour of the house and instructions for living in and taking care of their house and Margo (notice how I no longer mention her as a cat) they got busy packing while I fell asleep on the couch. Apparently Margo is able to tell when they are getting ready to leave from all the packing activity and this made her especially sad. In the morning as we got ready to go to the airport I saw Rachel kiss and say good-bye to her as we would with a child or other family member. It was still a mystery to me the special bond that seems to exist between women and cats. Then we drove to the airport in the foggy early morning, Rachel at the wheel. As we got further from the city, the fog cleared up.
Now a word about fog. There is a restaurant in San Francisco called “Fog city diner.” Most of us have seen fog at some point in our lives. But until you have been to San Francisco you haven’t really experienced it. You will see the city groping its way through the fog as you wake up, as sure as the rising sun. In fact, it is more likely to be foggy than sunny. During the nine days that I was there, only three were mostly sunny. More on fog later.
After leaving Chris and Rachel I drove their car back to their house. The trip was not a problem except for the steep climb up the hill to Chris’ house on Funston Ave. It was steeper than any road I had driven on recently and I had to just focus on keeping my foot on the accelerator and my mind off the possibility of rolling backwards. I drove the car into the garage and went upstairs. Margo was at the door and everything seemed to be alright. It felt wonderful to sit on the lounge chair, with a view of the street going down the hill and the Golden gate park and bridge and the hills of Marin peninsula beyond the waters. The neighborhood was very quiet and the silence felt precious. I felt a big wave of relief and looked forward to a week of complete rest and peace.
Unfortunately I couldn’t just sit around all day. This being Saturday I had to go the temple. It was something I had promised to my mother and to myself. I felt a little groggy from the early waking-up and still a bit fatigued from the trip from DC and aforementioned weariness. But after a bit of rest I started preparing. The previous day I had looked up the Internet while in Chris’ office and found a few Hindu temples in the bay area. But now that I had a taste of silence I felt so averse to all the noise and movement that I decided not to drive or use the computer for the entire stay. Even if it meant I had to lug everything up the hill and bike or use the train to go everywhere, and had to wade through a pile of e-mail upon returning to DC.
I remembered that one of them, the Palaniswamy temple, was on Sacramento Ave in San Francisco, while the rest were far from the city. But I didn’t remember the exact address and the phone book was no help. So because of my determination to avoid car and computer I decided to simply bike Sacramento Ave from its beginning not far from Chris’ house to its end in downtown on the waterfront. It sounds like unnecessary masochism but such was my need for a change and recovery from the stress of the past several months. I felt that using a car or computer would have destroyed the whole purpose of this trip. Anyway, total roundtrip distance was about 15 miles and it seemed like it would be a pleasant ride. I got Chris’ bike from the garage and started going down Funston Ave, which is really 13th Ave but so named to avoid bad luck.
From where Chris’ house sits almost at the top of Funston Ave to Judah street is about five blocks and almost entirely downhill. You look down and you will be staring at a vertical drop of about 500 feet, at a grade of more than 10% in some places. The ornate pink towers of St. Anne’s church rise up from across the rail line on Judah street, and the road flattens out a little bit from there towards the Golden gate park. If you have biked in DC, you would think that you have seen quite a few hills and steep roads. But the fact is that you probably won’t see a road with anything close to a 10% grade in DC. Since coming back from San Francisco I have been going around DC in search of hills and so far I haven’t found one that is anywhere nearly as intimidating. What you have here are rolling hills, and they feel practically flat in comparison.
Exactly once before in my life I remember encountering this kind of a road. That was in rural Pennsylvania in the summer of 2001, when I spent about ten weeks in a similarly secluded state, enjoying the silence and taking a break from city life. I lived in a country house near Strausstown, halfway between Harrisburg and Allentown. From that house you could see some hills of the Appalachian mountain range, across interstate 78. On the other side of the hills was Pottsville, and a state road goes through Strausstown and over the hills, crossing the Appalachian trail on the way. One day I biked up the hill, hiked a little bit on the trail, and then started going back home down the hill. A sign warned truckers that the road grade was 6% . That is not a whole lot, really, but as the road starts winding down and you continue going at 6%, pretty soon, i.e, within twenty or thirty seconds, the constant pull of gravity accelerates your bike to speeds of 40, even 50 mph. I am comfortable at 30 to 40 mph but beyond that I have little experience and I started pulling on the brakes. But it felt like the brakes were having no effect whatsoever. That is when I lost my nerve and started pulling the brakes with all my strength for what felt like an eternity of heart-pounding terror. To cut a long story short the bike did stop eventually and I learned to apply the brakes enough to control the descent and managed to reach home safely and live to write this story today.
Well, it seems to me such traumatic experiences remain embedded in the subconscious, and emerge instantaneously when anything remotely connected to those events takes place. It could be a sight, a sound, a smell…Now, as I sat on top of the hill surveying the plunging road under the wheels, I was excited, slightly nervous, but not intimidated. After all, there are plenty of hills in DC, right? But the moment I released the brakes the bike started hurtling down paying no attention to me whatsoever and it was déjà vu all over again. That ride in Pennsylvania flashed in my brain. But this time I knew what to do. Besides, there were stop signs at the end of each block. So I basically rode the brakes all the way down to keep the speed manageable .
My ride to Sacramento ave took me through Golden gate park and then the neighborhoods of Western addition, Pacific heights, Nob hill and Chinatown. Normally when I visit a different city and start going around it is very exciting and the mind is filled with wonder and curiosity. But in my current state of mind I just wanted to go up and down Sacramento Ave, hopefully visit the temple and go home and enjoy the silence and the company of Margo. This feeling caught me by surprise. I didn't know where that came from. I could only hope that this was just the combination of fatigue and the comforting knowledge that there would be someone there when I go home, even if it were just a cat. There was a fear creeping in me that it could also be that I was getting weary of life itself. I did start enjoying the ride and the sights as the day wore on, though, so perhaps my fears were unfounded.
And yes, there was much to see and experience along the way. San Francisco, to me, felt as much as an experiment as a city, and life there more of an exploration of what is possible in human society than just working and living and raising a family. I hope that will become clear as I describe more about my stay there, but on this day I was content to just pass by and enjoy it as if it were a silent movie playing in the distance. It was pleasant to bike on streets that were modified to accommodate bikes, and not have to jostle with cars and aggressive drivers. Especially so inside the park, with its many museums and gardens and people out walking, just enjoying the day. It is true, what they say, life in the west coast of the US is more relaxed. On the east coast you see people biking or walking and they look like they are trying to accomplish some major task. They want to make sure they get the most relaxation and enjoyment out of the walk, and get all worried if the walk is not going as pleasantly and care-free as they had hoped. They get especially annoyed if you make some noise or get in their way or otherwise upset their frantic quest for tranquility. Out in the west, people actually seem to be out walking or biking merely for the fun of it, just enjoying themselves. I also noticed a generally feminine sensibility about the whole place, starting with the ubiquitous spas, salons, massage parlors and acupuncture clinics and expressed in the pastel colors, well-tended gardens and artistically rich architecture of its buildings.
I biked almost all the way down Sacramento Ave and couldn't locate the temple. Towards the end my hopes were raised a bit by the many Buddhist temples and churches and other religious places. But I couldn't find the temple, even though I checked the street again on the way back. So I quit worrying about it and started enjoying the sights. Near the waterfront where the street ended it got very interesting. Here there were streets that went down at a 20% grade. I am not exaggerating. This was beyond intimidating. I didn't want to even try to go downhill at that grade. Imagine a ramp that was as steep as one of those endless escalators in the Washington subway such as Woodley Park or Wheaton. That will give you some idea. It may make a good place for a movie stunt scene or good practice for a Sherpa but there was no way I was going to do it. On such sections I would simply walk the bike downhill and saw others doing the same.
Adding to my circumspection was the fact that the bike was not in such a great shape. Even when he showed it to me Chris pointed out its various problems, chief among which were the front brakes. The levers slid down the handlebar sometimes so that first you had to locate them before you could apply them. Later I found that the brake pads were also well worn out. Chris is a willowy wisp of a man but he has absolutely no fear. When we went hiking with him on the Billy goat trail along the Potomac he went bouncing over the rocks like, well, a billy goat. I don't know how he bikes up and down those streets on a regular basis.
But I did manage to go up one such section of Sacramento Ave, near Mason Street. It brought moments of white-knuckle fear, when I had to just hold my nerve and keep chugging up the slope. But I did manage to make it all the way up on pedal power alone. It also made me realize that my nerves were not in great shape, that my mind was indeed worn down from life in DC.
You don't realize how your circumstances affect you until you get out of them and immerse yourself in new and different circumstances, facing new challenges. Also as you get older you become wiser at picking your battles. Sometimes it is better to simply retreat and conserve your resources to fight another day. That is what I decided I would do for the next couple of days. Just rest and let the body and mind heal.
[If you are not into mind, body and spirit and that sort of stuff then you might be better off scrolling past the next few paragraphs]. Over the next two days I stayed home most of the time, trying to calm down the tired yet restlessly running mind, relax the strained nerves and awaken the sleeping spirit. I made a deliberate decision not to ride the bike or walk in crowded places, in addition to continuing to not drive, watch TV or check e-mail.
When your mind and senses are not constantly engaged by the external world, there is an initial feeling of imprisonment. There is a feeling of restlessness, a need to do something. Like a dog scratching the walls or chewing on shoes, one grabs onto whatever there is to read or see, an advertisement in a shopping pamphlet, the shape of the clouds, anything that normally one would not even rotate the neck for. But once you pass this withdrawal phase you realize that the reality is quite the opposite. It is the world that has been holding you hostage, not allowing the mind to break free and the spirit to soar, making you run like a lab rat on a wheel. Of course it is possible to live in the world as master of one’s own senses and mind. As the Gita says, the mind and the senses are like the horses pulling a chariot. The reins are in your hands, and it is possible to hold them and drive them where you want to go. But most of us are not there yet, and I might not be writing this if I were.


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