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I took up regular walking because I needed to tend my physical self better. Most weeks, I walk five days, and usually, I’m walking around San Francisco. I took it up as exercise for the body, but it’s turned out to be an important spiritual practice too.

Walking brings things into focus that just aren’t visible from a car or bus, or even a bike. I start to wonder: why is there so much trash in the street in this neighborhood, and not in that neighborhood? Do the street cleaners skip this block sometimes? Do people just throw more stuff onto the sidewalk here? The city trash cans are often overflowing on this block–why is that?

A street planted with trees feels completely different than an otherwise identical street one block over.

The city’s many murals become intricate paintings at a walking pace. I’m in an art gallery now.

Walking creates enough small encounters to fill a Jim Jarmusch movie. One afternoon as dark was falling, I passed an apartment building and heard a woman in the stairway crying as if her heart were breaking. I paused for a long time, pulled between sympathy and respect for the privacy so hard to come by in city dwelling, unsure whether to venture up the steps and ask if she was okay. I resumed walking; my own heart stayed at that building for the rest of the evening. Another time I passed a couple standing still on the sidewalk, holding each other, eyes open, not speaking, not kissing.

Walking along the San Jose Expressway, where walking is not encouraged (the sidewalk ran out), I could peek into back yards that are a few meters from rushing traffic. Some houses predate the expressway and clearly used to have a quieter yard; others were built later than the road. One of these has a balcony; its view is four busy lanes, and I wonder whether anyone has ever sat out there.

On that walk, I discovered a pathway that meanders behind the houses for a few blocks along the expressway. I had had no idea. It was like entering a secret world. That was the kind of walk I like best: I set out in a new direction, just taking streets as the names take my fancy, allowing myself to get lost and then find my way back home. I can’t get lost for long before I come to a street with a familiar name, but I feel like an explorer anyway. One house has its Christmas tree up in the front window (it’s November 15). This whole block has a sweet, Hobbiton feel to it, and I muse a while before I figure out why: to enter a house, you pass through an archway and up a roofed set of steps. It makes everything feel cozy.

Behind these walls, people are sleeping, talking, watching television, eating, making love, worrying, reading. It seems both odd and fitting that each of these stories is playing out just feet from another one, with nothing separating them but a wall and almost complete ignorance of the other’s existence. Sometimes I think about the beings in the houses; sometimes I speak a prayer in my mind for each one, wishing them well. Other times I’m miles away, listening to the podcast that comes through the earbuds into my head. Those stories aren’t really any farther than the ones right here.

I walk a tiny circuit, a few miles of this planet, a twisted line beginning and ending at my own house, all on a bit of concrete someone poured and called the sidewalks of San Francisco. When I get to the end of my journey, I’ve traveled in more than space.


In my “43 goals for year 43” I promised myself I’d fly a kite this year. I bought one, ostensibly for the munchkin, almost two years ago; Joy and I were enjoying a lovely couple-alone weekend in Bodega Bay, freed by our dear friend Wendy’s taking our daughter into her home for a couple of days, and of course we mostly talked about Munchkin and bought her a couple of presents. She was really too young for a kite, but I picked out one I thought she’d like–a ladybug–and explained to her what it was. We brought it to the beach on one glorious day several weeks ago, but it was so glorious that there wasn’t enough wind to raise a kite. Yesterday we took a trip to Venice Beach, in Half Moon Bay, and this time the kite flew.

photo by Joy Morgenstern

It was so simple, so unthrilling, really. The munchkin gave it a single smile and then went on with the more exciting business of writing in the sand. Joy said, “Yep, it’s a kite.” I’d deliberately bought a very simple kite, fearing that a two-string trick jobbie would be beyond us. Once it was flying and I’d admired it for a moment, there was nothing to do but tie up the string and read my book or look at the ocean (which meant turning my back on the kite, since of course the wind was coming from the water).

But I kept looking up at it, feeling very moved, and it wasn’t until then that I realized why I had even cared about flying a kite, and why I’d thought of it as a difficult thing to accomplish. It has to do with the kite that hung in the back of my closet through all of my growing up. I have no recollection of ever flying that or any kite in my life. Maybe I did at some point and have forgotten, but what I chiefly remember about kites is frustration. We bought it and tried it at a local park; it didn’t fly; it came back home and sat in the closet for the next umpteen years, a silent reminder of a bit of fun that, literally, didn’t get off the ground. At some point a friend and I made another one of paper and string, but of course that had even less of a chance of working. We probably only had bad luck at that day at the park, but kite-flying stuck in my mind as something tricky and elusive.

It wasn’t a big deal; I haven’t borne a kite-shaped scar on my soul for 35 years; but clearly it was a little piece of unfinished business. Yesterday it was finished, and a small sorrow was replaced with a small, sweet blessing. A lot of my life with my wife and daughter is like that.

photo by Lin Kristensen; used with permission (Creative Commons)

I have always been an avid rereader. My dad, who in my childhood was forever introducing me to new authors he thought I’d like (to my everlasting gratitude), would see me reading Sal Fisher at Girl Scout Camp yet again and give a groan of despair. It didn’t take me long to notice that he did a lot of rereading himself, though, although I admit that The Tempest is more likely to turn up new subtleties on the fourth reading than Sal Fisher.

I do reread books to squeeze more juice out of them, though that’s not the only reason. I just like visiting with an old friend. If I liked them once, I’ll like them again, and I’ll laugh with an extra pleasure at the funny lines, as one does when reminded just how funny an old friend can be (I’m looking at you, Lawrence Block), and the sad parts have an extra poignancy when I know they’re coming but the characters don’t. The books I reread regularly tend to be the ones that had a strong effect on me the first time I read them, and also feature characters with whom I want to spend more time: To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee), Animal Dreams (Barbara Kingsolver), American Gods (Neil Gaiman), The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett), The Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula K. LeGuin), and The Dispossessed (ditto) come to mind. Now that I’ve discovered the pleasures of Austen and Dickens, I think they’re going to become frequent rereads. But don’t be deceived by the depth of these books. I reread Terry Pratchett, not just the ones that really moved me or made me think (which tend to rise immediately to the rank of my favorites: Small Gods, Feet of Clay, Jingo, Reaper Man), but all of them, because he makes me laugh.

I also reread mysteries, which may seem particularly bizarre, but as I don’t read mysteries in order to figure out the puzzle in the first place (since I never can), knowing whodunnit doesn’t diminish the enjoyability. In fact, I am particularly drawn to the ones with the unforgettable solution, such as any one of Agatha Christie’s best, because I can watch how she’s laying clues and red herrings and know that I would never, ever spot them on my own. It’s like watching a magician at work after he’s shown you how the trick is done: the magic is not diminished, but doubled.

Rereading is a bit of a drug. Several months after moving and unpacking most of our books, we finally got the mysteries and scifi on their shelves, and my new reading has slowed way down as I read old favorites. More challenging things stay on my “currently reading” list for a couple of weeks, even though I’m a fast reader, because on a Sunday afternoon when I want to do nothing but veg, I reread Lawrence Block’s Burglar books (and oh how I wish he would write a few more. I don’t care if the places Bernie Rhodenbarr chooses to burgle have an improbably high murder rate rivalling St. Mary Mead’s, I just want to spend another 200 pages with him). In the months when the mind candy was still in boxes, I read more new-to-me fiction than in any period of my adulthood–with the possible exception of last spring, when I also read a lot of new stuff, and for the same reason: we were living in Mexico and had no access to the hundreds of already-read books that usually line our walls, and getting a book out of the library that I own and have already read seemed silly. It has been really great to read so much new stuff, and as my mortality presses on me–my gray hairs multiply, my daughter leaps from newborn to four-year-old in a moment, people my age die–I become ever more aware of the profundity of the t-shirt slogan: “So many books, so little time.”

I recently learned that some people don’t reread very often, and so I wonder: Do you reread a lot? Any books or genres in particular? What makes you pick up a book for a second, third, fourth, umpteenth time–or not? What are you reading or rereading now?

ETA: Welcome to everyone who found their way here via Freshly Pressed, and thanks for all the comments!  I’m sorry I can’t respond as fast as you can comment, but I’m loving hearing about what you all reread, or don’t.  And d’oh, Harry Potter is definitely on my frequently-read list.  I’ve read each one at least three times, and some many more than that, since discovering the series in 2000.

In my 43/43 goals, I planned to walk the Civil Rights Half Marathon in January, 2011, in San Francisco. However, it clearly isn’t going to happen (I guess the organizers quit), so I’ve been looking for other races, and I’ve found the one I want to train for: the Canyon Meadow Trail Run, in Redwood Regional Park in Oakland, the first Saturday in June. It’s a serious hike, so I’ll be glad of the long, slow leadup–giving myself six months to become able to walk 13.1 miles with an 1900′  elevation gain sounds good. Training in San Francisco should do nicely.

So, I’ve laid out a training schedule, and begin on Monday. Whee!

It took several weeks, but I finally checked out one of the non-instructional figure drawing sessions nearby. The session is held every Monday morning for three hours, and it’s a pleasant walk from the 24th and Mission BART station. If all the models are as good as today’s, I’m going to want to go every week. The lighting on strong musculature, and the props (ropes for the model to hold on to, allowing for very interesting standing and leaning poses), took it to a whole new level. Based on the owner’s warm welcome today and his teaching philosophy as outlined on his website and an American Artist interview, I’d love to take a class with him sometime, too, but the available times aren’t good right now.

So this was my day off so far: I went and drew for three hours, walked back to Mission Street, and finished reading Cat’s Eye over a lunch of ceviche tostadas. Yum on all counts.

Along the way, I stopped to browse at the outlet of a favorite clothing source, which I discovered by chance is right here a couple of blocks from that same BART station. The last thing I need is more clothes, but I do like them, and I’m going to use it as a reward: when I’ve gotten rid of those boxes full of old papers and stuff that are clogging up the garage, I can buy myself a few things there. It’s funny how we create these little games for ourselves. “Write for half an hour more and you can play a computer game.” It worked for my clean-out-the-e-mail-inbox project a couple of years ago (reward: fancy new planner), and just thinking about the clothes I saw today, I can feel my motivation to get into that garage rising.

One of my “43 things to do in year 43” is to list ten books I want to read and read them. It may seem superfluous, since I read many more than ten books every year, but I wanted to be a little more deliberate, and also to specify fiction or poetry. I read lots of non-fiction and want to feed my imagination instead. Also, without saying so, I was excluding mysteries, since I gobble them down like peanuts but they rarely stimulate any part of my mind except the one that likes puzzles; they are a pleasant way to pass the time, and perhaps, like crossword puzzles, even make me a little smarter, but that’s all. (Gaudy Night, which I just reread–I reread all the Peter Wimsey books regularly–is a rare exception in that it gave me a lot to think about.)

The list:

A Passage to India, E. M. Forster. I’ve meant to read it since seeing the movie when it was released. I just finally did (since drafting this post, so I’ll keep it on the 43/43 list), and am now gobbling down Forster. Therefore:

Howards End, E. M. Forster READ 9/17 ETA I carried on with the Forsterfest and read A Room with a View, finished 9/20. It was perfect reading for Bass Lake, and I loved it. I may have to watch the movie again. Since we never got to see Alice in Wonderlnad on the big screen, we may have to just have a home Helena Bonham Carter film festival, in fact. That should make the Tim Burton fan in the family very happy.

Anansi Boys, Neil Gaiman–I love Gaiman, and loved American Gods so much that I have reread it twice since Anansi Boys was published, but couldn’t get anywhere with Anansi Boys itself. I am going to give it another try.  READ March 2011. Excellent.

Self-Help, Lorrie Moore–have wanted to read this since it came out at least 10 years ago. It sounded intriguing.

Something by Margaret Atwood. Atwood is very hit-or-miss with me. The Blind Assassin, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Alias Grace immediately went onto my All-Time Favorite Works of Fiction list; Oryx and Crake was a “wow, love it” until it turned into a “well, that ended with an unsatisfying thud” (and I then discovered that she is so painfully, cluelessly disrespectful of science fiction, despite excelling at writing it, that I’ve been disinclined to read the sequel); and there have been a few, like The Robber Bride, that I just couldn’t get into at all and put down after page three. So I don’t know which of the many still-unread novels or short story collections of hers I’ll read. But I’ll try a few, knowing that there’s another Blind Assassin somewhere out there. READ Cat’s Eye 10/25. Definitely one for the “loved” column. READ The Robber Bride 10/30, having found Cat’s Eye so terrific that I was emboldened to take on one that I hadn’t liked. This time I liked it, even though it didn’t rock my world the way Cat’s Eye did.

Voices and Gifts, Ursula K. Le Guin, speaking of science fiction and people who do get it. I read the first in this trilogy, Powers, just before going to Mexico, and so the other two eluded me, but I am now home and in possession of a San Francisco Public Library card and nothing can stop me.  READ Gifts May 2011, went on a LeGuin tear, wore myself out, so am going to wait on Voices.

Whichever book someone knowledgeable recommends by John M. Ford. He wrote the poem “110 Stories” I linked to earlier today, and on searching for more by him, I was very excited to learn he was primarily a science fiction writer. I’m always looking for good ones and so seldom find any I like. He wrote some Star Trek books, and while I don’t usually read those, I don’t think I can resist one titled How Much for Just the Planet?; still, I’d like to read a stand-alone book of his. Poetry or scifi or scifi poetry all welcome. Friends, do you have a recommendation?

Beloved, Toni Morrison. I’ve never read it and I can’t imagine why not. I love Morrison. I think this is one to read via audiobook; her own reading of Sula made it so wonderful for me, and she also reads Beloved in its audio version. Not yet, but READ A Mercy, which was the Morrison audiobook I could find at the library when I got the hankering, and which was heartbreaking.

Open Closed Open, Yehuda Amichai. I don’t read much contemporary poetry, but whenever I encounter Amichai I really like him. I actually set out to buy his Selected Poetry, but the book was so badly printed that I put it back. Don’t look at me in that pitying way–I know my eyesight and hearing are getting worse, but I’m nearsighted, not farsighted, and books never give me trouble. Oh well, I’ll take it as a sign: I don’t buy collections of favorite singers’ greatest hits; I buy the albums. So I will read Amichai’s latest volume instead of his greatest hits.

ETA Zeitoun, Dave Eggers. It’s San Francisco’s 2010 One City One Book choice, so, having just moved into the city, reading it is part of my “OMG! I live in San Francisco!” celebration.  READ December or January.  Disturbing and eye-opening enough to make up for the cheap-journalism style of the writing; I’m glad I read it, and am wondering how I lived in the US during the same period that Zeitoun was locked up and had no idea this kind of thing was happening. Is it still? How would we know if it were?

I figured out how to round out my list of 43 things to do in my 43rd year.

41. Go to Año Nuevo when the elephant seals are there. (Another “I can’t believe I’ve lived in the Bay Area for this long without doing this” item.)


42. Grow some veggies in our yard. (Munchkin’s suggestion. When your child says “let’s grow vegetables!” you do it.)


43. Walk in the redwoods. 

Inspiration: MoxieLife set herself a 40/40 challenge and is also tracking her list of 40 items on I have put a few items on 43Things before; for the record, I’ve accomplished the biggest and most uncertain, “become a parent,” and even “empty my e-mail inbox,” but still haven’t checked off “finish knitting that sweater,” and one, “see the Northern Lights,” is a life goal that I won’t realize this year unless someone surprises me with a free trip to Alaska. Reading MoxieLife’s entry, I thought, “Hm, maybe I’ll do 43 things next year for my 43rd year.” Then I realized that I’m already a ways into my 43rd year. So I’m going to try it right now.

While I find setting goals a very useful way to get things done, I’m acutely aware that one goal I have is to be a little less driven, and having a 43-item to-do list for 11 months could undermine that meta-goal. I am therefore being careful to include plenty of things that I think are important but that aren’t terribly burdensome–that are, in fact, things I would undoubtedly do anyway (such as tell my daughter every day that I love her)–and things that are already on my schedule, like next February’s CENTER Institute.  Nothing wrong with recording those among the things I want to do this year.

I’ve left myself three blanks for ideas that arrive in the next few weeks (Edited on 7/19 to add them).   I’ll bold tasks and add italicized comments as I accomplish (or abandon, or modify) items. In no particular order:

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