Back on Dry Land in North Carolina : Part III

June 1st, 2012 § 2 comments § permalink

In the past couple days, I made a new Couch Surfing friend in North Carolina, ate at two locavore restaurants, boarded a plane in the birthplace of Pepsi (New Bern, NC) for the hometown of Coca Cola (Atlanta) and then flew back to SF, where I am now.

Our little shakedown cruise of a 1,000 miles covered many aspects of a boat’s lifecycle.

  • We stepped up Borka’s two masts:Stepping Up the mast
  • We traveled through canals and bridges and learned to communicate with transport operators. I got to play with VHF radios. Here’s an example exchange :

    “Dismal Swamp Canal Bridge, Dismal Swamp Canal Bridge … this is sailboat Borka heading southbound.”

    The bridge operator would respond; the bridge would lift, rotate, hinge, creak, and open …

  • We spent nights out in the ocean or in marinas, docking or mooring. We even spent a night at a crab cracking restaurant in Deale, MD on the Chesapeake after docking for dinner and then staying the night.
  • At the end, we lifted Borka out of the water and left her on drydock for the hurricane season.Borka Getting Dry Docked


    For the duration of the trip it felt as though the boat had become an extension of our bodies, our own little universe, a floating home. The rituals of mooring, jumping off to catch the lines, keeping everything orderly an neat, and maintaining readiness to react to unexpected changes in wind, current, or both. Taking precautions in high wind and rough water to keep the life vest on when above board, helming or climbing on deck; being constantly aware of our GPS coordinates.; but mostly, just making sure to take advantage of the down time, to read, to tan, to relax, to take pictures and look around.


    From the water, you get a different perspective of land. Nuclear power plants hide in the thicket of woods from the road, but can’t hide from the bodies of water that cool them. We passed Indian Point on the Hudson River in NY State, Hope Creek and Salem Reactors on the Delaware River which provide 3/8th of NJs electricity, and the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant on the Chesapeake in Maryland.

    India Point Nuclear Power Plant, Hundson

    Salem and Hope Creek Nuclear Reactors

    Salem and Hope Creek Nuclear Reactors


    I’ve been close to Army’s machines of war before, but this is the first time I got as cozy with the Navy:

    Navy Bimp

    USS IKE Aircraft Carrier


    The experience of sailing at night on the open ocean (albeit not far from land) was also exhilarating. I made practical use of the stars for navigation, setting our bearing using the compass first, but then taking an object in the sky as heading reference.  The vastness punctuated by lights evoked a parallel to wandering the open playa during early days of Burning Man. Occasionally you see another group of lights saunter on their own path across the darkness. The wonderfully illuminated and decorated ships seemed like elaborate art cars. Massive fishing vessels, with large stabilizing booms out to the sides and cranes to haul their catch on board, bright sodium bulbs, or flashing navigation LEDs, and large mesh nets swaying in the wind.  Off in the distance to our right the lights of Atlantic City and the New Jersey coast (including a massive LED screen you could see from 4 miles away) buzzed with activity resembling the esplanade. This was impossible for me to photograph.  And I felt as I sometimes feel at magnificent moments: I can’t wait to get back to the real world and tell my friends about it.


    At the mouth of Alligator River we met a crazy dane, Henning Bohm who has been sailing solo for 45 years. After his 4th heart attack, he finally qualified for a pension from the Danish government and freedom from his construction management job.  He asked his doctor for the hard truth and learned he has less than a 25% chance of living out a year.  Henning took this news in stride, sold all of his stuff, bought a boat and sailed West across the North Atlantic against the prevailing trade winds.

    He holed up for the winter at a marina in Connecticut where his boat was being repaired. He wanted it in peak shape so that he could sail it to the Caribbean and wither away there … or if his heart held up, to sail back to Denmark through a crazy counterclockwise loop across the whole Atlantic (east from the Caribbean’s West Indies to the Canary Islands and north triumphantly back home.)

    Unfortunately Neptune had other things in mind for Henning: straight out of gate his autopilot broke (which is a key feature for someone sailing solo), set his heater ablaze in the ocean (on which Henning emptied his drychem fire extinguisher), and most spectacularly, ripped off his steering wheel, leaving Henning without a means of pointing the boat (there was no backup rudder.) Henning had to call “Mayday Mayday Mayday” over the radio and a few hours later the Coast Guard showed up (20 miles off shore) and towed him back in for more repairs.

    When Henning set out again, he was aware of the NOAA advisories of strong winds. But such trifles usually don’t bother him since he likes to sail fast, and this is how he ended up in the path of Hurricane Alberto (the first of 2012) outside of Cape Hatteras, which is known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic”. It came on so suddenly that he didn’t even have a chance to bat down his hatches or pull down his sail. It also got dark. He just strapped himself in the cockpit and faced what he called “a blindfolded ride on a roller coaster” which lasted for over 12 hours. He lay down in the cockpit, sprawling to stay put, bruising most of his body, barely keeping his head out the water (as both the boat salon and the cockpit were filling with water from crashing waves) and trying to steer into the wind (which he could not see, but could only hear the sails.)  “In my 45 years of sailing, this is the first time I was truly scared for my life.”

    When the hurricane strength winds let up a bit, he tried to come ashore at a nearby harbor, but because his engine was busted, he could not fight the SSW wind and had to retreat 100+ miles back north to Hampton, MD. There he bailed 288 buckets of water from the boat, using a hand pump 80-90 times to fill each bucket (when the water level got too low to scoop.) His bilge pumps failed when their air intakes were also inundated. The good news was that his cat, Felix, survived.

    Henning sailed south again, using a safer path. “‘You’re too old to fight the ocean, try the intracoastal,’ they told me. And I did.”  He felt very tired but let on. Then he woke up suddenly, “in the middle of the day, with my clothes off, laying in bed, and the boat was still sailing. I thought it was a dream, so I went back to bed. Then I woke up again and looked around. Everywhere, swamp, swamp, swamp. Must be a nightmare! So, I went back to bed again.” When he finally woke up, he acknowledged the reality of having run aground. In trying to pull it out, he tore his Genoa Sheet (trying to jerk himself off the bank.) When high tide came, he was towed by a friendly boat into the nearest marina.

    The Coast Guard was summoned a second time. This time they took Henning to a hospital.  Apparently he lost of a lot of blood to internal bleeding and they gave him a transfusion.

    When we pulled into the Alligator River Marina, Henning approached us. When we asked, “how are you doing?” He responded, “Oh … Not so well” and told us this story adding that he has been staying put for two weeks trying to regain his strength.

    If you can read Danish or know a computer that can, you can read his own account of the events on his facebook fan page (closed).

    I got an audio recording of Henning telling this story, so when I feel up to editing it, I will post it here. We helped Henning deal with his ripped sheet, invited him to dinner, and inadvertently witnessed his internal bleeding. One side of Henning’s mouth had no teeth from above and the other from below. I came to think of his smile as a Yin and Yang.

    We met other interesting characters on this trip, but Henning wins first place.


    You might also like :

  • Our friends Tara and Sasha’s sailing blog.
  • Animated guide to sailing knots.
  • The Sailing Anarchy blog.

New York’s Canals : Getting to know the crew … : Part II

May 20th, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

On the way from Lake Chapmplain to New York City, we went through a series of 12 locks that are a part of the NY State Canal System.

Champlain Canal - First Lock

I never appreciated the role these canals have played in the development of New York, but they are absolutely responsible for making it the Empire State. When it was built, the Erie Canal connected New York harbor to the great lakes (Chicago) and the Mississippi enabled America’s western expansion, brought many goods from the mainland to market, and made New York City the economic epicenter of the country.

The canals were also massive feats of engineering, perhaps even more so that the panama canal, though not as cool as:

Nowadays the canal’s main value is historical, symbolic and recreational. It costs $100M to maintain and collects $200k in toll revenue per year. Just consider, we paid 15$ to take our boat through 11 locks of the Champlain Canal. We were the only boat in every lock crossing. In total, we were singlehandedly responsible for the displacement of over 15 million gallons of water and untold quantities of electricity to move the massive lock doors.

A night on the docks:

Night on the Canal

Along the route we got a few lessons in American history. We passed Fort Ticonderoga, the scene of one of the first American victory of the Revolutionary War where a Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys conquered an English fort in 1775. (The more I learn about Ethan Allen, the more I regret not having hung out with him.)

We passed an elaborate but crumbling castle structure at Bannerman’s Island Arsenal, which I did not get to photograph since we were sailing through a storm.

And then immediately afterwards, the Army’s elite academy presides majestically over a narrow S-curved bend in the Hudson 40 miles north of NYC. From the river, we first realized it was West Point by the sign on their mess hall roof boldly proclaiming “BEAT AIRFORCE” their main rival.

West Point

On a previous trip to NY, I met a few cadets in Brighton Beach engaging in some teamwork and Russian language study.


Our crew mate Lindsey Annison hails from Appleby, Cumbria, England.  She let her house for a year and came to the US to speak at a rural fiber optics conference where Tim invited her to join our little adventure. The more I learn about her, the more amazes me. Including:

  • Lindsay tweets with her MP Rory Stewart, who happens to be among my personal heroes ever since I read this book The Places In Between
    Here they are digging optical fiber into the rural north of England:
  • … knows the people who made one of my favorite YouTube video “Extreme Shepherding
  • … is a biological anomaly. Lindsay, a mother of two girls, who were born on the same day, but were conceived a month a part. This is called Superfetation.
  • and there is so much more …

Sailing Down the Hudson … and then some : Part I

May 10th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

For the next few weeks, I’ll be sailing down the East Coast. We’re starting inland at Lake Champlain and will first navigate a series of 20 locks to get out into the Hudson.

We’ll have our masts stepped up near New York City, where we’ll sail out the harbor, then back into Chesepeake Bay and into the intra-coastal water way … and then as far as we can get before time runs out.

Our boat is a “sloop rigged catch” which means a double masted ship with a single jib in front. It also has a “bilge keel” which is an unusual configuration of two keels sticking out from the side. One advantage is that if the tide runs off from under you, the boat will remain upright.  For example:


The boat is a Westerly 33″ Ketch named “Borka” (which if you pronounce the “r” in a soft rolling way, is the diminutive of Boris though the origin of the name is different. I’ll write about that later)

Borka and Tim

Tim Nulty is our captain. Crew is Louisa Bukiet and Lindsay (who was visiting Tim from England when he offered her to hop aboard) and me.


I’ll write more soon, but in the meanwhile, you should read about two fascinating sailing misadventures:

Census Enumerator

July 3rd, 2010 § 2 comments § permalink

This April I took a multiple-choice test for a temporary job with the census.

In May I attended training at a community hut on the bank of an inland creek in China Basin.  It had a direct line of sight to the laboratory where I spent the bulk of my career as a graduate researcher.

One of my fellow trainees suggested the job was a step backwards for someone with a PhD in Biology, but I saw it as opportunity to engage in the study of my own species.

Census Employment office took over a Halal butchery store front.

I also did this for fun.  I did it for the sun, the socializing, and the exercise. I got paid to explore the hidden nooks in my neighborhood during the nicest part of the year.

My neighborhood (FolSOMA) is at the very heart of San Francisco and is transforming quickly.  Many new funky establishments such as Langton Labs, Wicked Grounds, Rancho Parnassus, and Passion Cafe are opening up; along them are old favorites like GoldTeethUS, the Defenistration Building, and Stormy Leather.  Yuppy condo lofts are invading every available development lot.


Impervious to these developments an agglomeration of public housing projects (of a flavor called SROs) remains.  In other cities, they would have been relocated elsewhere. San Francisco decided to be different by keeping such places central and visible, placing most city housing and social service facilities within a 5 block radius of City Hall (and coincidentally, my house).

A common sight in my neighborhood.

I won’t besmirch the spirit of the urban planning decision, but it’s not without consequence. We’re the tall peak on many of these topo crime maps and every one of my car owning roommates has had a window busted.

Many people who live in San Francisco avoid our area.  Many census employees specifically asked not to be assigned to my district.  I relished the chance to get to know my neighborhood, to see what was usually hidden, to travel without going far from home.

My beat focused on the SRO (single room occupancy) hotels in the vicinity of 6th and Mission street.

SROs vary in their quality, purpose and clientele.   Some house the disabled and the elderly, provide social services, and engage their residents with group activities in common rooms. These tend to be painted in cheerful pastel tones.  Some are community centers specialized for a particular demographic, (e.g. low income working Filipino families) and might even have more than one room per unit.  Such SROs resemble clean well run college dorms or decent apartment buildings.

The ones I was assigned were very much at the other end of the spectrum.  They housed recovering drug addicts, parolees, and the mentally disabled.  Many of the residents preferred to hide in their rooms, emerging only to relieve themselves, and even then not always.

Vacant room. The man sitting in the window with his broken leg resting on a dog is the maintenance worker for this SRO. He said, you got to rip out the drywall and floor after every tenant from the abuse the room takes.

Their long hallways of single room units shared one bathroom as the only communal space. It’s these buildings that earn SROs their reputation.   These were the rooms I pried open with my questions.  Did you live here on April 1st?  What is your name, date of birth, ethnicity?


Behind each door was a fresh surprise.

One of the many unusual signs that cautioned me not to knock. Of course, I did knock.

“Count me?  What for?  Everyone knows I don’t count.  Just look at me.”

I had to introduce myself four times to an amnesiac during one interview.  Each time we got two questions further along, she interrupted urgently. “No, wait, wait… hold on! Who are you?”  Rinse and repeat.

I stumped a schizophrenic by asking him how many people lived in his room. “You mean in here?” he said, pointing at his head.

Presuming I was doing genealogical research, an elderly man ebulliently traced out his linage to King Ferdinand of Spain.  Then, excitedly, he started mumbling: “Swiss bank account numbers”, passwords, and the whereabouts of lock boxes that would confirm the splendor of his ancestry.  He confessed that no one ever believed or understood him.  Evidently he had been waiting for someone to arrive at his door and restore him to his rightful place in opulence and history, and now his dream had come true.

I liked the no nonsense talk that established clear expectations.

“You know what man. I’m going to slam this door right in your face, and then if you gonna knock again, I’m going to stab you.”

 But wait!  An unlikely assistant emerged from the bathroom.  Haggard and female, she looked like half her hair was forcibly torn out.  Who better to speak sense to the young man? She addressed the now slamming door, “You can’t [BOOM] treat people who come nice like that.  You gotta learn the social rules kid, especially now that you got a kid of your own to feed and make educated.  Do you really want a carbon copy of yourself?”


The official title of my position with the census was “enumerator” but besides counting people I got to play many other roles.

To “clients” I played a sympathetic ear or the pathetic dummy getting chased away from the door.

A janitor gave me a word of warning as the metal gate of yet another SRO opened with a buzz, “Bad things happen here” and as it slammed shut behind me, “You’re on your own, kid.”

One of the many unusual signs in the hallways of SROs.

Can you really call us Feds?

In one hallway, I met a curious woman (in more ways than one) who asked me who I was and what I was doing there.  Having processed my answer, she stole away into a room around the corner.  Audibly, she said, “I think you should go beat up that nice white boy walking down our hallway and take everything he’s got.”  Life has taught me to take such amusements in stride.  I immediately walked to the room she entered, greeted its occupants with a firm look, and moved along.

I heard this story from a fellow census employee with first hand shelter experience.  On the day that the homeless got their public funds checks, buses queued outside.  The homeless hurried to get 50$ round trip tickets to a casino in Reno, NV plus an all-you-can-eat buffet.  The check cashing place on the corner, the ticket booth for the bus, the casino filling up its down time with the dumb, down and out, low-rollers. A whole niche economy.


While many were eager to be interviewed, intentions varied wildly. An older guy was proud to give the date of birth of his younger girlfriend, eager to spill the numbers that reflected so well on his virility. I inadvertently flattered him by trying to infer the relation from the data, “Might this be your daughter?”

“Nah, it’s my girlfriend…

“Pretty good, right? She just got home from the hospital recovering from seizures and shit, so I can’t show her to you right now.”

Two kinds of people routinely slammed the door in my face, yet I’m not sure either would be happy with the comparison.  They were repulsive in their shiny shirts and crispy suits or obscene in their birthday suits. In yuppy dwellings (to which I was also assigned) rich snobs “didn’t have the time.” One hid behind his door, the other behind the intercom. The powerless and the powerful both exerted themselves in vain (as I usually got them in the end.)

I came to your door to count you and you turned me away.  You told me I’m worthless, that I’m wasting your time.  You told me that you will stab me and teach me to avoid you. By now I have learned to expect these things.

You were weak, pathetic to your own self, just wanted to be left alone. “I’m sleeping, I’m always sleeping, I’d rather not wake up,” you’d say.


The SRO environment resembled an elementary school on permanent recess.  The teachers had given up and classes have long been dismissed… but the news still felt fresh!  The students milled about the hallways with a mercantilistic eye for what others had to trade.  Cookies?  Cigarettes?  Services?

Rent was subtracted directly from their SSI benefits and left them with an operational budget of 5$ a day, (approximately the allowance for an average elementary school kid in San Francisco.)   They couldn’t afford consumerism as a distraction, so they sought other diversions.

This person is a fixture on Market street. He feeds hot sauce to his rooster.

In front of the building, a story of the same genre unfolded.

A knotted elderly, mentally deranged gentleman held a a cane with its handle to the ground.  An array of soda cans was arranged at his feet.  He swung his club wildly, missing mostly, but occasionally launching a can high into the air above and then back down into the busy intersection.

A hunched scraggly elderly lady appeared out of nowhere.  “What are you up to today?  Causing trouble as always?”

It seemed for a moment as if she was readying to deliver a reprimand, but instead, she sat on the curb, rested her chin in her palms and watched this unique sporting event adoringly, “Fun, fun … what fun!”


One of the most memorable lessons from training was not to bribe clients for interviews.  When our trainer had participated in an earlier phase of the Census, Operation Homeless, she thought ahead and purchased cigarettes as handouts.  Her group leader prevented her from acting on her good idea, saying it was considered a bribe and that “we just don’t do that kind of thing.”

I thought back to her words when I turned down repeated requests for cigarettes in exchange for interviews. But bribery has many guises. If sympathy is a bribe, I expended a lot of it.

One guy asked if I would provide any “services” in exchange for the interview.  Evidently, in the world of social welfare they swim in, “services” is a common euphemism. Each is like a treat for jumping through a hoop.  “If you cooperate, I may be able to get you some services.”


For those that were uncooperative I had to rely on manager’s records to complete the census. In those cases, I spent time interacting with the invariably Indian or Nepali management staff.   To the smell of Indian spices and a view of an alter to a Hindu god, we’d kick back in the office and they’d tell me something like, “When you talk to Indian woman, you don’t have to ask her middle initial.  All Indian women have middle initial same as husband’s first name”.

I felt like I was cajoling with prison guards.  Their removed and judgmental attitudes and positions behind caged windows made them gatekeeper-overlords of this domain.

Presumably there is something wrong with this block, if this message needed to be translated into four languages.

I left a message on this door before.

This time, I heard a voice.

“Come back when I am sober.”

“When’s that?”

“Not sure…”

… and neither am I yet sure of the implications of these Censing experiences, not two blocks from home.

Trash City

February 25th, 2010 § 1 comment § permalink

I spent the summer of 2008 in Beijing.  I lived 4 blocks from the Olympic village, and I had front row seats to the colossal transformation leading up to the games.  I acquired an electric scooter and explored the various parts of the city, biasing my direction towards places I hadn’t been before.

One sweltering day in Beijing, when we were out on another non-specific exploratory scooter patrol with RJ, we came across a peddle powered vehicle with an unbelievably large load.  This wasn’t in itself unusual.  You see these guys everywhere in Beijing and they make it into all of the tourist photographs.  But being right there on the scooters next to such a load presented us with the very real possibility of discovering where all this stuff actually goes.

We tailed this vehicle for a few blocks, riding circles around it in traffic, examining the contents.  The driver was dark from spending all his time in the sun and grimy from the Beijing air, beads of sweat reflected the sun on his forehead, his clothes were shredding from wear and acrid sweat.  The insides of his knees were calloused from an improper peddling position which undoubtedly also hurt his knees.

His cart was fantastically overloaded with computer monitors, cardboard boxes, sundry electronics, water bottles, stacked tall and precarious.  On the top was a slight middle aged female.  She was the captain steering the upper story of the ship while the peddler focuses on the chug of the peddles, (in the engine room.)  She was a skillful jockey corralling the amorphous pile of stuff, banking it into turns, using her arms and legs as dynamic counterweights, to adjust straps, and to hold on herself.

I’ve seen many such carts but this wasn’t the usual kind.  The two person technique allowed them to be particularly ambitous.

We made a northwards turn near Tsinghua University Science and Technology (TUS) park, and passed tall office buildings which house the likes of Google China, Microsoft and Baidu, fancy restaurants, and a language learning boutique called “Wall Street English”.

On the road we spotted several more recycling vehicles, and we started to swim faster that the current chasing down the next and the next one.  There were all kinds, electrical, gas, or peddle powered, and even some drawn by donkeys.

When we crossed the train tracks the recycling trickle became a recycling stream — half the vehicles on the road were loaded with recyclables, and when we rounded the next corner, we merged with the main vein of traffic through the heart of a neighborhood we dubbed trash city.  The vehicles were no longer driving, but lined up in a long queue.

(This is a video of this crossing, but going in the opposite direction.)

At the head of the line was a weigh station, which the vehicles would mount, get weighed first and tarried after.  The load was examined by an inspector whose stomach was exposed by a rolled up blue shirt.  (This was the preferred way of cooling oneself.)  He would issue a receipt to the driver who now rolled his empty cart onward in search of more filling.  A few shouts (or was it signals using gongs and bells and some form of morse code) would summon the relevant section peddlers.  Immediately, the monitor kid would run over with a wheel barrow, and the cardboard guy with his donkey, etc.

The economy of the whole neighborhood is dependent on recycling, and the physical layout of the streets and the people that lived there, constitute the recycling factory.  If you followed the wheel barrow full of monitors, you’d soon find yourself in an unpaved alley where the disassembly process unfolded in the open air.  What used to be whole, now became parts, and the parts were handed down different alleys and eventually out the back on large trucks.  I do not know how money flowed through this system, or how much pay the receipt entitled the driver, but we could follow the trail of the material.

The first intersection on Monitor street branched into Plastic Alley left, Monitor Glass Road to the right. Going straight on Electronics Way led to a Circuit square which was also fed by a few other disassembly pipes of electronics from computers, radios, and cellphones.

If you tossed a gps transponder into such a cart anywhere in the city, you could probably track it through the maze of Beijing streets down to trash city, a brief pause at the weigh station, and a short leg to the point of its final transmission.  There, typically a young kid would wrench out the critical circuit and toss it in a bin with others like it, and pick up the next circuit board and do the same.  And there would be right here, in Circuit Square.

The boards themselves along with other scraps back in to Smelter Cul de Sac and are transmuted to hazardous fumes and a little bit of precious metals.

This place has a remarkable counterpoint in other parts of Beijing in the form “cell phone repair” stores where older masters and young apprentices micro-solder damaged components using stereoscopes.  Here, they rip these components off and toss them into sorting bins, to be transported somewhere else.  Disassemble and reassemble.  Large Motorized Diesel Trucks filled to the brim left from the back of Trash City directly onto the highway.

Trash City had the appealing character that you could return and discover more.  You could come back to a place and ask for someone you met there last time, and they would turn up.  You could be invited into the run down communal homes where there are no doors to hide behind, but everyone’s business unfolds in full view.  In the first room by the entry, there would typically be a computer internet and several people sitting on benches waiting for their turn to use it, to play games, chat or watch videos.

You could come there at 2AM, buy a large beer for 2RMB (then 25 cents) and play a game of pool on the street.  There would be kids in their underwear, and people in pajamas crossing the street, brushing their teeth, or walking to the communal toilet around the corner.

The kids and the grownups never let themselves be separated from their most valuable possessions.  The cellphone coordinated their work in the day and illuminated their way at night.  Everything that was workspace by day was living quarters by night.

RJ and I returned to visit (and photograph) our friends on several occasions.  Once, I got a call from RJ telling me to come see another part of Trash City we hadn’t seen before.  And it was true.  A disjoint orbit, with a different entrance way!  The Prosthetics Quadrant and Mannequin Circle, and in the middle of it all was a peculiar kind of mannequin leg jousting match. (Rarely do the kids arm themselves with a prosthetic arm or a hook, as those are actually more complex instruments to wield and not so much suitable as fighting toys.)

By it’s own admission, Beijing verge of trash crisis …

Where the Buttocks end & the Hemotomas begin?

January 13th, 2010 § 4 comments § permalink

… or My Sunday Skiing Accident

It seems like everything I write is an accident report, and I’m not even an emergency professional. Hopefully this is my last one. I am retiring from accidents, and the following is the beginning of an exploration of how.

I’ve got two very large hematomas on my rear end. (On top of never being able to sit still) I will not be able to sit comfortably for at least a few days, and since I am on pain killers my mental game is almost completely shot.

It could have been a lot worse.

Skiing this Sunday, I went up a ramp for a jump. It was my first time on that run, and I had no idea what was on the other side. My mental model was a flat elevated bank. I don’t know why. At the moment I got airborne, I realized just how wrong I was.

The Fall

Given the abrupt drop, I don’t think I could have landed anyways — not that a better skier wouldn’t have been able to handle it. The fact that my trajectory invariably resolved to a large rock bulging out of the mountain, made landing the least of my concerns.

fuzzy sketch. ~15ft from take off to landing.

When we were going up the ski lift, Mike told me of a cliff on this mountain that he almost accidentally skied off the previous year. “I almost died right there,” and pointed at it.

I thought about this as I cradled myself for the fall and in a short time which seemed like eternity, I came to terms with all of it — the blood and the snow, the bone and the rock, and sinew — for what use is there in protesting the inevitable?

not the slope i fell on. it's from my previous run. here to convey the terrain.

But I did protest (on behalf of my whole-ness) as best I could: I crouched; I lifted my hands to my head and let the ski poles stick out over my elbows forming a kind of cavity; I tried to take the first impact on my skis, which I managed, bending my knees to absorb; the second impact on the poles, and then I lost control. The skiis and poles went flying, my rear end significantly clipped the rock and I tumbled past it down the hill, futilely trying to account for my limbs and slow the slide.

When I came to, I didn’t know which side was up. I was both stiff and shaking and the only word that came out of my mouth was “fuck”. It came out loud, “FUUUUCK”. It came out in short sequences, “fuck, fuck, fuck”. And it came out with every breath until I managed to roll myself on my back and lose myself in the cold embrace of the snow. I didn’t see any blood and surprisingly, I could still move my fingers and toes.

Mike, who had been snowboarding behind me, watched me ascend and fall out of view. He appeared at the crest. A couple of boarders who witnessed my inglorious moment told him, “your boy ate it real bad, and probably needs the ski patrol.” Besides the fact that one of my skis skied on without me, there was no way I could make it down the mountain myself.


The ski patrol came, wrapped me in a stretcher and towed me with a snowmobile to the medical clinic at the base. They made sure I didn’t have any bone or spine damage and let me out of the bindings. When I reached around to palpitate my behind, I felt an unfamiliar bulge and another.

I asked to go to the bathroom, where I turned my back to the mirror and took off my pants. It looked like a pomegranate was glued to my left buttocks and an eggplant was attached to my right thigh. I estimated that a pint of blood filled each shape. My skin was stretched taught and reddish purple. Nothing else looked as bad or hurt as much as those two places.

It was then that I realized that my ass was so big, that I could not get my pants back on. Nor could I bend over sufficiently to take off my skiing boots. I walked out into the hallway in boxers with my pants dangling at my feet.

The doctor helped me with the boots and said these were among the worst hemotomas he has seen and they would likely need to be drained in a few days. He gave me a few Vicadin on the spot and a prescription for more, “you are going to need this.”


For the next 48 hours, I stuffed loose fitting pants with ziplock bags of snow or ice. I attached them with binder clips at my waistline to keep them properly positioned. I slept on my stomach with my rear elevated and iced. As I sit writing this, I’ve folded pillows into complimentary shapes. I’ve been using an ergonomic chair that shifts my weight to the knees. When I go to the bathroom, I dream about a squat toilet. (I record this because it’s important not to forget these pathetic nuances of dealing with basic necessities, to relate to the realities of old and infirm.)

i have reduced this image and obfuscated it to keep it appropriate.

Over the past three days, I’ve taken up valuable time from various people: Mike, the ski patrol, the mountain med clinic, the student health clinic, the ER. My department and graduate advisor have helped with health insurance, (an issue now that I have graduated.) I’m lucky to have this network of support. And I’ve been told by almost each of them of how lucky I was to have gotten off with the damage I have, from the impact I had. And the problem is that I have put myself and such people through this charade already several times.


So what’s the lesson here? Obviously, don’t jump without knowing where you are landing. Prepare for tricks by first studying a given run several times. Wear a freaking helmet.

But for me, the lesson is different. I get into these situations too often. If I learn that discrete lesson, new lessons will remain to be learned. And besides, mountains sports are inherently dangerous. The medical clinic was full to the last bed, like an inner city trauma ward, and some of the sights weren’t so pretty. Last time I went snowboarding, I fractured a rib and it hurt to breathe or sleep for almost a month.

So, I have decided to retire from mountain sports. Skiing/boarding is fun. It’s just not for me. I like challenging myself, which would be fine on a basketball or volleyball court, running or playing squash (though I get injured there too). An alternative would be to reflect and consider some behavioral remediation and generally tune down my avarice for risk. But since I actually treasure that aspect of my character, I am choosing to instead restrict the domain of activities I engage in, to those with better exercise/fun/reward vs risk trade offs.

Sore, but happy to have this off my chest, ./pp

Here are some photos of the progress:

Left Buttocks 1

Right Thigh 1

Left Buttocks 2

Right Thigh 2

Curvas peligrosas – My first serious accident.

February 13th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

One months ago, I was hanging by the seat belt in a sideways car across the lane of a windy mountain highway in Mexico. Blood was streaming from my elbow. My thoughts were focused on the immediate there and then. Now it’s time for reflection.

Hwy 1 – Baja, Mexico. Jan 3rd.

For most of the longitudinal span of the Baja peninsula, the only paved road is a single lane highway with the lanes heading in opposite directions separated by a dashed yellow stripe. The most frequent sign on the side of this road is curvas peligrosas [dangerous curves]. As frequent as the symbolic are the more realistic reminders of the danger. These come in the form of variously disfigured and discarded vehicles, or the harder-to-spot mechanical entrails, such as headlights and shredded tires, but also dents on the guard rails and scars on the road itself.

From the way people drive you wouldn’t know it. There is a bimodal distribution of speeds on this highway. There were those I glimpsed on their quick approach in the rear-view mirror, swerving around me, and then gaining on the horizon in front.

There were others that were probably as eager to go that fast, but either because they were heavy tractor-trailers or dilapidated jalopies, they just couldn’t push it. These I passed with ease.

Four of us, were returning from a week long road trip in Baja. We had lots of ground to cover in two days. We were planning a layover in LA that night (Saturday), before setting out to SF the following morning. (Sunday) My friend had just completed a 6 hour marathon driving session, and handed over the controls to me in San Quentin, still 200 miles south of the border (Tijuana).

When I started the starlit ascent into the mountains past the valley, the road became windy. A flash rain passed and stopped. Most of the turns were marked well in advance, except for the turn that got me. Because of the change in elevation it was a blind turn and when I finally realized we were heading into a curve, it turned out to be too late. We were driving above 60 mph when I first caught the sharp turn.

Skid, Tumble and Roll

To our right, was a steep drop off. To the left was the mountain face the road was hugging. When I turned the wheel, the car swerved and woke David. As the tired lost traction, he screamed “watch out”. We were skidding with our right side forward, while heading straigh for the mountain.

I turned the wheels in the direction of the skid to regain traction. This jerked the car around into a left side forward skid, at which point I hit the anti-lock brakes so we would not drive forward off the cliff. During the skid a rock on the left margin of the road hit our back tire, and this was enough to send the car tumbling.

At that point, we had lost control. Just brace. All of the peices have been set in motion. Now it’s up to the physical model play itself out and for the peices to land where they may.

When we rolled over all of the windows smashed. I had my elbow resting on the window while driving. Now, I watched as my elbow compressed into a sandwich of broken glass and pavement.

When we toppled on the roof, I felt like my head was dented with a baseball bat. A weightless upside down hang during the tumble, I must have formed a body image coincident with the car’s frame. The windsheild shattered and I could see the road above me and a dark expanse beyond, without obstruction.

We came to a rest on the opposite lane of the highway with our belly exposed. The sounds of crunching metal and sparks came to a stop. The only sound the car emitted was a periodic squeak from the rear windshield wiper. Only the windshield wasn’t there. The wiper was futilely wiping air, and dislodging the remaining fragments of glass.


David immediately asked, “Is everyone ok?” It was reassuring to hear a voice, as I was deathly fearful for our lives. My elbow was numb and I felt a warm trickle on my hand. A “yes” escaped without much thought. I regretted it immediately, hoping I did not speak too soon. Amanda and Rupa also said yes.

How Do I get out?

I turned the key and killed the engine and climbed out first, through the broken window. Time matters. Is the car on fire? Is there a vehicle barreling down the opposite direction? Rupa stood upright in the sidways car and said, “How do I get out?” She was standing on David. I stood on a large rock that lay by the car and lifted her out.

As I turned to set her down, David’s head popped out, “How do I get out?” When I lifted him also from the same rock, I realized that I miscalculated his weight, having practiced only on Rupa (100 lb) and we collectively fell backwards, onto broken glass and rocks by the side of the road. A shared pierced my pants and sliced my buttox.

When I stood up, Amanda pleaded, “How do I get out?” The quiet only underlined how calm we were. The situation was not for panic, but clarity and immediate needs. Amanda was less than a week out of foot surgery and brought along a crutch for the trip.

As I set her down, David asked for his shoes. I recovered a pair with Amanda’s crutches. And used it also to fish out Rupa’s and David’s glasses after they both said, “I can’t see.”

The group now shod and seeing, I recovered our flashlights and headlamps and armed each person with a set.

Mixed with the adrenaline was the elation of being alive. It felt that we were connected in this understanding — that our lives were handed back to us — and it had a calming affect.

When there are enough immediately obvious tasks, you don’t need to think. Yet while I acted mechanically, pulling items out of the car, trying to wedge the foot of the crutch in the catch of the glove compartment to free Amanda’s passport, I had time to realize that I was probably not going to make it home tomorrow, when I had an appointment with my research advisor. We had agreed to meet for a final review of my paper before submission, and it was a moment I had distracted myself from anxiously anticipating, by having gone on this road trip. And I felt seriously bad. I felt this wasn’t an excuse. I wished I could just escape through a teleporter, as if this was all a dream. And when it settled that it wasn’t, I realized how clearly this accident was my fault and that I needed to own up to it. The fact that it was pointless to face my friends an apologize to my friends right there led to more regret. We were all delayed, from work and school and our regularly scheduled programs.

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Are you ok?

A truck pulled up and a Mexican man asked us if we were ok — yes. needed an ambulance — no. had called the police — no, can you please call? had flares for warning — no, do you?

He spoke clear English, yet, while talking to him, I was still lost to a mechanical focus. I walked around the car to discover that the battery cracked and had leaked all of the fluid. There was so much car part debris on that stretch of road, that I had a hard time determining if it was all ours.

While Amanda, who is a nurse, grabbed the first aid kit and reviewed my elbow situation, Rupa and David were pulling accessible items from the car. There was blood everywhere. All over my body. All over Rupa’s white blanket. A blood smeared pillow lay on the road.

Did these bags of camping supplies and food matter anymore? Were we going to lose them? I had paid 70$ for a special Mexican insurance policy that Amanda looked up on the internet. David was calling the 800 number listed on the printout. Amanda made sure there was no more glass in my elbow, poured some antiseptic and applied a temporary bandage.

The cops arrive

The cops arrived, but their behavior was surprisingly casual, almost bored. Given that it’s Mexico we’re a little lost on protocol, but we figure a tow truck has probably been called, and we’ll have to figure out some ride to a near by town. Some paperwork to be signed here, some more followup tomorrow.

After 20 minutes of chatting to us and on their radio, the officer walks over and says.

“Ok, let’s go. Can one of you drive?”

“Are we getting a tow truck?”

“If you want to wait 4-5 hours for tow truck, be my guest, but I’m not interested.”

“You mean ride this car sideways back to town? Will you follow us?”

“Yes, let’s go.”

One push from three of us set the car rattling back on its tires.

Since the battery leaked the fluid, the car wouldn’t start. The officers pulled over a car and told the driver to jump us.

When it purred and started, he said “Put the stuff back in the car.”

Under the conditions, it was an amusing proposition to drive this totaled hunk of metal down the highway. Where the windshield wasn’t busted, it was contorted, giving the road a Daliesque feel.

David took on the challenge of driving and I played side kick in the passenger seat. His glasses doubled as safety goggles, but to prevent the cascade of broken windshield in my face (which happened with every discontinuity in the road) I had to keep my head outside the passenger window.

Military Checkpoint

Within 20 minutes, we approached a military checkpoint. We thought being a hobbling wreck followed by a police car might get some special treatment, but the military were not phased. They had their orders. “Step out of the car.” They gave it a cursory inspection for drugs and whatever else and sent us on our way.

We drove what turned out to be 45 miles into the city of Ensanada topping out at 30 mph, with an ever growing tail of cars behind us, who were hesitant to pass the cops.

In town, the cops gave us the signal to follow them and immediately ran a few red lights.

Across from the police station was a motel. The clerk on duty said he wasn’t surprised to see us at 4AM, since they get a lot of business from the police station.

While David and Amanda waited for the insurance inspector to arrive, I took this photo in the bathroom.

Lucky to be alive Farewell car

I took a long hot shower. The water initially pooled crimson from the cuts on my elbow and buttocks. After a self application of neosporen and bandages, I tucked myself in a corner and went to bed.

When we woke up, we were still stranded in Mexico, still uncertain about the fate of the car and our prospects of returning home. Amanda suggested we check if we were sore, since it’s very common for people to suddenly tense up (even rigidify) during accidents and remain stiff for days.

Instead of sore, I felt very relaxed and optimistic that morning. I was lucky to be with people who remained calm and cooperative throughout the accident. Lucky to have friends that cut their road trip further south into Baja short to ferry us back across the border.

A happy tingle of adventure mixed with the rawness of the reality of how close I was to a pulverized carcas had I not worn my seatbelt.

My confidence as a driver was shattered, and I asked myself several times when is going to be right time to appologize. Ironically tristan had called me a “champion driver” the day before, when Amanda asked.

After spending the following night in Pasadena, we rented a car for the last leg to San Francisco. When he got tired of driving, Dave gave me the car on Interstate 5. Last time I was behind the wheel, the car ended up sideways, (and it was my first real accident as a driver.) I made sure to ask if they trusted me behind the wheel, and when they said yes and so comforted me, I apologized.

House Party in Chile

November 22nd, 2008 § 0 comments § permalink

My friend Felipe took me to a house party in Chile. We arrived at 2AM and it was still just getting started. There was lots of mayhem. The ages of the party goers ranged from 22-24 as those were the ages of the brothers celebrating their birthday. Every possible space was occupied, either with people or empty bottles of Pisco and Coke. Mud was tracked everywhere about the house and the backyard was likewise overflowing with commotion. The music was loud and there was some groping. All of this is along the lines of the expected. What did surprise me was that the parents were present.

Dad was greeting party attendees when I came. And mom was hanging out in the kitchen with some of their friends. I kept noting their behavior. Most of the time they contained themselves in the kitchen, but when things got too loud, dad would emerge and turn down the nob on the stereo, or close a door that wasn’t supposed to be open. As soon as he retreated, it would all go back to the original state. But he didn’t seem frustrated.

I told the birthday boy/host that I had been to house parties like this in the United States, but they usually coincided with the parents being out of town. He seemed puzzled and replied, “I would never think of throwing a party like this when my parents are away.”

Now it was my turn to be puzzled, “Why so?”

He turned serious, “Then who would clean up?”

Corrupt power structure, or Benevolent Dictatorship?

May 24th, 2008 § 2 comments § permalink

fifteen minutes before the opening of the afternoon visa session, i joined the loose assemblage of peoples around the chinese consulate. returning veterans of the morning session clued me in:

i must queue on the right
for the deli machine
which dispenses the numbers
that determine the order
of being seen.

so, i took my place by the entrance, seemingly at the head of the line. yet before i know it, there were 20 people competing for the spot i had occupied alone, an amalgam of me and 19 elderly chinese.

on the other side of the glass doors two security guards were preparing for the onslaught. i could make out the russian names on their tags. the shorter one ‘A.’ had braces, the other ‘R.’ a cigarette in his mouth, and neither was older than 20. their clothes were oversized and since they huddled behind the machine which dispenses the numbers, i imagined them as meat clerks by the deli counter.

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lost wallet

September 1st, 2004 § 0 comments § permalink

i have lost my wallet and all of its contents. the process is inconvenient: call the credit card companies, the bank, get a new id from shool, go through the process of getting it coded, a new license, and a new insurance card; then moan about the cash, receipts, and the wallet itself. so, for the new wallet i started today, i decided to try a little experiment. inside of the wallet, i prominently wrote:

Thank you for finding my wallet!

1. keep the cash, you’ve earned it.
2. give me a call (###) ### – ####
3. collect your reward of 50$

how will the wallet “finding” contingent respond to this?

on another note, craigslist should have a lost/found board.