Sunday, September 21, 2014

Understanding Nothing Less Than Everything

I watched her having breakfast, methodically moving from blossom to blossom

Shed hubris like a chrysaline husk. Say the words so seldom heard: "I don't know." I paused beside the road on a Sunday morning TCT to observe this sulphur butterfly taking her morning nectar from these lovely purple blossoms. She moved from flower to flower, and in certain moments I thought the morning was so still and quite that I could almost hear the flutter of her wings. Was there a pattern to her motion? She appeared to cover the entire bush rather efficiently with her seemingly random motion. That is, she didn't move from one flower to the adjacent, but instead lifted up slightly, appeared to survey the bush between sups, then selected another flower to probe, sometimes on the opposite side. Sometimes in sun, others in shade. Her time in each flower was neither short or long, perhaps five seconds only.


The ride was seeded this morning by an article on Boing Boing about scientists who have spent 20 years 1km underground in a mine looking for verification of an explanation, provisionally called "dark matter," for why our galaxy doesn't spin itself apart. They are having to invent a science from scratch down there, basically, starting with trying different methods for detecting dark matter based on different theories of what it might be, and discarding those methods one by one, saying over and over for 20 years, no, that didn't work, who has another idea? I'm happy, and proud of our species in moments like that, where in humility and curiosity we stick with a quest to understand something very elusive and difficult, driven from the start by the need to know, yet fully aware that it could decades of false starts, of mistakes, of errors, to make any progress whatsoever.

There is so much left for us to learn, to figure out, to know. Pretty much everything, relatively speaking. I believe it is a sign of strength and wisdom to be able to say, "I don't know." It's the weaklings, the shysters, the con-men and the politicians who want to try to make you think they know something about everything. The honest person, though, the truly curious and wise man or woman, will look you in the eye, and say, "I don't know." But that's not the end of it. It's just the beginning. The good news is, until we learn more than the pitiful passel of understanding we fledgling seekers currently posses, we still have broader and deeper rivers to dip into: poetry, art, music, love, religion, meditation, nature, these are the better impulses of a soul which yearns to know but admits it is still groping clumsily through the darkness of ignorance. 

You can't actually hear a butterfly's wings even in the quietest of sunny morning moments. But you can still listen, and think about ways that you could hear them, as well as experiments for learning more about the secret patterns of its flight, and in this pure wonderful obsessive momentary dalliance you can also glimpse glimmers of a mind eager to continue forward on the path of understanding nothing less than everything.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Stingray T-shirt and the Ecstatic Recall of a Summer Afternoon

2014 T-shirt of a 1969 bicycle

The shirt was on sale. Close out, in fact. No actual Schwinn Stingray had resembled in in color, but oddly, the spackled monochromatic imprint seemed lifted straight from my own neurons.

Mine had been sky blue. Also, mine did not have a rear derailleur. I think it was probably a J39-3 Deluxe Sting-ray, according to the catalog.

When I stare at the bucket saddle, the swoopy handlebars, that ill-placed stick shift, I am transported back to ramps made of boards and tires, neighborhood races around the pond, throwing the bike down on one friend's lawn not worrying about it being there when I came back. The memories are photo-sharp.

But I'm not looking at this as a nostalgia shirt. Instead, charged by the ecstatic recall of those ancient memories, as if glowing from this spackled purple print, fueled muscle memories of those frantic spins, I'm re-minded: you're wearing a purple shirt, dude, don't take it too seriously. Or rather, shed all these accreted scales of  years and age and things by anchoring to the mind of a beginner riding that cool bike somewhere fated only by whim and fireflies. I rode mine through the sand blows of midwestern earthquakes. Beneath elms, after muskrats, and frogs. Down to a river sometimes.

Beginner's mind. Keep riding, kid, keep riding.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

We Are Strangers When We Fall

New public art by Robert Adams going in at SE corner of Scottsdale and Camelback Roads

A guy who sits near me at work hails from approximately the opposite side of the world. While we speak the same language, at least in name, and have similar occupations in the same office, in many ways there's a gulf between us. 

Our physical traits: color, size, height. The manner and form of his speech. His food choices. His mannerisms, the way he measures personal space, the way he conducts relationships both personal and professional, the holidays he observes preferentially, his family customs and duties, in these ways and many others, it feels that we are vastly different. Sometimes when we speak to each other, even though we've been acquainted for more than a year, this feeling of vast differences gives me the strong and uneasy feeling that our differences compel us to be strangers even in spite of our concerted and open-minded efforts to the contrary.

There will be backlit panels, and falling water splooshing off copper bells

We both enjoy riding bicycles. However, he suggests that he is completely confused about why I ride my bike to work everyday, in Phoenix, year round. I've gone out to lunch with him and explained it: the emotional side, the health side, the money side, thinking that one or more of these would make sense to him. I think he gets it, but still, my reasons actually seems to baffle him, like there's something I'm not telling him, some secret thing I'm hiding from him, some odd or strange motivation that he can't fathom.

I wonder if the copper will stay, or patina to green to blend in with the panels

I've explained to him that my family and I decided together to get rid of our other cars and just keep one for a bunch of good reasons. I go into manic listing mode, and brain dump them out to him: mandatory insurance, monthly payments, repair shops mystery diagnostics ruinously expensive parts and labor, yearly emissions tests, oil changes, including the two times in a row that the certified dealer mechanics failed to tighten the oil plug afterwards, smashed windows to get to thirty-seven cents in change, rush hours, pot holes, license and registration, weekly washing, fluids, tires, belts, batteries, filters, AC service, and wipers, but he doesn't hear any of it, is stuck back on the previous statement and he stops me: "You had other cars?" I tell him yes, we had two other cars, both paid off, that we got rid of once I decided to ride my bike instead. This makes no sense at all to him. He shakes his head and looks at me as if I am a stranger to him.

In a last ditch effort, I try to explain to him about gaining neighborhood proprioception by riding at human pace in the open air, about how even though I ride home through a major metropolitan area during rush hours, I go through neighborhoods I know now, see people I recognize and who often greet me, some of whom I know by name, and many who wouldn't hesitate to help me, or me them, in a moment of need. If I were to wobble on my bike and fall, for example.

It doesn't sway him though. He thinks I'm kind of crazy for cycling to work in the summer in a situation where I could drive a car if I chose to. But I choose not to.

As Odile's after-remnants pass through, the streets reflected sky

This gulf between us vexes me, so I mull it over on my rides. What makes differences so important? What makes us "strangers?" Often I ride, but sometimes I drive a car, and other times I walk. Thus, the "us vs. them" arguments of drivers vs. cyclists vs. pedestrians make no sense to me. I could just as well sit alone in a room and curse at myself psychotically about the different things I do when I utilize different modes of transport. I am one, not many, I am the same, not different or bifurcated, just because of the way that I happen to choose to transport myself from place to place. 

Similarly, my different-seeming coworker and I are really more similar than different. We both come from the same ocean of humanity, share a common ancestor in the geologically recent past, have common goals, interests, fears, hopes, dreams. Our differences matter, but should they render us strangers? Should we let them divide us? When we notice them, ought we allow them to rise in significance in our relationship to eclipse our deeper and more vital commonalities? Out of what, fear? Impatience? Ignorance? Discomfort?

The waters which circulated off the tip of Baja a few days ago were ripped from their place of rest into the swirling chaos of Hurricane Odile. She smashed ashore in Cabo and wreaked havoc there. In winds and hot-ocean driven power Odile drove northwards along and then across Baja and into Mexico, whipping out arms of energetic winds and water and clouds in a counterclockwise cyclone which dwarfed states on satellite and radar. Odile lost power over colder water and land, but still keep raining as her remnants power north, shoved around by low pressure, high pressure, gulf stream, and end-of-summer monsoon patterns that pause only for mountains and incomprensible towering domes of radiant heat.

In clouds the water molecules must have seemed same again. Not yet reunited with ocean, but floating about in a homogeneous mist of light and form and wholeness. Knowing within their atoms that ocean is where they belong and are one. Suddenly, with the right combination of energy and air, they formed into drops and ripped from the clouds, fell from thousands of feet of height and splashed into the street along my commute route. Into rivulets they flowed, then into puddles, knowing eventually that those evaporate or flow into streams or canals, into rivers, and down to the sea, back to same.

Some time this fall, canal water will flow over copper bell shapes. It will be pulled by pumps from same, carried through hoses above the bells, and sprayed or dropped onto them in a disconsolate division of spray or drops then ping off copper into rivulets as they fall toward the canal of same below.

In a moment, or after a century of multiple water cycles, the same drops will do the same thing again, and again. I'd like to think they pick up knowledge of what's happening. I imagine the water becomes wise, over time. Eventually, they will come to understand that same and different are just faces of motion and change, that transitory entities in transit might catch glimpses of chance differences which don't alter a core of meaning.

Drops falling on copper sing a song. The words begin, "We are strangers when we fall..."

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Bikelash: Riding Around the Mud After Storms

Bike path mud, September 8, 2014. The swirly loops are Nature's spirographs, I guess.

During the morning ride on the day that we received more rain in a few hours than we in the Phoenix area normally receive in an entire season, the superabundance of water was an inconvenience to me in some ways, since it was pouring down and required additional rain gear and some additional time, on the one hand, but on the other hand, there were fewer cars out, since by the time I had started everyone had seen the videos of the cars drowned up to their roofs in the low spots on the freeways, along with the mad running washes and the record rainfall totals already at drive time, and had chosen to hunker down instead of driving in.

Since it wasn't a very windy storm, and also lacked the dramatic thunder and lightning typical of most of our monsoon storms, the dominant sounds were of water falling and running, a relentless, soaking sound all of us heard everywhere, for hours that morning.

The next day, large parts of the city resembled this: mud everywhere, root and standing water

Even during the storm, as water ran everywhere, too deep and fast for the limited drainage systems to carry it away in real time, mud, dirt, and debris flowed along with it. It wasn't possible ride around it since bike commuting was more like swimming through it, but afterwards, by afternoon and in the following days, "ride around it" became the dominant need over and over, to negotiate the streets and paths and avoid what the storm left behind. I heard the squelchy sound of my tires finding this stuff over and over. As much as I tried to avoid it, my fenders still got caked with it, my frame spattered with it, my pannier bag covered with it. Minor inconveniences, at most.

Clean-up on aisle...OK on all aisles. The dried track on the left is mine.

All this riding around mud and debris got me thinking about that theme. Ride through anyway, come what may, get all dirty and have sticks and debris jam up into my fenders along with the mud? Or, take a little more time, slow down, plan out the detour, study the situation before riding on? I chose the second, most of the time, and it was so simple and easy that I wouldn't have even posted these photos or blogged about it. Like I mentioned, a minor inconvenience.

When I saw this video this morning, via a comment on Facebook from Scottsdale Transportation planner Susan Conklu who also appears in it, I was struck by how important it is to try to avoid stereotypes and pigeonholing whenever you seek dialog and progress on important issues.

For example, I identify myself as a cyclist because I commute by bike and also try to squeeze in some fun rides on the weekends, but, I also drive a car. Not very often, perhaps once every week or two, but I do drive. Since we sold our excess cars and decided that one car would be enough (that link goes to the story of doing that, a post I'm kind of proud of) for our family of four, taking care of daily transport needs by bicycle has become more and more a reality for me. I bought a Burley Travoy trailer which makes it actually kind of fun to haul stuff around. I've become a snob about Carradice bags and have dabbled in other saddle and handlebar bags. These practices and trappings mark me, increasingly, as an enthusiastic member of the bicycle tribe. I suppose I am.

This identity equips me with certain reflexive reactions when I encounter bikelash. I've written before about my thoughts on the typical reactions to bicycle commuting as bound to be filled with blood, sweat, and tears, even here and now where I ride in this car-centric metropolitan area. But I've also found, and I agree with the video below, that the most productive approach to these bikelash reactions is to treat the conversation as one about people, and better transportation, rather than us vs. them, bikes vs. cars, death/pollution/steel vs. health/environment/flesh. I drive, too. I know what you mean. I'm a father and husband, too, and sometimes I serve as taxicab driver to transport the family unit to ballet practice, on roadtrips to grandma's house, on cross-country excursions to Yosemite and Zion and Havasupai, and so on.

It's possible, based on previous experience, to look ahead in the dialog, see the us vs. them mud and debris coming up in the conversation after this divisive storm. I take a little more time, slow down, plan out the detour, study the situation before riding on. I take steps to ride around the mud, to steer the conversation toward people, and better transport for all. Inevitably, I'll still end up getting a little dirty, with some mud splattered on waxed canvas and some sticks jammed up inside my fenders, but that's no big deal. These long, soaking rains refresh and renew the earth like calm, long dialogs between two people over a cup of coffee change the world for the better. Like commutes after rains, these dialogs never seem to take the straightest path, but they usually get me home, after a while.

Talking About Bikelash In Your City from STREETFILMS on Vimeo.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

When Non-cycling Hurts

Havasupai trail 2014

My hiking companion and I felt compelled to hike out of Havasupai in less time than it took us previously, so we set a blistering pace with no stops and accomplished our goal. I don't think I could have done it faster except in case of some sort of dire emergency. The uphill stretch at the end, essentially the trail in the photo above, from the gravel bed in the middle-left then curving and switching back right up the hill to where the photo was taken, was a quad-busting aerobic workout. 

It felt good. We had stashed a couple gallons of water and ice in a cooler in the car along with some snacks. That water, and those snacks, consumed while standing on the edge after that hike, were like some kind of glorious feast. 

The painful aftermath started during the ride home. I popped some ibuprofens but, after a few hours of sitting in the car, my legs began to let me know that glory in hiking time is paid for with pain in post-hiking time. It was as if I was aging rapidly, with stiffness, inflammation, immobility washing over me like some kind of sci-fi movie. I needed an ice bath, a professional rub-down, ultrasonic therapy, a tiger balm dunk tank, some shots of dexamethasone, something, but instead all I was getting was several hours sitting in the car, and my legs were not happy. My back, however, was fine, and my soul was still soaring in concert with my keeper of personal records who was pleased with the accomplishment, so there was balance, at least.

As expected, I was sore and moving slow the next morning. I figured I would loosen up and feel better after I moved around a while. I rode my bike to work, and noticed right away that while walking was slow and painful, riding my bike was no problem at all. It was a remarkable contrast: stepping slowly, painfully feeling everything from my toes, feet, ankles, calves, knees, quads, hip joints, glutes, all crying in stiffness and non-cooperation with locomotion when walking, yet, while riding the bike, everything was OK. A bit tired perhaps, but almost zero pain.

Once at work, sitting at my desk and walking sloooooowly between meetings and from place to place, I did not loosen up as expected. I did not feel better after a while. I was moving so deliberately, slowly, and stiffly that many people stopped to ask if I was OK. If anything, it seemed that the pain and stiffness got a bit worse as the day progressed, so that by the time I got ready to ride home, I wasn't sure if I could actually ride the bike anymore.

But again, as in the morning, cycling was perfectly comfortable. Still a bit slower than normal, but getting home was fun relief, that I could do it, that there was still some way I could cover distance under my own power without pain, that I could get some exercise without agony. 

I begin to think: could I cycle around the office? Was this my body's way of telling me, "Hey! Cycle more! Hike less!" 

I've heard the same from runners who also cycle. A marathoner of many years told me that it was obvious, he always noted the day after a race that cycling was free and easy even if walking was a painful slow joke.

Still, during the three days or so it took for me to get back to walking normally, it was a pleasant surprise to me that cycling was remarkably easy even though walking was painful and slow. When non-cycling hurts, it may make sense to follow the words of the wise man: don't do it if hurts. I even suspected that cycling would speed my recovery by gently exercising those sore muscles, help them to stretch out and circulate out the waste products of exercise and inflammation with low impact movement. I wonder if that's true. My body seemed to think it was, and I hope that it is, because it's one more reason to go for a ride.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

This Night Can Hold Me and My Bike

Night flowers reaching across the path

Some summer nights the couch can't hold me. The four walls close in and begin to feel constraining. The urge for a kind of escape cannot be evaded, and nor do I want to evade it: I give in, get on the bike, and go for a ride.

Summer is still with us in Phoenix. 109°F in the daytime, with more of the same for the longish weekend. Ten daytime commute rides per week lessen my desire for another on the weekend. It was still 95°F after 8pm when I started this ride, but what a difference the sundown makes. Calling the night air cool would be a stretch, but cooling, refreshing, particularly when flying along the canal path on a bicycle. My summer retreat, my refuge from the heat, a place for my mind to roam to the sound of water flowing, and gravel beneath my tires.

OHSO conviviality by night

Rebarish canal adornment, a sign for exit spoken in Gabionese

The oft-glimpsed (on this blog) rusty fish of death and light

The house can't hold me, but this night can on my bicycle. Within loose but totally enveloping arms, of silence and breeze, with fading hints of the desert summer's last broiling shimmers around me. I crouch low and slip between them. This night can hold me, until the next one comes along.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Career in Online Poetry Law, or, Insights into Bicycle Culture

Bean pods in the shade in the bike bike lane

Cicadas singing their summer songs stirred me momentarily from my blog slumber as monsoon thunder and wind sweeps across the desert.

Crunch of mesquite pods, buzz of cicada, rising monsoon humidity, back in the embrace of summer again

Life is often inexplicable in its vastness and random-seeming events. Getting older in some ways provides a focused view of this pattern: by turns joyful, sad, strange, and with a feeling of inevitability. The joys of your children growing up mixed with the pains of older friends passing on. So many questions, but with answers far between, and of particularly unsatisfying rarity are answers which stand up to reason and logic, backed by evidence and data, where one might stand in the bright light of an Arizona summer day and be confident in saying, "Ah, yes, now I understand, and my understanding is evidently true, backed up by facts, and demonstrable to others possessed of the faculties of reason and logic upon presentation of these facts." Things are not so black and white very often, though.

A pointer, a signifier, signage unneeded yet helpful: the dog bark is over there to the right

In younger days, when this getting-older process was a distant possibility, when the future appeared wide open and I could choose to do anything (although perhaps that is always true, on reflection), law school seemed like a good options except that I thought a career in law inevitably implied something morally compromised or hazardous. I thought that lawyers in their work primarily have to think up imaginative and effective ways to defend clients on par with a nuclear weapons manufacturer sued for releasing radioactive waste into an Arctic wildlife refuge causing a thousand polar bears to die slow painful deaths from radiation sickness and leukemia, on evidence provided by a Nat Geo film crew. Although law school sounded like something I could do, even something that an older friend and summer job coworker tried to convince me I should do, this narrow understanding of the job steered me away.

Dying century plant, symbol of mortality and aging in the desert

Now, however, long past the sensible time for attending law school, I've learned that the range of actual work that lawyers might do, the variety of specialization available on that career path, if you will, is enormous, with something for just about every interest, skill, and type of moral fiber. Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), for example, is fascinating to me: lawyers working with conflicting parties to resolve disputes in ways other than litigation. Engineering law, patent law, Internet law, these all seem fascinating and challenging possibilities to me now. If I had known about them back when, I might have gone to law school. Well, not the Internet law part, since that was before Internet. But that's the way it was, and the way the future has unfolded, and I'm confident will continue to unfold: careers that are possible for my children when they reach that age will be in areas that don't even exist right now.

If I had been able to see the future back then, for example, and had run into the right advisor, I'm confident I would now be in Online Poetry Law, working with Internet poets on copyright and publication issues, fighting for the rights of the digital bards out there who need a voice and a friend in court.

Tree uprooted in recent storm beside the bike lane

This became so clear to me on this hot summer afternoon ride: our quest to understand questions truly important to us still exceeds vastly the answers we possess. About this aging process, about our career paths and choices, about where the missing 80% of light is in the universe, about the validity or lack thereof of ideas like "you are where you should be," "you are doing what you should be doing," "the answer is in the actions," and the error of using individual examples to invalidate or to deny the truth of the whole.

I've become highly sensitized to the techniques of rhetoric, marketing, eristic, and the stratagems used to win arguments by those for whom winning is mostly everything, and I find the methods highly unsatisfying. A quick read of Schopenhauer Art of Controversy will lay bare the more egregious and common methods. Nasty and common eristic does not sate me. I want to know. I want to be convinced by facts and data of answers which bleed truth.

Scottsdale Bike Stop, hidden in the corner of the Green Belt and Thomas Road, a good spot for bike culture

I think to myself, how can anyone be convinced by these debate techniques any more? Why are they still effective at convincing people of fallacious proofs of important concepts? Why do human continue to accept that the basically empty idea that one or some bad apples spoil the whole basket? "Oh there's a rotten/sour apple so all apples are bad," is ludicrous, but that pattern is reused over and over, every day. Scott Simon from NPR did it recently, blatantly. It's not valid. Over and over. 

Bicycle locking points (I think) at the Scottsdale Bike Stop (parts missing? metal thieves?)

I'm taking a step back and eating an apple, since many of them are certainly sweet, and delicious, regardless of single examples. The characteristics or actions of one individual do not invalidate a grand idea or beautiful belief. I think I learned that on this ride. And a possible corollary, or at least an associated neural firing, that bike culture is not really a specific version of this or that combination of peculiarities and perturbations arising from this sport or that city or this type of riding vs. that type, but rather one essential identifying trait, which is alone and in itself all we need: propelling a two-wheeled vehicle across the land under human power alone.

I want to know. I still yet have some things to attend to this summer which will preclude a normal blogging schedule. Some pleasant, some not so pleasant, some familiar and typical, some unfamiliar and strange. Some which I don't yet actually know. It's the state of not-knowing, but needing, I think, which compels us to fall back on argument, on tried and true debate methods used either on ourselves in our interior monologs or on different-others in the desperate attempt to cross the divide from here (not knowing) to there (knowing). But getting older has taught me this: if someone asks where that 80% of the light in the universe that's missing has gone, I feel bold and comfortable to reply: I don't know. I want to know, but I do not.

At this point, it's my preference for a scientist, or for that matter a poet-client of mine in an online legal matter, to show me glimpses of what might be the answer, shaded with uncertainty and doubt, but with hints of rightness, of correctness, via data or a metaphor, of pointing in what might the the right direction, instead of some bold and confident authority blaring in tedious forms of debate, of rhetoric, of marketing and eristic, The Answer.

My answers may be in my actions. On a bike ride, listening to the cicadas singing their summer songs, sounds a bit like truth to me, at times, on some hot afternoons in the shade of the mesquite trees, crunching my tires through the dry pods. I'm hoping for a more frequent blogging schedule sometime soon. Perhaps before the cicadas end their songs. We'll see. Ride on.