Saturday, December 31, 2011

Bicycle Words for 2012: Overcome obtundation, light up the banausic night

Thinking ahead, reading back, lighting up the night

I visited Peoria, IL in the mid-1980s, right about the same time as the central scenes in David Foster Wallace's unfinished novel, The Pale King, find his characters churning through form 1040s at the IRS processing center he planted in that midwestern city. Through a friend of a friend of a friend series of happenstance connections, one afternoon I found myself on an insider's tour of one of the Caterpillar facilities in East Peoria during a shutdown period (or retooling? getting ready for D11?), so not a lot was happening, production-wise. 

Due to some sort of market downturn, or perhaps over-production, or model switchover, there were hundreds of massive D10 Cat dozers parked out behind the building along the river. As I recall, as we descended some steps to stroll among these behemoths, I noticed they were parked in regular rows and columns, which I could easily count and multiply, with a small odd collection (also readily insta-counted) parked off to the side. When we got to the bottom of the stairs, I asked, "So, how much are 523 D10s actually worth?" They told me the market price for each one, and I replied with a staggering total figure, which I don't recall, but it was half a billion or a billion dollars, something of that magnitude. [I want to say that a D10 complete with a DH3 ripper tip was something like $1.2 million, but I'm probably way off on that, I don't remember with any confidence]

I think DFW may have appreciated my act of minor compulsive quick calculating ((48 x 10) + 43) x $one point two million (or whatever). I simply could not help myself. In case you're not familiar with his work, David Foster Wallace was a very smart writer who loved unusual or rare words, whose best-known work, Infinite Jest, is long and difficult and packed with discursive footnotes and asides and digressions. His review of Garner's Modern American Usage led me to purchase that book, by helping me to understand exactly what I would get from it. My vocabulary is pretty good, but I am not an academic in any sense of the word. My one and only actual qualification for writing something like this is that I read a lot, always have. Similar or parallel to my one and only qualification for writing a bicycle blog, I ride a lot, always have.

Reading much of DFW is a pleasure for me, but some of it is a stretch, some parts are a big stretch, and a few things I simply don't understand. I appreciate his craft, however, and see the parts that are beyond me as opportunities for learning. (Except for the classic Latin quotes, screw it, spare me, the book is over 500 pages long already, I don't know classic Latin, and I'm just skipping over them, mostly, even though I'm sure that digging into them would both deepen and broaden my understanding. I'll go back through them if/when I ever have such leisure available.) The enjoyment I get from reading him is also tinged with sadness, though, because he lost his long battle with depression when he took his own life in 2008. It's impossible for me to read The Pale King and not think about his end. So I had to mention it here, since you would come across it, too, if you haven't already, and it wouldn't feel honest for me to skip over it. But I don't think I have much to add to the massive and heartfelt conversation about his last choice and what it meant to those who read him and knew him, so I'll just return to the book discussion.

As I read through The Pale King, a few of the unusual or rare words that he employed jumped out at me: obtundation, banausic, semions, swivet. While consulting my dictionaries as well as online sources for the meanings and backgrounds of these words, I came across another blogger who picked out exactly these same words while reading this book, and put up definitions of them on her blog, You Still Have Time to Get to the Airport. After reading those posts, my first shot for a title for this post was, "2012 Bicycular Prediction: the Year of Obtundation: The Stroboscopic Bicycle Ride as an Eremic Swivet Through the Banausic Night." For more formal definitions of these words, please do take a look at that blog and/or your favorite go-to big dictionary. For purposes of this post, though, I'll pony up my working thoughts about two of them, to try to show why I think they will be relevant to me cycling in the year ahead.

For my usage, obtundation is the state of being dulled by repeated, boring, technical (not trivial), mechanical tasks to the point of loss of vigor. From Wikipedia for further background: "Obtundation refers to less than full mental capacity in a medical patient, typically as a result of a medical condition or trauma." In our present day, high tech, post-industrial service economy, obtundation is a mode of being for many or most. It's losing your edge after slinging code for endless 70 hour weeks. It's feeling your appreciation for life, your savor of what's good and true about being alive, being blunted by endless random technical minutiae. It's seeing true face-to-face personal relationships replaced with online check-ins and LIKES. The current popular modern remedies for it are shopping, substance abuse, and shallow entertainments, which bring only further obtundation. The remedy I would recommend here is vigorous exercise in the form of riding a bicycle often, at length, in a variety of settings.

For my usage, banausic comes from a Greek idea of the semi-skilled, specialist work required to provide the goods and services that most people want and need. As I understand it, though, by their very nature, wants and needs have no limit or end, plus producing goods and services to satisfy them is subject to both competition and economic pressure to make more for less at higher margins and increasing revenues at the same time. In our era, many of these wants and needs equate to abstract, virtual, online software or services that are utterly intangible, too, at least in comparison with CNC machined bicycle parts, for example, which you can hold in your hand and feel. Or, compared to 523 D10 bulldozers parked in ranks next to the river in East Peoria. For the examiners and forms processors and auditors in The Pale King, it amounted to endless reviewing of tax returns filled out by TPs (tax payers) who often forget to sign their own names to the returns or make simple math errors, and whose incentive is to pay as little as possible. All day. Every day. Without sufficient measures taken to counter the effects, such work can surely cause severe obtundation in short order. And I'm not talking about mere tedium here. I worked some factory summer jobs that were just endless, mindless, soul-sucking drudgery. For this usage, banausic may be endless and soul-sucking, but not mindless, and not simple drudgery. We don't need to adopt a rare Greek-derived word for that type of labor, as we already have existing common words to express those concepts.

The Pale King was unfinished at the time that David Wallace wrote his own ending. I harbor a pointless wish that if he had completed it, he would have clarified his ideas related to thriving and surviving this banausic age, on strategies for heading off obtundation. As he left his notes behind, though, and as they were edited and assembled into the form of this book, the reader is left to his own devices for answering these questions, since the uptake is unclear: there are characters who appear to have mastered it, and others who are psychotic sociopaths due to it, and crossovers who could go either way. Something Big was going to happen in The Pale King, you can feel it, but that Big Thing was never written, and never will be. Perhaps it's so personal that it never would have been, or, that it was his design all along to omit It. Perhaps.

From my perspective, though, and for 2012, my strategy is that getting off your butt and doing something physical, real, and sometimes challenging, like riding a bicycle, is a good approach. Possibly together with someone you like, or love. Many bicycle advocates seem to yearn for the final oil crisis that will force people to give up their cars and ride bikes and take transit, but not me. For one thing, such a crisis will have much deeper, broader, and painful impacts that I don't think we're prepared for. Rising gas prices, and increasingly wild swings in oil prices with increasingly dire economic impacts, probably will convince more people to ride bicycles, I would guess. However, this appears to be a slow process, and so far, we seem willing to do whatever it takes, and spend whatever it costs, to keep driving.

On the other hand, widespread obtundation induced by banausic occupations, and intensified by the greater productivity demands and increased workplace stress of These Tough Economic Times, seem like very good reasons to go for a long bicycle ride. 2012: the anti-banausic year, a bicycular end to obtundation.

I've also suggested to my close family members that I won't buy any new bikes this year, since I have all I need already. Which means n+1=n, which implies that anything is possible. We'll see how that goes.

I see you coming, 2012. Ready. Bring it.


  1. Excellent!
    I too have decided to be a bit more proactive.

  2. ON THE OTHER HAND, if you stock up on bikes now, when that oil price climb hits, think of how much profit you can make. It'll almost pay for the extra cost of goods you'll have to absorb - at least for a month or two...


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