Monday, March 31, 2014

God I Miss Commuting in a Car!!!

Good times

As I was toiling away riding home on my bicycle on a sunny, warm spring day in the face of a light breeze and the scent of a billion flowers, I fondly recalled being confined inside an idling metal box stuck in a traffic jam at rush hour, squinting through the glass which was fogged on the inside with a haze of volatile plasticizer residue, surrounded with faux leather and wood, the air saturated with the musty funk pouring from the AC that was set to high and recirculating in order to battle the heat and monsoon humidity. 

I wiped away a tear as I remembered my excellent fellow motorists honking at me for doing nothing wrong in particular. 

My heart missed a beat as I remembered the countless happy times approaching the gas pumps to fill up weekly, and noticing that the price had gone up again, or stayed high for no apparent reason except to fill the snow shovels that the oil executives and owners must use to shovel all the cash around.* Hey those tax-sheltered offshore investment vehicles don't finance themselves. 'Merica!

And so many things missing that once I enjoyed when I commuted by car rather than riding 3,000 miles a year to work on my bike. The joys of mandatory insurance! Monthly payments! The thrill of taking the expensive machine to a repair shop and wondering what amazing things they were going to find wrong with it this time, and what ruinously expensive parts and labor would be required to return it to working order! The yearly emissions tests! Oil changes! And the two times in a row that the certified dealer mechanics failed to tighten the oil plug after the oil change, resulting in a spill on my driveway and me having to crawl underneath, tighten it myself, and clean up their mess!

Going out to the car parked in the street to find that someone had smashed the window to take thirty-seven cents in change, and the excellent work the police did to locate and punish them, or lack thereof! Then wondering, for weeks afterwards, if the brazen thieves would return to take the whole vehicle, since obviously there were no negative ramifications of breaking in and theft.

License and registration! Weekly washing! Fluids, tires, belts, batteries, filters, AC service, and wipers!

Being cutoff by vehicles which by their very form and size embody "strong powerful fertile virile desirable male," and being in fear for the car in which I rode as well as the lives of those within it

What fun it was to guess at strange mechanical quirks. Like the day I was driving home on the freeway and my car just shut itself off at 75mph. Sudden silence. A bad sensor caused the computer to panic.

Or the puzzle of parking, how I miss it: circling to find a spot, fellow motorists slamming their doors into  your paint out of their blind bottled-up rage in the supermarket lot, or coming out after a long work day to find that a disgruntled employee keyed your car by mistake.

While I can't say I enjoyed the moral challenge of joining a herd responsible for so many deaths around the world every year, I can say that I sometimes exercised my mind trying to justify it to myself as I did it. I have places to go, appointments I have to make, fast. Isn't that worth it? The danger, I mean, the statistical inevitability of the deaths of thousands as a result of what I'm doing? I don't know, something about evading individual responsibility with collective blame seems questionable to me, but it must be OK if so many millions take part in the gamble and for the most part make it through, right? Everyone does it, and I have to fit in, right? If I rode a bicycle or something I would stand out, wouldn't I? Make waves? Question the norm, and demonstrate nonacceptance of moral numbness by my very actions and being? Suggest to everyone that driving as little as possible and taking alternative forms of transportation has many benefits, won't I be seen as a troublemaker?

With nostalgia I recall getting cutoff in the passing lane by a single driver making for the HOV lane at rush hour. So many swerves and near-misses I don't experience any more. The cat-and-mouse game of looking for police measuring my slightly high speed prepared to pounce on me to issue a ticket.

Most of all, though, it's the stress of the twenty-five minutes of driving in traffic each way each day that I miss the most. Sometimes trying to conduct conference calls while driving, late for the first in-office meeting and stuck in traffic, unable to understand half the callers who are also in their phones, in traffic, and don't all have very good equipment or connections or quiet cars or effective rush hour conference call etiquette.

That's all gone now, though. Sometimes, on blistering hot summer afternoon bicycle commutes in Phoenix when the monsoon rains return, the skies open and soak me me with cooling water, when I feel like all the actual and metaphorical grease and exhaust of automobiles washes off and out of me, along with the dust of the day and the residues of life's inevitable and ceaseless compromises, baptizing me with a cascade of nature's purity and remaking me into a new man riding almost naked into the night, I think: god I miss commuting in a car.

The type of shit we would have to put up with if more people rode their bicycles

*note: slightly against the tone of this post and the blog in general, but highly appropriate and authentically felt: oil and gas companies and producers who feel they have working Joes and Janes trapped in a corner because they have to drive their cars to work and therefore have to pay you whatever you want to charge for oil in order to drive your profits through the stratosphere while crushing the economy and enabling ruinous fracking at too-high a price both instantly and long-term: KISS MY TONED UP BIKE COMMUTING ASS.   

Saturday, March 29, 2014

On the Importance of Doing Something Non-obligatory and Life-affirming (1000th Blog Post)

I am the same age as Maynard James Keenan, the lead vocalist of the bands Tool, A Perfect Circle, and Puscifer. Within a few months, any way. Because of my personal history of music that's made an impression, and even my personal history itself, it seems inevitable that I'm a fan. When he moved to Arizona and wrote some songs about the Verde Valley, the connection I feel with the music grew stronger. My brother is also a big fan, probably for some of the same reasons as me and for some of his own. When we heard that Tool was playing in Phoenix, he decided to fly out to see my family, and to go to the concert with me. 

Considering that getting tickets for good seats would be a little more expensive than common sense would dictate, in addition to the cost of flying to Phoenix, I asked him if he was sure he wanted to do it. He told me that he thinks that it's vital that we do something non-obligatory and life-affirming on a regular basis, so that became our theme for the concert.

In a sort of preparation for the concert, we woke up at 5am and hiked down to the Verde River before sunrise. I've done that a few times before, and told him about it, so this time he wanted to go, too. As we neared the water in the morning quiet which was stirred only by the songs of early birds, we heard what sounded like a bowling ball being dropped into the water. "What was that?" he asked me. "I would guess it was a beaver slapping its tail," I replied. "Let's go look."

We pushed our way through the dense brush and reeds to get to the water's edge. There were several beaver-gnawed trees about. Scanning the water which was lit by sky-glow from the rising sun, we saw nothing moving for a few moments, then spotted the wake of a beaver swimming toward us from a direction opposite of the sound we heard. More than one! He paddled right in front of us, then slapped his tail and dove.

Being Maynard's age has made me think a lot about matters like health, stress, vocation, being a good parent, even retirement (or not?), and with all that I suppose also meeting my obligations. You don't gather so many years under your belt without having many of those. Sometimes they feel weighty, but that's all relative and I can snap that right into perspective. Still, I have to go along with my brother: sometimes it's very important to do something non-obligatory and life-affirming. Sometimes it is vitally necessary to do an unnecessary life-affirming thing of your own free choosing.

I didn't intend the 1000th post to be about Tool or Maynard or midlife in particular, but it turned out to be where I'm at and what I'm thinking about now, so into the blog it goes. The concert was incredible. Hearing "Third Eye" live was mind-blowing in no small part because Maynard held nothing back from the difficult vocals. Throughout, Danny Carey, the drummer, who is three years older than Maynard and me by the way, appeared tireless and driven by the rhythm gods to burn up the deep-seated steady pounding neurons of my ancient lizard hind brain with rapid interwoven and multi-layered waves of staccato intention. It's possible that in the final show of the tour they put forth a full effort. I strapped in, and was sated.

I actually planned in this post to write about a Saturday ride to my thinking spot to make an important, life-affecting decision. As it turned out, the non-obligatory life-affirming concert experience and the decision-making are intertwined and interrelated, affecting and affected by each other, so they're both in here.

Parking at the thinking spot

I've ridden to the same spot at key points in my life over the last 25 years to sit and think things over. I've made some major choices sitting right here, and they have turned out to have been the right ones, in retrospect, so I feel drawn to come sit here a while when a decision is weighing on me. I went there on Saturday to make a major decision, and then realized that in going there I've already made my choice, and already begun the process by taking the first steps without thinking about it. My gut has already decided; my heart has already made plans for what's next. I needed to spend less time here than I thought, once I figured that out, which gave me more time to ride along the canal and still make it home before dark.

A palo verde tree of great blooming and illustrious form along the Arizona Canal (a vision of happiness for the bees)

In the waning light, I glimpsed Amur catfish swimming up and hovering near the side of the canal at sunset making ripples on the glassy surface with their tails, appearing as dark streamlined torpedo shapes just beneath the surface. For the end of this one thousandth post, in closing, I note that riding my bicycle in general, pausing to do things like observing fish in the canal and riding out to look at art, and commuting by bicycle in particular, are important, non-obligatory, and life-affirming activities for me. Perhaps blogging about them is, too. 

As I ponder the road behind me, the pile of years beneath me, and being an old man like Maynard, I also note that my thinking place has graduated to the status of being my decision confirmation place, that sunshine on my skin and my legs powering my bicycle still feel good beyond all reason (in spite of adhesive capsulitis in one of my shoulders, good lord what's going to break next), and for that matter that loud progressive metal rock concerts still do some good for my aging soul. Having made my choice, I will keep going down the particular path of my choosing with enthusiasm, knowing that I'm good at that, and fascinated by what will happen next.

I want to thank you very much indeed for reading this blog, too. I know it's not for everyone, and I don't think I intend it to be. I like to think that we're here in this space for these few moments because we want to be, though, and because we affirm life. That underlies these words and pictures. In the middle, right here, I'll conclude how I started, with this small suggestion: get up. go ride.

Monday, March 24, 2014

It's the Heaviest Thing Which Lifts You Highest

Lift by Leslie Tharp in Scottsdale Civic Center Bell Tower

The first thing that came to mind when I saw this work was the brothers Montgolfier with their first hot air balloons in 1783 in France. What brave fools, to fill a balloon with hot air, and to then enter a small platform beneath it and ride it into the sky. Next I thought of the Siege of Paris (1870–71), in which hot air balloons were used to transport mail and carrier pigeons out of the beleaguered city, with return mail being sent back on microfilm carried by the carrier pigeons. Have a look at this terrific historic poster detailing the flights for a quick sample of who what where. 

Click for much bigger and informative version

Last thing I thought of was a vague memory that ascending in balloons gave one or more Impressionist painters a new perspective on everything, which took their work in new directions. I couldn't recall specifics and vowed to look that up as soon as I got home from my bike ride, to see if some intriguing / relevant art tie-in arose there.

The baskets are these lovely powder-coated woven steel simulacra of wicker

But before I could get to the Impressionists' history, which I'm sure would have been riveting reading and even more compelling blogging, I read the artist's Kickstarter and also her blog on the work that went into Lift, and found further research mostly unnecessary. On the Kickstarter page, while describing what the hot air balloon means to her, she wrote, "With art, I can fly. This sounds plain, but sometimes truth is simple. My ideas carry me into the sky. Sharing my vision with you carries me higher." Clicking on those two links is an excellent opportunity to get some understanding of what's behind these metal hot air balloons.

What stuck with me was her focus on inspiration. She wrote that "For me the symbol of a hot air balloon represents hope and opportunity and has become an important icon of inspiration in my work over the last few years...For me, Lift symbolizes the motivation to follow my dreams and embrace adventure!" 

I have to believe that the inspiration from them has something to do with the lightness of the balloon-in-flight, its soaring and roaring that, when the burner turns off and the great bulbous colorful thing just hangs there in the air floating, appears dream-like, surreal yet hyper-real. I've been to a few mass liftofts, at Indianola in Iowa, and also at the Thunderbird Balloon Classic in Arizona. So they shouldn't appear so strange when I see them floating in a clear blue sky, giant colorful envelopes of air above a basket with tiny people suspended, but they do, every time. So it was very interesting to me that Leslie Tharp chose steel as her medium, and that it required blacksmith techniques to fabricate these symbols of balloons which themselves are symbols of hope, dreams, and adventure. The making-of is always harder, and probably deeper, than it might seem from a distance. I do I want to braze up a bicycle frame some day. But I digress.

Art often is symbols of symbols, which in making and fabrication distill out the most significant elements of the original into the work product, amplifying or distorting them for effect, calling them to attention, asking the viewer to consider what-if, or what's-this, or in their like-it-but-not-it representations reaching under our common perceiving machinery, blowing right past it, peeling back notions and preconceptions, in that quixotic but sometimes effective attempt to get to what might be beneath. Or in this case, above. Taking us there below minimalist steel hoops while perched on magnificently solid steel baskets.

Looking up, your lifters are farther than they would be, and you can't reach these, but you can try

While reading about hot air balloons to prepare for my visit to this installation, I learned something incredible about them having to do with their total mass and the relative mass of their components. According to the table on Wikipedia

the envelope weighs in at a measly 250 pounds, the wicker basket only 140 pounds, even five passengers @150 pounds only add up to 750 lbs. It was that last line in the chart that caught my attention, and spun me around a little bit: the component of a hot air balloon system which has the greatest mass, by a long shot, is the hot air. 

Look, 100,000 cubic feet of hot air (dry air heated to 210 °F (99 °C)) has a mass for let's call it 2700kg or 5900lbs, which is about 3/4 of the total of the whole thing. It's apparent weight in cooler air, due to air displacement, is a different matter, of course, the one which makes it rise. But there's enough delightfully unexpected factual information in that chart to get a new understanding of what it takes to go UP: apparently, to lift 750lbs of human requires 100,000 cubic feet of pretty hot air with a mass of about three tons.

These red steel hoops don't hold air. In fact, if you sit here on a windy day you might hear the wind sing through them. As I was sitting there thinking that, I also thought, symbols of symbols, and what inspires, what lifts me? You can take those ideas apart, spread them across a landscape of rolling fields seen from above, and be certain of one thing, whatever the specific answer might be: it's often the heaviest thing which ends up lifting you the highest. Tie that message to a carrier pigeon you brought with you on the flight, and send it back to the beleaguered city it calls home. The groundlings may need to hear it.


Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Song of a Thousand Drunken Bees

Near the site of the almost bee crash

I almost crashed my bicycle due to a bee. Not because it was trying to sting me, but rather because I saw it wallowing around on the sidewalk, apparently heavily-laden with pollen and nectar, right in front of my front wheel just as I was starting out after taking the photo of the flower-hugged sign of Evelyn Hallman Park, above.

I snapped the photo, stood up to make a semi-lazy start, and just then noticed the bee. I usually stop by relying mostly on the front brake, but in this case my weight was not balanced as far back as normal, and the front wheel began to chatter as the rear wheel began to lift. That chattering sound I heard was what it might sound like to smash my face into the bee crossing the sidewalk that I was trying not to hit with my tire.

The reason the bees were heavily-laden
Just around the corner, after recovering by letting go of the front brake and steering around the drunken bee, I discovered the reason for the bee's flight-challenged status: the palo verde trees have bloomed. On approaching the tree above in the heat of the afternoon (low 80s today), and standing still a moment, the sound of a thousand bees gorging themselves on nectar, and loading up their saddlebags with pollen, was easily audible. This was one of the happiest bee sounds you'll ever hear: buzzzz oh wow there's so much here buzzzzzzz man I can barely fly buzzzzzzzz wait just one more blossom before I return to the hive buzzzzzzz. I basically stuck my head in amongst the feeding bees to get the photo above, and they didn't even notice me because they were so busy.

Suddenly, the desert parts of the state all explode in this yellow color, this one next to the Crosscut Canal

I stayed by the palo verde just long enough to take the photo and listen to the bees' song a moment. I was glad to hear their song, glad to have avoided running one over, and glad to not have smashed my face into it in the attempt. I had my own song to resume: the song of my bike tires on the path, the rhythm of the chain and cogs, the bass backbeat of my heart pumping. I pumped my legs hard the last few miles and felt a surge of energy by imagining the song of the bees.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Swim, Memory: Canal Convergence Water Striders at Night

Bicycle rides through the darkness on Spring evenings awaken my memories. Riding through the warm night air feel like swimming through a rich ocean of past images, sounds, and faces that flow around me and dance before my eyes. I hear their voices; I feel their embraces; I run through old cityscapes beside them.

But why those memories in particular? Which ones come back to me, unbidden, not obviously connected to this time, this place, this me? Why not others? The now becoming memory nestles down where it will, next to old films and soundtracks in the vault which were covered with dust but which get jostled by this latest packet of sights and sounds. Saturday night, brilliant colored water striders on the canal in Scottsdale, a new and distinctive set of memories, obviously, chose to store themselves next to old memories I have of riding my bicycle through quiet streets late at night in Cambridge, England. I don't know what this has to do with that. I'm just saying: riding home through this spring night thinking about these water striders took me back to England.

If I had known, I would have brought my autographed Paolo one

So fun. I jiggled the sliders and clicked the icons on the interaction console, and the striders did my bidding, light-wise. I lit their feet red, their bodies blue, their antennae yellowish, then clicked through the preprogrammed sequences while adjusting the rate slider from slow to fast and back again, and the line of water striders followed my commands while the water of the Salt River ran beneath them in the canal.

How does that trigger memories of a bike ride in Cambridge so long ago? And for that matter, why can't I have a similar level of control of my own memories as with the interaction center? A bit of this happy one from one time, added in with another sequence from a beautiful moment, intercut with some brilliant successes? This blue one, that red one, this green one, those flashing bright yellow ones? Stereoscopic cinematic memories striding boldly across the river of time lighting up the darkness. Swim, memory, through cold waters, I'm biking at night and you are bound to come along.


Thursday, March 20, 2014

Wash Your Bowl

Next steps...

I read this good thing this morning before setting out on my morning bicycle commute:

A monk told Joshu, “I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.”
Joshu asked, “Have you eaten your rice porridge?
The monk replied, “I have eaten.”
Joshu said, “Then you had better wash your bowl.”
At that moment the monk was enlightened.

What might cloud the mind to block the washing of the bowl?


If there is a simple thing that you should do, or want to do, or need to do, then go ahead and do it.

I imagined living in a one room shack with a dirt floor, a rickety table, and just a bowl of rice to eat. In the corner, a water barrel for boiling for drinking, and for washing up. Sitting at the table alone, eating the rice until it was gone, then thinking: what next? It was so clear to me at that moment: the bowl must be washed. It must be done.

Wash your bowl. Ride your bike. Or whatever it may be.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Parhelion: Learning from Ducks

I took notice of her, then she took notice of me, and we studied each other

I greet ducks. There, I said it. When I ride past them on my bicycle commute, I often call out greetings to them. Hello, ducks! Good morning, Mr. and Mrs. Duck! Why hello there mama duck, nice hatch of ducklings you've got there!

It's not like I expect them to answer me directly, or at length. I don't expect them to tell me that the scientific name for a sun dog is "parhelion," for example. For that sort of elucidation we require other humans. For the most part they lack language, and on the other hand/flipper we lack feathers, wings, bills and quacks. But as fellow living creatures I do sometimes hope for a bit of sensory interaction. Also, they appear to be such proper birds, dressed so sharply, standing upright, a bit brave and territorial in their conduct, I just feel compelled to not pass in silence.

Not just due to appearances, though, but also because I seek to learn from them. A while ago, I meditated on the idea that a mama duck protecting her babies on the canal bank is an example true toughness and strength, in "What is Tough, What is Strong?"

This one, this day, had the capacity to say something to me about nurturing. After snapping her photo, I kept thinking about nurturing, about taking care of the young, raising, feeding, protecting, and teaching them. It seems so important, the skill(s) of nurturing, but who teaches that? How do we pick up nurturing itself? Is it something you can even learn? Something so important, with so large an impact on our future world, I would think perhaps we would place more conscious focus on it. More importance.

Mama duck seemed to be getting nervous about me standing there on my bicycle so close to her and her babies so I moved on after calling a soft greeting to her: nurture them, so they grow up strong, swim fast and far, live well, and fly off to a far pond lit by a glowing sun dog. 

The scientific term for sun dog is "parhelion".

Monday, March 17, 2014

If You Aren't Looking You Won't See

Jeff Zischke, Water Striders, being installed for Canal Convergence this weekend (more info in notes below*)

On my Monday morning commute, I observed green water striders on the Arizona Canal. Large ones, five feet tall, twelve feet long, at least. If I drove a car to work rather than riding my bicycle along the canal, I wouldn't have been here, wouldn't have been looking here, would have overlooked these.

Paralleling my experience of four years ago when I rode my bike to work in the aftermath of a wicked storm rather than taking the car**, and happened to see something singular and unexpected occurring with art floating in this same canal by Fausto Fernandez, I had to be here to see these suddenly appear where they had not been on Friday; I had to be looking at what was happening around me to notice.

The water bugs raised questions in my head

"He was in the right place at the right time." That might be a microscopic statement of miniscule import, or, alternatively, it might refer to some monumental, life-changing circumstances. A friend was telling me how she was stopping by a restroom while on vacation at some remote, out-of-the-way place, and just at the moment she entered, a woman exited, stopped in her tracks, and said her name. It was a friend from college days, twenty years ago, who just happened to be there. 

We've all had a few of those seemingly amazing experiences, but what I said next blew her mind a little bit. I said, "Wow, fifteen seconds later, and you would have totally missed seeing her. It makes me wonder how many similar encounters we miss every day by a few seconds, or just because we're not even looking at that particular moment, or because of some seemingly trivial decision we just happened to not be in that particular place when they were."

Pausing here on the morning bike ride commute, contemplating the singular appearance of the large green water striders, I asked myself some relevant questions:

Where are you? Are you in the usual place?
When are you there? The same time as always?
Are you paying attention? 
Are you looking around with open eyes and attentive ears?
What do you see? What do  you hear?
What do you feel?
What do you smell? 
What's going on below your feet and above your head?
What's there? Same things as always, or something new?
Who's there? Who are they? What do you read in them? Do you have a connection with them already that you should reestablish? Or do the striders provide a context for a new connection?
What's the relationship of all these to the place where you are?
What's the relationship of all these to the moment you are in?

Is this the right place?

Is this the right time?

If it is, would you be mindful of that?

I read in the description of the striders that they will light up at night, and allow viewers to manipulate their colors with touch screens. I look forward to trying that, to gauge their reactions, to fill my retina with their pulsating / undulating / shifting colors. When I do, though, I'll be whispering to myself the questions above. And perhaps after the asking, stand and focus on my own breath a moment, to feel time and place unfolding.

Hyper-there. Hyper-now. Unshielded in the night. Because if you aren't looking you won't see.

Of course, I certainly want to be here, at night, to see them light up at night, to touch their screens

More info/notes:

*More about Water Striders from the SPA site, in case they don't keep this description up:
"For the past year, local artist and designer Jeff Zischke has been planning and prototyping Water Striders, a series of large, glowing and color-changing water strider bugs to float in the canal for Canal Convergence | Spring Equinox. During Canal Convergence event nights only, viewers have the opportunity to change the multi-colored water striders using touch screens located at an interaction station on the south canal bank.

A total of 8 twelve-foot long and five-foot tall water strider sculptures are scattered across the surface of the Arizona Canal at the Scottsdale Waterfront from Soleri Bridge and Plaza to the Marshall Way bridge. Come see these sculptures light up the canal every evening through May, with touch-screen interaction available during Canal Convergence nights only."

 **Perhaps the last time that was even a choice I might have made, haven't driven to work since.


Sunday, March 16, 2014

Toward a World with More Flowers and Bicycles

Through the billion flowers we rode, onwards, together, in our thousands

On my Sunday ride, I must have seen a billion flowers and a thousand bicycles. As often happens on my rides, a single overpowering thought kept echoing through my head: if we could turn rage into positive exuberance, anger into positive enthusiasm, frustration into love for what we're doing and who we're going it with, we would change the world. They will know us by our enthusiasm, see us by our exuberance, mark us for our love of what we're doing and who we're doing it with. Monday is tomorrow, and it's an opportunity to do this:
  • be enthusiastic about what you're doing;
  • be exuberant about doing it well and about completing the job;
  • fall in love with what you're doing and who you're doing it with.

Carbon fiber marked with African daisy pollen. You don't see that on a bike blog every day. Love it.

Can you imagine? I can, and it is marvelous. Sunday, thinking this while riding, it may have been the billions of flowers and thousands of bicycles that put me into that train of thinking, and if so, let it be: more flowers, more bicycles, fill the planet with bright colors and people riding bicycles in sunshine with doggies in their baskets, smiles on their faces, along wandering paths of no specific destination in mind, unhurried, unmeasured, unlogged, but colored with a remarkable enthusiasm, an infectious exuberance, a contagious love for what they're doing and who they're doing it with that flows onto the rest of the actions, and actors, of our lives. Let's do it!

Roadrunner along my ride. His beauty and boldness inspired me.

This thought also followed the others: in the end it may not be the fame or fortune we get, but rather the enthusiasm we share, the exuberance we show, and the love of what we're doing and who we're with that really matters. Those are they kind of rare flowers that do not show up often enough in our lives, do they? To encounter another person truly into what they're doing; caught up in the flow of their own focused enthusiasm and exuberance that they boundlessly pour into the task and job; powered onwards by the visible love for what they're doing and who they're doing it with. There are not enough of those people in the world, are there? We don't run into them often enough, do we?

What if we were those people ourselves?

More flowers. More bicycles. More bicycle riding. Tomorrow is Monday, and nothing is stopping us from being that change that we wish for. Think of how that would impact you if someone you encounter was doing that, and then turn it around: think of how you will affect others if you do it, be it, yourself. That was the thinking on Sunday's ride, and I think I like it.

A new stretch of path for bicycles, a new place to love what you're doing, to be enthusiastic about doing it.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Of New Chains, Old Paths, and Big Differences

Shady rest stop along the Crosscut Canal path

Can a new chain make that much difference? Should replacing a chain on an otherwise well-maintained bike even be noticeable? I wouldn't have thought so. But, I swear I notice a significantly easier, or smoother, or quieter (or all three) ride after replacing my somewhat worn (close to .75) CN-5700 chain with an SRAM 1051.

I also cleaned and lubed the derailleur pulleys and pivots, and generally degunked everything like I always do when I put on a new chain, so that probably helped, but it really didn't seem like I took a lot off. Maybe it's just the warm spring air and flowers lining the path and filling the air with perfume messing with my head. I guess I'm just surprised that it felt better with a new chain.

Rest stop shade makers, bee shelterers, and oasis for small creatures

Bike stand included

It was just an easy Saturday afternoon TCT (tri-city tour) along what has become one of my standard routes. I used to ride here before they made the improvements a few years back. They continue to improve the path and the surrounding facilities, and also, if I steer my bike right like I did this time, I get to pass through Evelyn Hallman park, one of my favorite quiet places to sit by water and observe birds. There's this cormorant, or at least I think it's the same one, who seems to be sitting on his favorite pointy log out in the middle of the water every time I pass by. In the summer, which will be here very soon, the cactus wrens call out there in the heat of day their WRACK! WRACK! WRACK! which somehow makes it feel hotter and also like home when the spring flower perfume gives way to the pervasive scent of ancient creosote.

Then back in Scottsdale, signs along the path point to some of my long-time favorite places, along old paths

I've been practicing riding in the drops on the road bike more, not exactly because I need to be more aero to get or keep speed, although on a windy day like today the air resistance can be a factor, but also because the different position exercises different parts, including giving a good stretch to sections of my back and shoulders that feel like they need it. My ergo bars feel more like the flat-curved section nearest the levers was designed more for pulling against in a sprint or race than for providing a comfortable spot for hands to rest on a long ride, though. I think I prefer a plan old bend like my Nitto B-115 bars have. I might be swapping them over to this bike, or else buying another set. I really like them. Man, those Nitto bars plus this new chain, and I might just keep on riding straight, instead of looping back on the TCT.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

blossomdrop quietstreet bikeride

blossomdrop: the unusually warm and early spring has caused the citrus to bloom early

quietstreet: it's spring break for grade schools here, so the streets are eerily quiet at times

bikeride: the temperature is moderate, the air saturated with the perfume of flowers, including citrus petals crushed beneath my bike tires, and I feel like I could ride this day forever.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Flower Bike Rack

The bees and I stop a moment here, to smell, and to take a sweet sip, before we tumble back into Spring.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Inspired by Beauty: The Aesthetics of Work

Portland Design Works Big Silver pump: thoughts on beautiful tools

It ought to be possible, I thought while pondering the mechanics of pumping up a bicycle tire, to put together an assembly such that by slowly raising a suitable heavy weight, a car, for example, by means of a slow-operating mechanical advantage like a large block and tackle or else a combination of a pump jack and stands, to raise the weight by human power alone to a sufficient height so that its controlled descent could inflate a high-pressure bicycle tire via a very fat pump cylinder and perhaps a pressure control valve with a single stroke. There's no practical reason for doing this, certainly, but still, a human might just undertake such an exercise because it would be beautiful in a certain understanding of the term to inflate a bicycle tire that way, and because as humans we are capable both of imagining such things and also doing them.

It must be similar to my early obsession with the fabled One Match Campfire back when I hiked and camped a lot more than I do currently. This particular obsession arose in my head out of a desire to achieve what seemed like the most aesthetically pleasing camp fire setup: engineer a stack of flammable stuff such that it would only require one match to ignite a veritable blazing bonfire visible potentially from space, using no accelerants, and only with materials gathered from nearby the campsite along with a knife and one match. I not only accomplished this in a fire-and-forget hands-off manner, but did so alone, on a summer evening when monsoon-powered gusts of wind seemed intent on keeping me from success, on the first try, and such that the resulting blaze served as a guide in the darkness to help my companions locate me. 

With a small pit, and some stones from nearby, I protected the initial bundle enough from the winds so it would catch, and by the time the larger pieces were burning, the winds helped my fire to rise up to a mightly blaze. These winds inspired my fire with the spirits of their breath, if you consider the older meanings and sources of the word.

Another reason to perform the single-stroke bicycle tire inflation exercise, though, would be to show the relationships between pump barrel diameter, target pressure, required number of strokes, air volume, and work. If you ignore losses via friction and heat, which, I realize, is anathema to cyclists, you more or less have to do the same amount of work to pump up a bicycle tire to a given pressure, regardless of the type or size of pump you use. A larger pump requires harder strokes but goes faster. A smaller pump requires easier strokes but many more of them. I've explored the boundaries of these relationships via products I've purchased:

A bracket of mechanisms for exploring effort vs. number of strokes to inflate a bicycle tire

After working through this range, and not having actually executed the single-stroke exercise (yet), I have previously settled on the top two in the photo above: a rather traditional frame pump, and the very good Topeak Road Morph. I also have a Mountain Morph, both of which show a lot of thought going into what it takes to convert getting a flat tire somewhere away from your home base pumping station into a tolerable or even enjoyable experience. Somehow, though, over time, the lazy, impatient, and demanding side of me has settled on the traditional frame pump, probably because it's an extremely reliable way to inflate a high-pressure tire with a minimum number of strokes.

The opposite tool on the number of strokes dimension is probably the Crank Bros. device at the bottom of the photo. It has a lot going for it, including its diminutive size, excellent design, reliability, and perhaps greatest of all, a switch which changes it from high-volume pumping for the beginning of the job to high-pressure to finish it off. This is an intellectually pleasing concept which almost motivates me to stick with it through the high number of strokes such a small pump requires. Almost. But not enough, so it spends its days snuggled in the spare tools bin next to the Park Tool mini pump, which unfortunately seems to embody almost all the drawbacks of a mini pump except that it's made by Park Tool and seems pretty tough.

The latest addition to this range of my pumps is the PDW Big Silver in the middle. It's gorgeous: made of forged and machined aluminum, polished and precise, all internals replaceable, mounts out of the way beside the water bottle cage, and includes a feature not even boasted of in its marketing copy: there is a magnet inside which retains the handle in the compressed position with just the right amount of force to prevent in-motion rattles.

All of the pumps above will inflate a tire. The PDW Big Silver, though, with its particular combination of beauty and features, appears poised to upset my lazy mind from its minimum number of strokes stubbornness over to the side of aesthetics and overall pump experience. Because, as I've blogged about before, well-built precision stuff makes me happy

Out there, with a fresh or patched tube in place, the work of inflation must be done. Barring [ha ha pressure pun] CO2 cartridge "cheater" devices (unless themselves filled by ratcheting up by hand a car to a certain height over a fat-barreled pump and storing the results of that exertion of work inside said cartridge, which, hmmmm). Previously, my mind seemed to settle by lazy preference on the reliable one requiring the least number of strokes. However, when the beauty of the thing enters the equation, the PDW Big Silver may just displace the old frame pump, since in addition to everything else I've mentioned, the PDW's mounting location does not break up the lines of the bike frame like the frame pump. I'm going to try it for a while, and see how it goes. (For at-home tool aesthetics, go and drool over J.A. Stein, and EVT, including relevant to this post the BAM BAM inflator, ooh la la).

In the end, though, the most aesthetically pleasing bicycle tire experience is one in which they don't go flat in the first place. This is why I commute with Slime in my tires, and ride on the weekends with Continental Gator Hardshells. When you live in a place rife with goathead thorns, broken glass, and roofing staples, the most beautiful bike pump is the one that almost never gets used, but is ready when needed. 

I will mount the Big Silver in its rightful place, gaze upon its silvery beauty, and hope that on its day of final need, the beauty of the ride remains whole via the bending of the mind to the task of operating the pump for the required number of strokes. The aesthetics of work is a complex subject. But in the end, it's why we need pretty things in our lives, like precision tools, and beautiful art, to inspire the tasks we must perform.

as usual, the blog disclaimer covers this post, too.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

So Quickly We Release

So quickly we release,
and lay broken in the road.
Handle snapped.
Shaft rusted and marked with the furrows of long use.
Tire-scattered, rock-scattered.

If carefully tightened according to instructions,
pressed with the palm until resistance is felt, just,
the release stays, the lever closes.

You spin it, spin it, spin it like a fan, though,
you spin it, spin it, spin it like a fan, though,
and the lever tightens not, 
the fastener does not hold fast,
and snap! In the road it lies, 
sunning for no one.

A snapped lever offers no advantage.
A loose nut holds no stretch.
Insufficient torque may yield the fastener.
Sun-blasted, you ride off in one direction,
your wheel rolls off in another,
and there's a moment of no-time before the burn.
The saddle drops, and you ride home like some cartoon character.

So quickly we release, the last time.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Respect: the Deontic Cycle of Attention, Duty, and Obligation

Respect: we all know what it is, yet it's hard to define, and sometimes in short supply out there

I started on a familiar path, then went farther in order to explore a new-to-me section along the New River Trail. I rode out to the west end of the Arizona Canal, to the Skunk Creek area where I've been before, then crossed the bridge and followed the New River Trail northwards a few miles.

Maybe it was because I was riding this trail while the Arizona governor was deciding whether or not to veto SB 1062, I'm not sure, but the sign above caused me to stop and consider its many messages much longer than one might think necessary.

There are three main message areas: SHARE the trail. YIELD in a specified, logical hierarchy. And, most relevant to this particular post, RESPECT, itself also divided into three: OTHER VISITORS, THE LAND AND WILDLIFE, and TRAIL RULES. My first response to this sign, to be quite open, was that it represented some idealistic, utopian view which made me wonder what bright-eyed sign author would possibly ascribe to the typical trail users I encounter such lofty capacities of politeness and compliance.

But then (and I ask you to consider my probable mood, given that a majority of my state's legislators had just voted to pass a bill which tried to erase 140 years of progress in civil rights, betraying a strong desire to resurrect the horrible phrase "we don't serve y'all kind in here") I thought, you have to have high expectations of your fellow man in order to encourage civility. Perhaps this sign with its high aspirations would elevate the thoughts of my fellow trails users, to inspire them somewhat to aim higher.

SHARE the trail is a somewhat complex notion, given its relatively narrow width. Two pedestrians meeting from opposite directions, or one roller blader swinging his arms enthusiastically, more or less consume the entire width. For a cyclist, sharing this trail in itself involves a degree of dodging, weaving, slowing, increased awareness, and flexibility. Sharing is linked to Respect directly in this way, with the "slow down and communicate when passing" item under Respect.

The YIELD hierarchy is commonly displayed on its own around here. As I often do, I thought about the horses. I've mentioned it before, but I always do yield to horses, and will typically dismount and stand beside my bike, when it seems like the safe thing to do, on a narrow mountain trail, for example. But on this trail next to the end of the Arizona Canal, I wondered how many horses I would really see, since they are fairly rare. Six total, as it turned out. You never know.

It was the bottom section on respect that struck me most. I know we all think we know what it is, and that we all want it, and that we know how to give it, and so on, but I stood there next to sign and tried to define "respect" specifically, and got somewhat stuck. What is it, exactly? How does it work, in detail? What's "respect" really about? I had several ideas, but decided to set those questions on the shelf in order to continue riding along the trail.

When I got home, I looked it up, and found a satisfyingly complicated and thorough exploration on the Stanford site. A lot of it is relevant to respect on this trail and in the public or civil sphere in general, but in particular, I found this section particularly relevant: "respect is ... something that is owed to, called for, deserved, elicited, or claimed by the object. We respect something not because we want to but because we recognize that we have to respect it (Wood 1999); respect involves 'a deontic experience'—the experience that one must pay attention and respond appropriately."

"Deontic" was a new word for me, meaning something having to do with duty and obligation. And the part about paying attention, and responding appropriately because we have to, or because we must, or because it is the moral thing to do, resonated with my thoughts on the ride.

Sometimes respect is compulsory. I do not think I would be far wrong in thinking that for at least some of fellow trail users, including some close friends and even family members, one sense of this is the respect commanded by a cowboy packing a six shooter. This type I suppose is the one compelled by threat of violence. Dirty Hairy, Rambo, American movie archetypes fit here.

A related type, still in the authority zone, is something like the British Bobbie, still compulsory due to authority, but not so much by the direct threat of violence, but rather by a sense of propriety, order, governmental power, and at least in the older "Dixon of Dock Green" image of the Bobbie, because he is known to you and you to him. Police in the U.K. still often do not carry guns. Whatever respect they command, whatever authority they wield, does not issue (at least not close to hand) from a gun.

There is also respect due to an analysis of the utility of it. For example, bees are a type of wildlife we should respect and nurture, not merely from the threat of their stings, but more importantly because of the utility of their pollination of the plants which grow so much of our food. This respect is made perhaps a bit more rounded and wholehearted for me through an understanding of the methods and lives of bees, which are truly remarkable, and to my eye beautiful, creatures. Flowers, by their connections with bees and by their own merits, may fall similarly into this category.

Objects of respect, of both utility and beauty, that I encountered along the New River Trail
Self-respect, the lack of which is often very evident, seems to me a foundation for other types of respect. The Stanford article, referring to the philosopher Rawls, says "He argues that individuals' access to self-respect is to a large degree a function of how the basic institutional structure of a society defines and distributes the social bases of self-respect, which include the messages about the relative worth of citizens that are conveyed in the structure and functioning of institutions, the distribution of fundamental political rights and civil liberties, access to the resources individuals need to pursue their plans of life, the availability of diverse associations and communities within which individuals can seek affirmation of their worth and their plans of life from others, and the norms governing public interaction among citizens. Since self-respect is vital to individual well-being, Rawls argues that justice requires that social institutions and policies be designed to support and not undermine self-respect. Rawls argues that the principles of justice as fairness are superior to utilitarian principles insofar as they better affirm and promote self-respect for all citizens." With the veto of SB 1062 still an open question while this ride was happening, that seemed like a particularly potent observation.

I felt like the five kids on skateboards who were not sharing the trail, not yielding to pedestrians or horses, and who were harassing other users including cyclists, were not on board the respect bandwagon at all: not of civility in general, nor toward others using the trail, nor even toward themselves. One of them had a plastic bag of spray paint cans slung over his shoulder. The structures and walls built to enhance the bridges and infrastructure along the trail strike me as expressions of the respect of a society for persons who would use that trail, while kids defacing those structures with spray paint strike me as disrespectful of those very same ideas.

Three of the six horses and riders I saw on this ride

Globe mallow, one of my favorite desert flowers, tough (loves heat and dryness) and loved by pollinators

A bridge structure across the canal which can represent respect, and also its opposite when defaced

The city ordinances enumerated on the sign in the park also relate to a form of respect (for laws)

Some of the other visitors to the trail, who I communicated with when I passed

This map also expresses respect for visitors, on several levels, similar to other informative signage

Another form of the respect of persons: a place to rest, with shade, in a design pleasing to the eye

Out near the end of the Arizona Canal, the trail (along the left) is again shaded by native trees

Signs like one at the top of this post hold up a mirror to us. They remind us of what we know we ought to do, even what we ought to be. One has only to rise to the challenges it presents in order to do the right thing, and be the admirable, respectful person, who is also worthy of respect, I suppose. Why don't those taggers on skateboards follow the sign, too; why don't they try to do that, to be that better person? That's the question, isn't it? Why don't we take better care of bees, or flowers for that matter? Why don't all of us pay more attention to them, and to our duties and obligations? 

Where does this deontic insufficiency come from? I don't know. I think I wish to understand it better, though. Maybe I will understand more of it through further rides along trails marked by signs which try to remind us to do better. According to that trail map, the New River Trail goes all the way to Happy Valley Road. It's a long ride, but maybe it's where I ought to be.