Sunday, February 28, 2016

For Happy Attention, Beyond Dull Oblivion

Sidewalk stencil from (see next photo)

The Mobile _______ Studio, mid-description of the stencil process

People, and by people I mean all of us, whether driving, cycling, walking, strolling along the waterfront, or watching television, often seem oblivious. Unseeing. Uncomprehending. Unaware. Whether texting, or just lost inside our own heads, we often seem to miss what's going on around us. I recently read in a book by Emma Seppala I think about a study which found that people would rather administer electric shocks to themselves than sit alone in a room with only their own thoughts. Maybe these two go together, this obliviousness and this fear of our own inner universes. We have this wonderful thing called a neocortex which is supposed to set us apart and instead what it does is activate our monkey minds to leap to and fro and miss so much else actually going on both inside and out.

For example, I rode past this next thing a few times when they were setting up, and thought perhaps it was some kind of BBQ smoker. Not exactly.

BBQ glass, for blowing. Seems like that hand would get hot...

Or these next sculptures, which I saw floating out in the canal for few days. I really thought they were night-blooming sacred datura flowers. Once that thought was in my head, I was oblivious to any other interpretation.

Actually, not datura flowers, "Spiraling Droplets" by Aphidoidea.

Explanatory de-oblivinator sign

I think I need a brilliant green T-shirt that says "WAKE UP! LIFE IS BRIGHT AND BEAUTIFUL!" With a bicycle stencil underneath. 

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Visions of Power, at Night, By Bike

Bench commemorating canal power, cars wizzing past in the background (caption upper right about diggging)

Full-ish moon, Sunday night quiet streets, a compelling blog post by Lizbon to think on. Soon after I get pedaling, truly on a Ride of No Purpose or Destination but to drink up the night and feel that cool clarity gather behind my eyes which is part cool night air and part mind cobwebs clearing out, enabled by the quiet running of my fixed gear which makes the sound of tiny shards of rock pinging out from beneath my tires sound loud.

I read her post, headed out on the ride, and was thinking, it's about power. Visions of power. Liquid petroleum distillates are incredibly cheap, plentiful, convenient, and portable stores of power, and the internal combustion engine is acceptably good at converting that power into work and motion in our vehicles. If you need to move something heavy over a distance, which in a nutshell summarizes the transport revolution that empowers most of what we enjoy and rely on in terms of global consumerism and global commodities, hydrocarbons are the way to go, currently. For transporting cargo long distances, it enables an effective vision of power.

But that's not usually what the personal vehicle is most used for. Typically, it's used to portage a single human body some distance inside a one or two ton machine, where most of the fuel, and most of the resulting carbon emissions, are tied to moving the machine rather than the cargo. For short trips around the neighborhood, to the store, to the kid's school, to a local pub to meet friends, to get to work if it's not too far like mine, the poor internal combustion engine system barely has time to get up to operating temperature in the stop and go to the destination. This is another vision of power, one of inefficiency, waste, pollution, risk and danger, of which we remain largely unconscious for various cultural and economic reasons. The short-term costs seem acceptable, while the long-term costs are ignored, so the auto culture drives on oblivious. I prefer riding a bike, and wish more people felt the same.

It was four years ago that I sold my car and committed to commuting by bicycle. I think the monetary and environmental effects of my choice have merit, but more than anything, I look at the health and well-being benefits of an hour of outdoor exercise every day, and find it hard to express how significant or important that has been for me. That's another vision of power: take health and well-being into your own hands, power yourself under food power from point A to B, and enjoy the ride.

I'm not a car-free purist. I call us a car-light family: one vehicle (hybrid), four people, short commutes, kids' school is nearby, low vehicle mileage each year. Lizbon's post was not really about oil or cars, but instead about brutish American-style capitalism, which translated in my ride-cleansed mind into visions of power. I read a quote this week in an article in the Atlantic about anti-vaxxers which took on a broader and deeper meaning for me, a comfortable white middle class American Christian male: 

My major did have the word "science" in it, but my profession is in technology, which, considering the rest, feels like my situation fits the quote well. I am the hegemon. When I forget and think, "Oh, I'm just the embattled [whatever], constantly under fire," it's like yeah, it's understandable that you're being harassed, but it's because you have so much authority and power. Another vision of power.

Mid-ride tonight, I hit the middle section, through one of the wealthiest sections of town. Sunday night and the wide street with its enormous bike lane was utterly quiet. A car turned onto the street far ahead, approaching me, and the driver flashed their lights at me, quick, and seemingly friendly. I waved back in exaggerated greeting, and they flashed back twice as they drove by the other direction, far across in other lane. That was a vision of power, too, one that I can't quite put a finger on, except to say that it whispered of hope and compassion. Did I read too much into it? Perhaps. But riding into the night, with that cool clear feeling behind my eyes, visions of power in that form plant and grow into something splendid, and bright. Not for now. Not for here. I know what traffic will be like in the morning. But, somewhere, sometime. It's possible, that vision of power.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Loitering All Day Long

Wagging about: against the law in these parts

I checked the dictionary definition of "loiter", but it started off with "to wag about," and ended with some stuff that was more vague than what I was already thinking. It carries the sense for me of hanging around with no real purpose. The sign above is along a quiet bike path next to the canal, with some benches and shade, which actually seems like an excellent place to hang around with no real purpose.

But then, how would you know the purpose of someone? I imagined riding past this sign, seeing three guys hanging around, and thinking to myself, yep, they're loitering. But thinking it over, it's not that they had no purpose whatsoever. I'm sure my imagined three guys had some purpose in hanging out there, even if it was to drink beer concealed in rumpled paper bags, smoke weed, and kill time, they still most definitely had a purpose. 

So rather than hanging around with no real purpose, it's probably more accurately something like, "hanging around with a purpose I don't approve of," or something similar to that. I mean, imagine the same three guys, exact same place and time, but each holding a shovel, moving gravel from a pile into holes. Not loitering, right? So it's not about no purpose, it's about a judgment of purpose. This purpose, shoveling gravel, is OK (for some reason), but that other purpose, beer/weed/killing time, is not OK. 

Once I saw a homeless guy sitting right there on the ledge, next to his shopping cart full of stuff, reading Catcher in the Rye. Loitering, or not?

Could the same person, in the same place, sitting still, be guilty of loitering depending on what the purpose of their sitting still was? I read that St. Francis's great prayer, which he sometimes spent all night praying, was "Who are you, God? And who am I?" So let's imagine one guy sitting here silently praying and contemplating that, while another sitting in the same place is just waiting to meet an acquaintance who's bringing him some liquor. Both not really doing anything, not moving. Both loitering? And how's a police officer to decide? Would he somehow know it when he sees it? Anyway, is it actually required that I state my purpose? Praying Francis' great prayer, or waiting for booze, either one is private, isn't it?

Parked my bike by this nice sitting log to contemplate

I parked my bike by this nice sitting log to contemplate loitering. Which means, my purpose was to contemplate loitering. Where would that fall on the worthy purpose spectrum? I was kind of hoping an officer would come along and ask me what I was doing, inquire as to my purpose for sitting on the log on a warm, quiet afternoon next to the water, and I wondered why I would even need a purpose to do that, or if I would tell him the truth. Perhaps instead I would take out three pieces of paper, write down "Praying Francis' Great Prayer," "Waiting for booze," and "Contemplating the relationship between loitering and the perceived value of purpose," put the slips into my bike helmet, and draw one out. "Here, here's my purpose. Am I loitering?"

Sorry dude

Add a fourth slip of paper to the hat: "My purpose is to be off the clock and have no purpose." N/A. None of the above. That, I guess, would be pure loitering, but I suppose that's pretty rare, since now everyone is connected all the time, always going somewhere, taking a call, sending a text, updating a post, true loitering, wagging about with no purpose in the world, is likely rare. But today, a warm February day with blazing sunshine, I put down the shovel and went for a bike ride. I guess I was loitering for a full two hours this afternoon, right by many NO LOITERING signs, and it was fine. 

I couldn't shake the feeling, though, that the NO LOITERING laws and signs are for hassling people considered to be undesirable, mainly so that they can go loiter somewhere else. Or, perhaps, go and do something "productive," go an pick up a shovel and move some gravel, rather than sitting on a log in the sun beside the canal. 

Who are you? And who am I?

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Beauty of Difference

Intricate rock structures, elaborate yard adornments, layers of detail

I came away from reading a recent David Byrne post, The Echo Chamber, with the overwhelming sense that it's vitally important that we engage in conversation with people whose opinion is different from our own. His main point is that humans have a deep-seated tendency to gravitate towards, and bond with, other humans of like opinion, and that this bond becomes such a strong force that potentially troublesome things like facts which would disprove the shared opinion are pushed aside by the force of the echoing of mutual opinions.

The mechanism of this is frighteningly easy to verify. Find a complete stranger, engage them in conversation, and echo back everything that they say. Use a minimum degree of technique here so you're not echoing back what they say exactly verbatim, which sounds psychotic, but rather just confirm and restate everything they say, in the varying forms of basic discourse: confirmation, reaffirmation, question, response, clarifying but supportive inquiry. In no time, the echo chamber will kick in, and the stranger will most likely, 1) Feel like you are listening to them, and understand them, and 2) Think that you like them, and are trustworthy. I tried it with my daughter, then she tried it back with me, and we both agreed that it's crazy and effective, even when you know it's happening.

Zooming in a bit, but encompassing the whole thing from the street is nearly impossible

Bryne has a concern that social media exacerbates the situation. We tend to like and friend those with opinions harmonious to our own, unfriend, mute, and block those who disagree, and bathe in the echoic comfort of a reinforcing flood of word and image that reinforces the shibboleths of our own in-group while excluding difference at a minimum, possibly excluding even facts and data which would, if admitted, cause dissonance that might undermine the basic bonding assumptions. 

He's probably right about social media, but then, the echo chamber reinforcement of safe sameness is nothing new. You can sit with kids around a campfire far from cell coverage and see exactly the same mechanisms at work. You can read our oldest literature and see how power has always used this method to mold and direct public discourse. From Babylon to Fox News, it's the same. It's a blame game to point the finger at social media, somehow, for this. It's what people do, and it's not going to be optimal in any context.

Bike lane view of this wonderful difference

Byrne also writes, "I’m going to suggest that cycling or walking around in different neighborhoods gives one a slightly more face-to-face view of the diversity of humanity." I came across some of this diversity in a neighborhood in Phoenix on my Friday commute home. Sometimes I divert from my usual route to go explore neighborhoods off to one side or the other, to see what's happening. This first thing I thought of when I saw this elaborate aggregation of rock and knickknacks was, "I wonder what the conversations among the neighbors sound like," but I didn't really wonder, because I already know.

Detail-rich, one small corner of the whole

In particular, the ones who devoutly wish that the Home Owner Association in the sky would just show up and make it all go away will not find comfort or peace in difference here. However, it's apparent that we learn and advance primarily through non-echoic discovery, and we record and retain those advancements with language, which itself often has to be expanded to accomodate the new knowledge. The confirmation of gravity waves this week will no doubt shake up some previous comfort zones while also pushing the language to grow to new places to accept these new facts. Witness the flood of articles attempting to express what momentous thing occurred in our collective understanding this week.

To occur, innovation requires the conversation to expand beyond the echoic comfort zone. The challenge, even for the open and willing, is that conversation is a two way street. Even when you're open to difference, you're not going to like everything. Some things will please you, others displease, and that also is natural. So while welcoming difference we also have to avoid abject political correctness by recognizing that opinion and disagreement are also natural. Discrimination is not bad in itself: after all, we discriminate against discrimination all the time now, we pre-judge prejudice all day long. As both science and poetry try to teach us, much of what our echo-loving brains crave--beauty, security, comfort, love, hope, peace, solid understanding of phenomena, to name a few--are ephemeral, so the inevitable disappointment of our clinging attachment to them should be expected and prepared for, and not serve as fuel for our frustration, or impetus for lapsing back to an echo mode which seeks to evade disagreement and difference via an illusory and limiting permanence.

The beauty of difference lies not in its comforting sameness, but rather in the unsettling urge to have a conversation about it. The conversation becomes an end in itself, nurtured by politeness and the urge to understand that which, by definition, we do not already understand or know. I'm not saying we should always have a positive aesthetic judgment about objects such as those pictured in this post. It may be better to retain a healthy skepticism honed by wide experience and tempered by knowing what you like. Knowledge is strength, and if you know art, you will have specific opinions and responses informed by that knowledge, and calibrated by assessment of skill, technique, reference to other works, and so on. Art and architecture have ongoing conversations of their own, after all. But, I'm guessing most of the negative conversations about the yard above aren't based on comparisons with Park Güell and Gaudi. 

I agree with Byrne: cycling nearly every day does give me a slightly more face-to-face view of the diversity of humanity. I spin off to a new-to-me neighborhood, and get to see a different, diverse face. I think back to those photos of the early versions of Levittown, one of the first large-scale housing developments, and they make my skin crawl. Miles and miles of echoey sameness, scary conformity, unabated industrial scale blandness. Looking at the photos is bad enough. Riding or driving through it would be terrifying. Actually living there some kind of horror show that would seem like an implausible movie today. On the other hand, if I wasn't afraid that the neighbors would run me down with their SUVs while texting emojis to their BFFs, I would like to set up a lawn chair in the street in front of the yard with its rock and concrete structures in these photos on a fine spring day like today, and just contemplate all the detail. Perhaps, to welcome a few other people to come join me, to have a conversation about it. It might be a contentious conversation at times, but that's OK. Beauty has my back. We may want to be the same deep down, but in itself that also indicates that we must be different at heart. 

"Conform or be cast out," the old Rush lyric goes. That's OK by me, for the world is vast, and diverse, and full of differences still waiting to be experienced and discussed in conversations with unlike-minded people. The yard of hand-wrought difference connects me to all that other difference, in its own way. Hello difference, I love you. You are beautiful.