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.


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

There's This Fence Beside the Path

There's this fence beside the path that the flowers try to press through

Due to some events in my personal life, I'm going to be off blogging and social networks for a while. Thank you for reading. Peace.

The flowers try to press through and some make it, for a while anyway

Love and cherish your loved ones

Leaving the blog in good hands

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Search for Some Hidden City

Strider removal operation at Scottsdale Waterfront

There is no solace on earth for us--for such as we--
Who search for a hidden city that we shall never see.
Only the road and the dawn, the sun, the wind, and the rain,
And the watch-fire under stars, and sleep, and the road again.
--from The Seekers by John Masefield (thanks to Ironwood Bike Bags Blog for this quote!)

Water Striders, on land momentarily, headed to another destination

I've come to think of the continuity of my bicycle commute as a year-long distance ride of approximately 3,000 miles. Although the daily route is nearly the same each time, with changes I make to accommodate both construction zones and curiousity, the change of seasons, of weather, of human movements and schedules like schools, vacations, seasonal visitors, and ongoing construction and destruction both man-made and natural are triggers for my continuing quest to look below the surface of the cities in which I live in order to discover what truth, what beauty, lurks beneath.

The bicycle pace, the bicycle openness, the bicycle simplicity, enable this quest, as I've written about previously. 

Twelve foot long fiberglass bugs parked on the Soleri Bridge, in blazing morning sunshine

It's the hidden city of the the title and quote that I'm seeking, the one you don't see or only catch glimpses of from inside a fast-moving air-conditioned vehicle. Sure, I also feel the heat of summer, the dust of haboobs, the blast of wind, and get much closer to the uglier semi-hidden faces of the cities I ride through, too. The poor, the homeless, the overlooked, like the woman just off to the side of this tableau who I encountered with her bags and hacking cough as I rode around exploring this process as she was rousting herself after sleeping rough. It seemed as if no one else saw her. I see those sides, too.

Striders below the pylons, in what Soleri called the comfort zone created by the architecture

But I disagree with the opening line of the quote above, that "there is no solace on earth for us--". I beg to differ with the former poet laureate of Great Britain on that point. Solace that you seek. Solace that you make for yourself. Solace that you discover along your bicycle commute to work, like laughing out loud with sheer amazement and joy the first time I saw the water striders in the canal, and again on this apparently final act of theirs at the Waterfront, arrayed along the path in whole and in their parts in the process of being removed.

Twelve foot green fiberglass bugs which light up at night floating in the canal. I've tracked the cycle of their green floating surreal accent to our hidden city in this blog over the last few months. I've seen them, paused to ponder them in different light and at night, even programmed their lights to flash in sequence and also at random.

Separately lit and iPad-controllable water strider antenna balls: those things actually existed in my city for a while this spring. So again I diverge from John Masefield: you can see such things in this earthly city, but only if you look for them.

The road and the dawn, the sun, the wind, and the rain, and here in this desert canal-watered valley, the wind, dust, and monsoon rains, these factors feed and sustain my continued search for the hidden side of our cities. I suppose if I am totally honest, part of me does continue to seek that City of God, De Civitate Dei, that appears to be the heart of Masefield's poem. But also seek, with all my heart and mind, that Hidden City of Man that does offer solace, and truth, and beauty, to those who seek it here/now, in this life, in this world.

I've recently been disheartened, disillusioned even (which is rather amazing at my age, and may actually be a good sign!) with the irrationality and cruelty of humans both singly and in groups, both in my personal experience as well as in the news. We have these immense powers of both reason and creativity, enormous potential for both logic and love, yet it seems that nearly constantly I am bombarded with news and examples of the senseless exhibition of the exact opposite of these noble characteristics.

If I'm too idealistic then I guess I should expect disillusionment, right? It may even be impossible or pointless for me to wish that everyone would remember and learn from (consider carefully if not believe in) what Augustine wrote in the fifth century, as we're increasingly becoming programmed to view and forget in ten minutes viral videos and tweets on platforms engineered purely to influence our buying decisions of the moment. But there is no solace there for me. Or rather, recognizing the ironic self-contradiction of that statement in a blog post (no ads here, though!), I should write, my solace continues to be in seeking for some hidden city in the real world.

Sometimes the best parts of that hidden city reveal themselves, and then pass away. Float downstream. Get washed away by rains and canal water. But the impressions of them remain, whether on year-old satellite photos that still show colorful triangles floating in this canal as of this post, or in minds which are supported and sustained by differences made by artists and thinkers who also desire for more than what we normally see. You have to keep looking. You have to be open to it while staying strong in the face of not-it. The search for some hidden city, the ride to it and through it, goes on.

The video that Jeff Zischke posted about his work "Water Striders" is like a map to finding that amazing, welcoming, artful quarter of some better hidden city. Watch the video. It reminds me of what I keep looking for out there, down here on earth.