Sunday, September 25, 2005

Electric Guitar

We bought the kid an electric guitar so she can rock out between bouts of Gambeboy gaming, skateboard riding, and TV watching. So she is doing me proud right now as she slouches in front of the boob tube with her axe on her lap, strumming away to the sight of Chef Tony showing off his miracle Ginzu knives.

Of course, I harbor the fantasy that she’ll grow up to be a rock star, supporting me in my dotage in a style to which I’m not accustomed, but which I’m sure I could get used to. I think I’d make a great stage dad; I could see myself smoking cigars and arguing with promoters about how many bottles of Dom Perignon are required to be delivered to the star’s dressing room after the show.

It’s pretty amazing to me how quickly the eight year-old adopts the teenager’s attitude when she’s got an electric guitar strapped around her neck. The eyelids droop, the shoulders hunch; and I could swear the lip curls just like a little Elvis. I wonder if Mozart’s dad noticed the same changes when little Amadeus sat down at the harpsichord.

One of the great regrets of my life is that I didn’t stick with the bass guitar in junior high; I’ve always thought I really missed out by not being in a rock band during my formative years. Surely my support for and tolerance of the kid’s aspirations to be a guitar god are informed by that sense of loss. And besides, I look forward to the day I can rise to my feet in a sports arena, fire up my cigarette lighter, and call for an encore from my kid on stage.

Right now, all the songs sound a bit like Sonic Youth: it’s the wall of noise falling down across the bedroom floor. I’m happy to hang with that for now; if she starts playing country rock, though, the power shuts off.

Friday, September 23, 2005

The Elephant in the Room

Could there be any more graphic illustration of what’s wrong with things than the images of those massive traffic jams of evacuees trying to leave Houston ahead of Hurricane Rita? Isn’t the elephant in the room here patently obvious? Can we finally lay the blame for current crises squarely at the foot—or should we say tires—of the clear culprit?

It’s the automobile, right? It’s the car, or perhaps more appropriately, our ongoing love affair with this that’s causing all these problems, isn’t it?

Think of everything that’s wrong with the world. How many of these problems are caused—of at the very least, exacerbated—by cars?

Air pollution, environmental degradation, global warming, war in the Middle East, the decline of civil society, obesity, the rising cost of health care, you name it: each and every one of these has been precipitated by, (or again, at least made worse) by the presence of, and our reliance upon the automobile. If it weren’t for cars, our air would be cleaner, our planet would be greener, we’d live in a more peaceful, harmonious society, and most us would be much thinner and healthier.

This isn’t to deny that cars are at the foundation of many excellent things. Drive-in movie theaters are one. Demolition derbies are another. And certainly, the leisure-filled lifestyle that may of us enjoy would not be possible without cars.

And of course, we could still have busses and trucks, planes and trains to move our stuff and transport us great distances.

But just imagine what the world would be like if, instead of single-occupancy internal combustion engine-powered steel and plastic petroleum guzzlers all around us, society was dependent on human-powered (and perhaps solar- or electric-assisted) vehicles. Wouldn’t it be delightful to see rows and rows of bicycles, tricycles, quadricycles, and other multicycles gliding down the highways of Houston ahead of the hurricane?

Now that is one storm I’d love to be in the middle of.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Bad Bus Driver

I think my bus driver this morning was confused about what his job is. I think he thought he’s supposed be an absolute stickler for rules who follows procedures at any cost. I had thought his job was to help passengers get to their destinations safely.

He drove away from the stop at 4th and Jackson after having pulled in so close behind the bus in front of him that I couldn’t even see what number he was.

“Hey!” I yelled as he pulled away. I hopped back on my bike and raced to the next stop. Jumping off my bike as he arrived, I indicated that wanted to put my bike on the rack and board. He shook his head. “Aw c’mon,” I yelled, as much to myself as to him, “I didn’t even see you at the last stop!”

Granted, the bus was now in the “free ride zone,” where bikes are not supposed to be loaded, but still…

(On another occasion, a driver, realizing that I had just missed him at the previous stop let me load my bike.)

The kicker, however, was when we were pulling away from the last stop downtown. A woman who was clearly developmentally disabled cried, “Please let me off! I’m going to miss my doctor’s appointment!”

“Nope. This is an express bus. Next stop, Lake City.”

The woman began to cry louder. “Please! Please!”

Other passengers on the bus, myself included, took up the woman’s appeal. “Let her off!” we cried.

But the driver wouldn’t budge.

The woman began weeping. The driver seemed to take some sort of perverse pleasure in teaching her a lesson or something.

We arrived in Lake City twenty minutes later and the poor woman could be seen trudging across the street to wait for the next bus to take her back downtown.

Our driver had saved thirty seconds on his route and cost that woman at least an hour out of her day.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Cycle Commuting

The thing I like best about myself (or like most consistently) is that I am a fulltime bike commuter. Nearly every day (that I go to work) I ride my bike at least part of the way. Most days, I take the bus on the way out (Seattle is to be commended for having bike racks on all the busses) and ride my bike on the way home.

I’m incredibly fortunate to have most of my ride (about 14 of the 18 miles) on the Burke-Gilman trail, which is a converted rails-to-trails trail that runs along the coast of Lake Washington. Most afternoons, I have the decided pleasure of cruising along a car-free path in the dappled sunshine; the path is mostly flat, too, which is another plus.

In winter and spring, I often confront a 10 to 15 mile an hour headwind, which can add another 20 minutes to my normally 90 minute commute, and from October to May, I’m wise to have my raingear handy all the time. In December, I can count on a heavy cold downpour nearly every day; by Christmas, my gloves smell like cheese from being constantly damp.

Sometimes the ride is boring and often, it’s hard. The last four miles are pretty much all uphill; sometimes I take the bus from where the road starts to rise (my rule is that if I see the bus coming as I pass by the stop, then I can take; I’m not allowed to wait for it, though, if it’s not in sight).

In spite of these (and other) difficulties (dangerous traffic, riders on the trail who are faster than me and pass by impatiently, riders who are slower than me and who make me impatient, roller bladders, moms with baby carriages) I have no desire whatsoever to give up riding.

Cycle commuting makes me feel healthy, in tune with nature, and perhaps best of all, more than just a little bit smug.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Who's the Boss?

I took the car in to get serviced today. Arranging it was a logistical hassle; I had to go to school earlier than I wanted; Jen had to borrow our neighbor’s truck to get Mimi to soccer practice; it cost $639.50 just for preventative maintenance; plus, I had to sit in traffic for half an hour on the way home and I hate that, especially when I can see bikes whizzing by on the Burke-Gilman trail just a few yards away.

On Lake City Way, on the way from the dealership place to school, I passed dozens of business devoted to the sale, repair, and general care of automobiles. No other category of business was nearly as well represented, not food stores, clothing boutiques, even sex toy shops didn’t come close.

And so it occurred to me that—while we may think that automobiles are our servants—it may indeed be the case that we’re serving them. I want to point out that no one, as least as far as I know, has ever spent $639.50 doing preventive maintenance on me.

Human beings have this tendency, I think, to invent things that are intended to make our lives easier but end up making things more difficult for us. Money is probably the best example of this. Money was invented as a way to make exchanges of goods and services between people simpler. Now, though, most of us spend most of our time enslaved to some degree or another to the might dollar. What was meant to be our servant has become our master.

Language can probably be accused of this, too. Words may have originally been a vehicle for our thoughts; now, we’re fully beholden to words in order to think at all.

Speaking of vehicles, did I mention that I spent all this time, money, and psychic energy taking care of my car today? And did it even send me a thank-you card? What in ingrate!

Monday, September 19, 2005

Progress As Not Going Backwards

These days, as long as things are not getting worse, I would say they’re improving. As long as I’m not going backwards, I’m going forwards. Staying in the same place is moving ahead.

In my yoga practice, if I can still do today what I could do yesterday, then I take that as a step forward. If I’m as limber this week as I was last week, then I congratulate myself on how far I have come.

As far as my finances are concerned, if I’m not poorer than I was a day ago, then I’m richer. As long as my investments aren’t declining, they’re increasing.

In my personal relationships, all I ask is that people aren’t getting sicker of me. If the love isn’t turning to hate, if the annoyance isn’t morphing into disgust, if former friends are not enemies, then I’m on the upswing.

Am I getting fitter, healthier, hardier? Well, as long as I’m not becoming fatter, sicker, and weaker, I take that as a “yes.”

What fascinating new facts have I learned? The way I look at it, to the extent I haven’t forgotten more and more, then I’m gaining knew knowledge. If I can remember today what I knew yesterday, I call that education.

I think back to the concepts that have motivated me over time: continuous improvement, lifelong learning, grow or die. Nowadays, I’m satisfied just to run in place; that’s what progress means to me.

Had I tried to explain this a few days ago, would I have done a better job? If I try to do so a few days from now will I do worse? To me, as long as the graph of my performance is not going down, it’s going up.

For most of my life, every new day represented an opportunity to reach new heights. As I look at things now, every day at this level represents ascent. As long as I’m not sinking, I’m rising.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Door Prize

Yesterday, riding up Pine Street, just past Broadway, almost to Neumo’s, I got door-prized by a guy in a Volvo station wagon. He flung open his door, smacking it into my pedals, and knocking me over on the left side of my bike. I recall seeing the strange sight of edge of the door suddenly between my feet; the next thing I knew, I was lying in the street.

First thing I did was hop up and check my bike to make sure nothing was bent or broken. Immediately afterwards, I snapped at the confused looking young man standing next to his car. “Fuck!” I screamed. “Fucking watch out!”

He looked stricken. “Sorry! I’m sorry.” He tried to explain. “I just saw another bike pass and then I opened my door.”

The adrenalin was coursing through my veins. “You’re a fucking idiot! You have to watch out!”

“I know, I know,” he pleaded, afraid that I was as crazy as I appeared to be. “It’s all my fault.”

By now, remorse was setting in for my anger. “I’m sorry I yelled at you,” I panted. “But I’m just angry!”

“Is there anything I can do?”

At this point, I was wheeling my bike to the sidewalk, leaning on it, turning the pedals, making a more in-depth check of its health. I realized that my ankle was throbbing. I took a few more steps to determine how injured I was. While it hurt, I reckoned I would live.

I looked back at the kid and just rolled my eyes. I straddled my bike, rolled a few yards ahead, assuring myself that all was in order. One last look back at the kid who door-prized me and he was gone. In a moment, so was I.

I wish I had handled it better. I wish I hadn’t been so angry and instead, had looked him in the eye and said: “Now. Have you learned never to do this again?”

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Holotropic Breathwork Workshop

Today I attended a holotropic breathwork workshop. This entailed, essentially, lying on the floor for three hours hyperventilating while loud music played. The experience, designed to induce a psychedelic state in participants (at least that was my hope) worked as advertised. I felt like I went on a three hour acid trip; now I feel like I spent the afternoon tripping.

The overriding character of my experience was a sense of remembering that all consciousness in the universe is one. I felt a melting away of the boundaries between the other people in the room and myself; more poignantly, I felt a direct connection with my father and mother, both of whom are no longer alive.

As I began to move into a “non-ordinary” state of consciousness through the breathwork, I experienced the palpable presence of both my mom and my dad. My mom invited me into the other-wordly realm where my experience seemed to be taking place. She was a young woman, probably in her thirties or so, very poised. My father was there, too; he seemed in his early forties or so; he was educated and sophisticated and almost impatient that I was coming to the realization of timelessness and oneness so slowly.

I saw clearly how our consciousnesses are all combined, that they are me and I am them and that I am repeating this same energy transfer with my daughter. It was manifestly obvious to me that the boundaries of our beings are just an illusion and that time and space don’t really exist, either.

At one point, I had a vision of a magnificent sunlight landscape where all was peace and prosperity. I wondered how I could enter into this landscape without harming it.

Later, I was floating safely in the womb. I knew that I could journey into the light when I was ready, but as I curled securely into a fetal position, I was in no hurry whatsoever to leave

Friday, September 16, 2005

One Way or Another or Something Else

In the Apology, Socrates famously argues that he ought not to be punished for allegedly corrupting the youth of Athens. Essentially, he points out that either he does not harm the young men of the city or he does so unintentionally (for to do so would be to harm himself, and no one harms himself intentionally). In either case, Socrates opines, he ought not to be punished, for if he does not harm the youth of Athens, then there are no grounds for punishment and if he does, but does so unintentionally, then his act is not a criminal offense, either.

I love this argument because it presents a simple dilemma, shows that one horn of the dilemma cannot be the case, and thus forces us to choose the other horn.

Either a) Socrates intentionally corrupts the youth of Athens (and thus should be punished) or b) he does not corrupt them or does so unintentionally (and thus should not be punished).
He does not intentionally corrupt them.
Therefore, he doesn’t corrupt them or does so unintentionally and thus, should not be punished.

Life should be so simple.

Most of the time, what are offered to us as simple dilemmas are not dilemmas at all; they’re trilemmas or quadrilemmas or polylemmas of a far more complex sort.

“Either you’re with us or against us.” False! You could also be neutral.

“If evolutionary theory does not explain the origin of all life, then God must have created human beings.” False! Evolutionary theory can have some gaps but still be true or even if it is mistaken, there might be any number of other explanations other than theological ones.”

“If you loved me, you would understand.” False! I can love you with all my heart but still be clueless about what’s going on.

Rarely are our choices in life as black and white as they are in philosophy. Well, either they are or they aren’t. Or something else entirely.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Taking Responsibility

President Bush has said that insofar as the federal government is at fault for the catastrophe in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast he is willing to take responsibility for the loss of life and property and the suffering caused by Hurricane Katrina. But what does this mean, exactly?

To take responsibility for something is, it seems to me, to be willing to accept the consequences, including praise or punishment, for the event in question. So, if Bush accepts responsibility for the deaths caused by negligence in the wake of Katrina, shouldn’t he be willing to be held legally—or at least, morally—accountable for them?

When, in the course of washing dishes, I accidentally break yet another wineglass and accept responsibility for doing so, I implicitly grant Jen the authority to call me a careless klutz and consider it well within her rights to make me pay for a new one to replace it. Analogously, if Bush is responsible for the Katrina disaster, we should have the right to call him incompetent and to expect him to pony up for the necessary repairs.

If I’m drunk and while attempting to juggle it, I break a wineglass, then I’ve been negligent in taking care of our family’s glassware. In that case, I think Jen is well within her rights to punish me for being an idiot. (What form this punishment takes may be debatable, but as long as it doesn’t involve excessive physical or psychological abuse, I think most people would agree it’s justified.)

If Bush is indeed responsible for the failures of the federal government in responding to Katrina and if indeed the feds were negligent in their response, then he should accept some sort of punishment for his action or inaction. (What form this punishment takes may be debatable, but as long as the physical or psychological abuse is no less than the victims of Bush’s negligence themselves have suffered, then it’s okay by me.)

Sunday, September 11, 2005

How Good Do I Have to Be?

Here's what I wonder about regularly: how good do I have to be to be good?

Is it enough to be a relatively kind and gentle person or am I required to do more? Do the points I (hope I) earn for being a loving dad and supportive spouse get me off the hook morally or should I be out there volunteering to help victims of hurricane Katrina, not to mention the Asian tsunami and the tragedy in Sudan?

Am I justified in spending a day wanderinging around Pioneer Square high as a kite on pot brownies or should I instead have given away the money I spent recreationally to all the needy and homeless people in that neighborhood?

All I've done today, really, is watch sports on TV and ride my bike; how can I possibly justify that given all the pain and suffering in the world?

Of course, I won't make things better just by making them worse for me. However, I certainly could do more to make them better for others if I weren't so busy amusing myself.

John Stuart Mill, the 19th century "father of Utilitarianism," the moral theory that says acts are right insofar as they maximize total happiness, apparently almost made himself crazy by wondering in just this way. It was poetry, I'm told, that saved him. Poems somehow showed him that there is more to life than being good; I guess there is also being beautiful and passionate and clever and witty and so on.

Still, it's sort of hard to come to terms with how little I do given how much needs to be done. It's difficult to feel good about myself when my goodness is primarily a matter of not being bad.

From now on, therefore, I resolve to do more to make the world a better place. I think I'll start, then, by being a little nicer to myself.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Can We Bring Them ALL Home?

I have little to no expertise in the area of international politics. But I do have a question that I mean quite sincerely: what would happen if the US brought all its military personnel, stationed and deployed overseas, back to America? And I don’t mean just the 200,000 or so involved in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. I mean, what would happen if we brought home the more than a million men and women stationed all around the world in everywhere from Albania to Zimbabwe? What if instead of closing military bases here in the US, we closed them in Germany, and Italy, and Vietnam, for example? And what if we brought those service people home to work on projects that supported our own country’s infrastructure and security?

I ask this question in all seriousness: what would happen? Would the world suddenly (or perhaps slowly, inevitably) descend into chaos? Would the economies of the countries in which we have troops break down? Would US corporations who have operations in those countries be unable to continue doing business?

I would like to know the answers to these questions and more broadly, I’d like to understand why the US still has such a massive military presence abroad, especially given how clear it’s become in the wake of hurricane Katrina that, as a country, we are less-than-fully prepared for dealing with catastrophes at home.

Now, I suppose one could object that my question smacks of isolationism, that the US, as the world’s remaining superpower, has a special responsibility to protect people in all parts of the globe. This seems like a serious concern. But my response is simply to ask whether we are, in fact, protecting all those folks and if we might not do so more effectively by taking care of ourselves first.

I’m sure this sounds pollyana-ish, like those bumperstickers “visualize world peace.” But so be it. Here, then, is my bumpersticker: Can we bring them ALL home?

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

I Could Be a Contender

I’m thinking that the best career for me later in life is to be a professional pari-mutual betting gambler. That’s right, a horseplayer. Now, this might seem like an odd career choice given that I’ve only been to the track about a dozen times in my life and have not been particularly successful in making winning bets. But the key point is that I think I have the right sort of temperament and abilities to be a horseplayer, and more importantly, I look good in a straw porkpie hat.

They touts in the Daily Racing Form don’t seem to be much better than me at picking winners; they’ve just got a rap down on each race. I think I could do that. Consider my assessment of the 6th at Emerald Downs on September 5th, 2005:

Standard Setter came close last time out at better than 2-1 and his Beyers’ are pretty solid for this field. Bucko Wins steps down precipitously and ought to show class among these foes. Voile Soar could surprise given more room to work with.

It ain’t poetry, sure, but guess what? I picked the exacta and it paid 15 to 1.

Also, my top pick of the day, Once It Happens, went off at 3 to 1 and paid $6.00 on a $2.00 bet.

All in all, I bet $101.00 yesterday. In the end, I won $124.00. That’s about a 20% return on my investment. If I were to do that consistently, I could support myself as long as I was willing to wager about half a million dollars a year. That would mean I’d have to average about fifteen thousand dollars a day in wagers. That would require me to make about two thousand dollars worth of better on each race. Had I done that yesterday, I’d have won around two thousand bucks. And what fun I would have had…as long as my wife had no idea of what I was doing.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Third World Country

After viewing images of the Indonesian tsunami, I—like many Americans—felt an odd whiff of smugness amidst the horror. It went something like, “Well, sucks to be them that’s for sure; but boy, am I ever glad I live in a country where, first, given our high-tech infrastructure, such a disaster is unlikely to happen, and second, if it were to, we’d be able to stave off suffering by responding instantaneously and comprehensively.”

After viewing images New Orleans and Biloxi in the wake of hurricane Katrina, though, my smugness is all but gone. It’s apparent to me that the U.S. is no less susceptible to such massive natural disasters and hardly, if at all, better prepared for responding to them.

I had thought that the scale of suffering following the tsunami was a function of those places being in the so-called “third world.” Certainly, that would never happen in a “first world” superpower like the Good Ol’ US of A.

But guess what? It turns out that when things like this happen—as they inevitably will—we’re a “third world” country, too.

No phone. No lights. No motorcar. Not a single luxury. Like Robinson Crusoe, as primitive as can be.

I have no qualifications whatsoever to comment upon the problems associated with getting relief to those in need down South; hell, it’s all I can do to get to the grocery store myself—and here, they’re open 24 hours a day.

But it sure seems to me that everything (except the rising floodwaters) has moved awfully slowly. I mean, if we, as a country, have the resources to move like 200,000 troops half a world away and keep them there, well-fed and clothed for over two years now already, shouldn’t we have the resources to evacuate a tenth that many people from a major metropolis and get them someplace warm and dry a few hundred miles away?

Well maybe, if we weren’t a third world country…