Thursday, August 31, 2006

Zoo Story

Mimi and I went to the Woodland Park Zoo today, in part to see the animals, but also to check out the new “Zoonasium,” which turned out to be a bust. Mimi was looking forward to an exhibit called the “strangler fig tree,” which she imagined would involve something wrapped around your neck that would haul you up into the air, but it was nothing of the sort. Rather, the tree, along with the Zoonasium as whole, was phony fiberglass geared towards the enjoyment of toddlers—not a bit of strangling (except among some of the toddlers) to be seen.

We enjoyed looking at the animals, especially the lorikeets, which you could feed by holding out a popsicle stick covered with bird feed.

I felt my usual ambivalence towards the zoo; the animals at Woodland Park have it pretty good; they live in reasonably spacious enclosures and given that the most were born in captivity, it’s hard to imagine that there’s anything particularly bad about their lives.

At the same time, though, I’ve taken lots of 5th and 6th graders to the zoo and I always ask them whether they’d be willing to trade places with the animals and if so, how large an enclosure they would need to feel they were living a satisfactory life. The general consensus is that a space at least as big as the state of Washington would be required; many students, though, insist they’d need a cage as big as the earth.

I would feel better about the zoo if it included a homo sapiens exhibit. There ought to be at least one cage with a family of human beings in it so we could see what it’s really like for the animals. The humans could have a living room set up with a TV and even a wireless internet connection.

The animals could watch us, then; and it would only take a few chimps and few typewriters to write this.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Killing Time

Mimi and I are heading back to Seattle today from Reno and we’ve got a couple of hours to kill before going to the airport. Mimi’s watching “Scooby-Do” on Cartoon Network and I’m noodling around on the computer and haphazardly packing. We may take a walk later and do some window-shopping at the pawnshop across the street.

But it’s the concept of “killing time’ that’s got me thinking. It seems strange that our goal here is simply to use up these hours, to get through them somehow so we can get on to the next thing we’re doing. I think of all the times I don’t have enough time; it’s too bad we can’t bank these hours for later use.

If I were a better person, I would never think in terms of killing time; I would always see every minute of my life as a precious resource to be savored. I would find a way to appreciate even the most banal activities; I would never be bored, no matter what was happening.

Unfortunately, my tolerance for empty moments is pretty low. I’ve always got to be doing something, even if it’s just reading a book or surfing the net. Look at me here: I could just be sitting quietly, watching from our 18th story window as people stroll the streets of Reno below; instead, I’m compelled to tap away on the keyboard as if doing so were a more worthwhile thing to do.

Industriousness is a virtue, I suppose, but probably only when it’s in service to something that has value itself. Keeping busy just for the sake of keeping busy can’t be any better than merely being; I look at all the elderly gamblers pouring their Social Security checks into the penny slots and can’t help but think their time would be better spent relaxing on a porch swing.

Just as you might think my time might here would been better spent just sitting here.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Gambling Hell

My mom’s term for casino was “gambling hell,” and I think she had it right. If there is a place of eternal suffering in the afterlife, I think it would be pretty much like what they’ve got here in Reno: a massive windowless hotel lobby, smelling of stale smoke and old booze, crammed full of beeping, clanking, and shouting machines, populated by overwrought people trying desperately to enjoy themselves while engaging in an essentially hopeless activity among strangers who will pretend to be their friends only as long as the money holds out; there’s no escape from any of it and success only gets you stuck deeper; moreover, what passes for luxury is phony, ephemeral, and forced, natural beauty is replaced with artifice and human contact with media-mediated pretense.

I have, at times in my life, convinced myself I quite enjoyed gambling; I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading up on strategies for playing craps and then trying to put them into action in a casino. I’m a reasonably intelligent dice player; I know the best bets on the table and generally have the discipline to stick to those options.

Last night I spent a couple hours shooting dice and believe it or not, I broke completely even, cashing out for the exact same amount I bought in for. Given then, that I got to drink a couple of three beers on the house, one could argue I actually came out a winner.

But what I keep thinking is that even had I won big, I’d still be a loser. There’s just something undeniably pathetic about casino gambling; looking around at my fellow gamblers, I couldn’t help but think that we were all punishing ourselves for something—maybe just being there.

Perhaps the reason casino gambling has lost its appeal for me is that I don’t feel I deserve this punishment.

I’m not even going to hell when I die, why should I when I’m alive?

Monday, August 28, 2006

Mysterious Universe

Jen and I have been discussing whether or not not believing in God represents a rejection of the belief that the universe is essentially beyond a purely rational explanation. Anyway, that’s how I’m interpreting it.

To me, the universe is too marvelous and mysterious to have a Creator. As soon as I look for an first cause, as soon as I try to postulate something that made all this possible, then all this becomes less extraordinary. So my inclination is simply to postulate all this and leave its reason for being here as something internal, rather than external to it. In this regard, I’m certainly influenced by Spinoza who always referred, IIRC, to “God or Nature.”

But this still leaves open the question of what happens after we’re gone or the degree to which consciousness persists or exists in the absence of the body. Here I guess I’m equally unsure of whether rejecting the soul represents a repudiation of the essentially mysterious nature of existence.

I can’t see how my consciousness will be around after my body’s gone; on the other hand, I sort of like the idea that my mom and dad are hanging about.

The metaphor that’s always made the most sense to me is the cup of water drawn from the ocean. When you’re born, it’s as if your particular consciousness is scooped from a vast sea of undivided potential. While you live, your self-aware consciousness is that little bit in the cup. When you die, the cup is poured back into the sea, so it’s not as if what you were is completely gone, but it’s no longer embodied in any way that preserves the consciousness that existed while you were alive.

None of this is particularly profound, I realize, but keep in mind that I’m writing this by the pool at Harrah’s Reno; I’ve had two quick beers, and on the sound system Frank Sinatra is singing “My Way.”

Oh my god.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Quadracycle Surrey

Yesterday, Jen and Mimi (who finally got here after horrendous rush-hour-all-the-way drive from Seattle which took them three hours longer than it took me on the train to get to Eugene) and I strolled around Bend and eventually, rented a four-wheel quadracycle surrey to tool around some of the local bikepaths for a couple of hours.

It was a riot.

The surrey had a bench seat on which we could sit three across with two steering wheels, only one of which was connected. The two people on the outside of the bench pedaled—the drive trains being independent—with the “driver” on the left steering.

Mimi drove most of the time and did a fine job except when she got distracted and almost drove us into the river. We covered about 5 miles in around two hours, including a half-hour stop for drinks at a riverfront restaurant.

Although I can’t see how this quadracycle could be a viable on-road vehicle—especially in Seattle with our hills—(at anything more than the slightest uphill grade, we had to get out and push), riding around in it really made me wonder about the possibility of some sort of human-powered family vehicle.

Surfing the net, you find lots of places that manufacture quadracycles, but all seem to be recreationally-oriented. On the other hand, that’s how bikes are marketed most of the time, too.

I would love to be able to run errands around our town on a surrey-like vehicle. I think it would be hilarious to go out to dinner together as a family or take in a movie or just do all our shopping on one. The tandem is adequate for much of this, but being able to be all three of us together—and side-by-side rather than front-to-back—was particularly conducive to domestic harmony—or at least, hilarity.

Getting another bike would make eight—and that would be overkill—but a quad? That’s a bike of a different color.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Made Me Laugh

Some things that struck me as amusing the last few days:

A huge motorhome barreling down the highway, pulling a Toyota Prius. It just seemed sort of absurd, like washing down your box of donuts with diet soda.

A salesman at a car dealership, tying balloons to the cars in his lot as a means of attracting customers. He’s just wrapping the string of a balloon around the car’s aerial, when it slips from his fingers and rises into the sky. He looks up and stamps his foot just like he did when losing a balloon as a kid.

A little boy learning to swim at the hotel’s pool with his grandma. She tells him to practice swimming in the kiddie pool—which is actually the hot tub. He jumps in and dog paddles across it while she claps appreciatively.

A drunk young woman with her two friends—a boy and a girl—on a streetcorner last night. The friends are making out; the drunk girl keeps saying, “No way! Wherever we’re going next, we’re going together!” The friends keep kissing, ignoring her.

A teenager inside the Lava River cave, checking his cellphone to see if he has service. Then, he calls his friend a few hundred feet ahead to tell him that he does.

Me in the cave, turning down the propane lamp I rented to see how dark and quiet it is with the lamp off. I then realize I can’t turn it back on without a match, which I don’t have.

Me, unplugging the little refrigerator in my hotel room because it’s too noisy. The next morning, I notice a big puddle of water around it from all the ice that’s defrosted.

The dozen—at least—bungie cords I saw lying along the road between Bend and Sisters, another one every few miles. There’s a story to each of them, I’m sure, but one that’s probably not funny to the person who lost it.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Going Underground

I spent about an hour today inside of the earth.

Earlier, I had ridden up a 500 foot lava cone butte outside Bend called, creatively enough, “Lava Butte;” then, about a mile beyond, I explored the Lava River Cave, a lava tube cave that extends underground for a mile and a half, dropping some 200 feet in the process.

I love caves.

Last summer, Jen, Mimi, and I went to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico and it was absolutely awe-inspiring. Even though it’s something of tourist trap, I found it impossible to be anything but amazed by the natural wonder of the place; my appreciation for the place was without a shred of irony.

When I was a teenager, I would go to a limestone cave called Laurel Caverns, about an hour from Pittsburgh. At that time, they let you do your own self-guided tour with a map of the underground. I liked to go as far as the map would take me, then turn off my flashlight and sit in the quiet darkness. Even wedged into a coffin-sized space, unable to see my hand before my face, I felt no claustrophobia. Rather, I was met with an overwhelming calm—except when I dropped my flashlight and the batteries fell out, leaving me with no escape from the pitch blackness until I managed to paw around in the dirt and find them.

Today, I remarked that my reaction to being in a cave differs from most people’s. When I’m underground, I want to be quiet and respectful; I want to experience the interior of the earth unmediated by words. Most of my fellow spelunkers, though, were gabbing away or singing loudly to hear the cave’s echoes.

I’m sure there’s something Freudian about my desire to stay hunkered down inside mother earth; or maybe today it was just that inside the cave was a cool 42 degrees, while on my ride back to Bend it was about 85.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Another Interview With Pluto

Yesterday, the International Astronomical Union declared that Pluto is no longer a planet, stripping our favorite frozen iceball of the planetary status it has held since its discovery in 1930. Today, top (or is that flop?) reporters from 327 Words caught up with Pluto for a response to the historic decision.

327: So how does it feel to no longer be a planet?
PLUTO: If you’re going to be insulting, I shall stop this interview right now.

327: Sorry, I’m just referring to the decision yesterday by the IAU to downsize the solar system from 9 planets to eight.
PLUTO: Downsize is right! This was purely an economic decision; and if they think they cheat me out of my pension over this, they’ve got another think coming.

327: But according to the new guidelines, a planet has to have cleared the neighborhood around its orbit, and yours overlaps with Uranus.
PLUTO: How do you know Uranus’ doesn’t overlap with mine?

327: You’re not satisfied, then, with being classified as a “dwarf planet?”
PLUTO: What? Now I’m Planet Dopey? Or Sneezy? Or Doc?

327: I sense some bitterness here.
PLUTO: Well, I am named after the god of the underworld, after all. But bitter? Why should I be bitter? After 76 years of faithful service as a planet, I’m suddenly kicked out of the planetary status by a bunch of second-rate star-gazers who weren’t even born yet when I was discovered? No, I’m not bitter, I’m simply disappointed by the shortsightedness of the tiny little minds who run the IAU today. You know most of these jerks can’t even use a slide rule?

327: Is that bourbon you’re drinking?
PLUTO: Single-malt scotch and at my age, I deserve the best, whether the IAU sanctions it or not.

327: So what are your plans now?
PLUTO: Well, let me just say that Pluto’s not going away; they can decree I’m not a planet, but I’ll always be a star.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


I hit a few bars last night and ended up at one drinking a Sessions lager and playing pinball.

It was a Lord of the Rings-themed machine, with loads of bells and whistles and it had the feature that lets you load balls into launchers so when you hit the right combination of targets, all the balls release and for a while, you’re playing three or four balls simultaneously.

I enjoyed myself while it lasted, which—at five games of three balls for a dollar—was long enough for me to finish my beer, anyway.

And I was reminded that I think pinball’s pretty cool; I’m glad to see it’s weathered the onslaught of videogames and that new machines like the one I played—though somewhat more complicated than I prefer—are being produced.

The first pinball machine that really hooked me was a baseball-themed one at a pizza joint called Terry Villa near my elementary school. I think you got three games for a quarter, five balls a game. I’m sure I spent my lunch money there many times.

One of the high points of our family’s trip to Europe when I was eleven was finding 10 free games on one of the machines in the kid’s arcade on the ship we sailed over, the SS Rotterdam.

In college, my friend Chuck Hartley and I used to get stoned and play a game called Fireball for hours. I seem to recall that at a certain point, the machine would announce its title, and we’d chime in, “Fireball,” too.

When Jen and I lived in Aix-en-Provence for a month in 1988, I spent hours in a smoky bar playing a Tommy-themed machine; it was easier than making conversation.

For all of this, I remain a mediocre player; I can balance a ball on the flippers and aim fairly consistently, but I’ve still never mastered the trick to stop one from draining right down the middle.


Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Pilot Butte

I want to change my assessment of Bend as just another small town. Tonight, I took a ride that made me really appreciate why this place is here.

On the east side of town is a volcanic cinder cone called Pilot Butte, that rises up, I dunno, 400 feet above where it starts. Six miles in circumference? (this can be checked) it’s basically a startling geological pimple.

It commands the view; you can see all the mountains in the distance, 360 degrees, forest fires sending their smoke into the air; you can see the river that made development of Bend possible and you feel the magical nature of this natural place.

It took me about 15 minutes of climbing to get to the top, circling the butte as the road rose. It’s a local custom to walk up; there were at least a dozen folks I saw striding purposefully upwards, or downwards with satisfaction.

I admired the view from the summit and came to believe that Bend has always been a successful development project. From the interpretive exhibit, I believe that a guy named Drake made a fortune in logging here and created the foundation for the town’s prosperity.

Tomorrow, I am planning to go to the local museum and get a clearer picture of the natural history of this place.

I rode down from the butte and then circled through what is called the Old Mill District. Developers have turned the old sawmill into an impressive retail and condo development; I was able to bike through the whole place, including the family-friend, yet deserted bike trail crossing the river that I assume made the old factory possible.

I was freaked out, though, by the piped in Muzak in the REI-cornerstoned Vegas-like mall.

At the base of Pilot Butte is the town’s cemetery; I got the sense riding around there that the pioneer folks who settled here felt the undeniably special character of that spot.

Me, too

Public Library

With all the complaining I do, a person could easily get the impression that I’m an irredeemable misanthrope totally fed up with all people and all that people do.

Not hardly.

In fact, I think there’s plenty that human beings have gotten just about right: the bicycle, of course, but also—though not exclusively—dark-roast coffee, music (not counting country-rock), parental love, the indoor swimming pool, wooden picnic tables, national parks, 100% agave tequila, the grilled-cheese sandwich, and the Simpsons.

And, perhaps rightest of all, the public library.

I was reminded of what a great invention your circulating free library is when I visited downtown Bend's version of same last evening. It’s a modern, several-block long, two-story, brick, steel, and glass structure that strikes me as quite handsome. Inside, it’s spacious, well-lit, and chock-full of books and computers; it’s even got free wi-fi, of which I’m taking advantage even as I type.

For five bucks, I was able to get a temporary card, which enabled me to check out a stack of reading materials that would have cost me—in their hardback form—twenty times that, at least.

Tom Wolfe, in The Right Stuff, wrote that when the initial group of refugee German scientists came to Los Alamos during World War II to work on the atomic bomb, they and their families all had library cards within two days of their arrival. Take that, eggheads! I got mine the same day I got here.

I committed my first (and only?) justified act of counterfeiting to get a new library card in fifth grade. Carnegie library required proof of residency; a stamped letter sent to your home address would do. I went to my Dad’s office, typed up an envelope, peeled a cancelled stamp off some correspondence on his desk, glued it to mine, and convinced the librarian that it was legit to get my new card.

I woulda done that last night, but my driver’s license sufficed.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Broken Record

Most of the time, I consider a 21 mile bike ride a pretty good haul; after yesterday, though, today’s distance was a mere walk—make that ride—in the park.

So, here I am in Bend, and it’s a cute little city; sorta like Santa Fe, complete with the groovy downtown area and the strip mall highway on the other (wrong) side of town.

But here’s what I don’t get and what I’m referring to (as usual) in this piece’s title: why are there so many people in cars here?

I was under the impression that Bend was going to be this kind of groovy retiree meets REI paradise, full of fit seniors zipping around on their mountain bikes. Instead, it strikes me (admittedly at very first impression) as your typical larger small American town, full of car dealerships, fast food outlets, and disaffected teens.

As I rode around town today, treating myself to a perfectly respectable Mexican food lunch washed down by several mid-day beers, I only saw four other people on bikes—and two of them were kids. Conversely, I saw hundreds upon hundreds of cars, including a fairly major traffic jam at a rode construction site that I rode right through, no waiting.

I know it’s fairly spread out here; people probably need their cars to get to their homes on the far side of town; on the other hand, the town itself can’t be more than 10 square miles and it’s plenty flat.

According to a city map I have, there is a Cycle Cab company here; maybe that will be the nexus of bicycle culture; I’ll see.

In his excellent book, Carfree Cities, James Homer Crawford explains how a city the size of Bend could function perfectly with an inner carfree core, surrounded by industrial dropoff sites for goods trucked in.

I’d like to see that, even if it meant giving up these anti-car rants that are beginning to bore even me.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Eugene to Sisters

Today I rode from Eugene to Sisters, Oregon, around 110 miles, including two mountain passes, one approximately 2000 feet of climbing, the other another 1800 or so beyond that. It took me ten hours and right now, I’m so tired I can’t even make it to my hotel’s hot tub even though I’m sure it’s just what I need.

As usual on a long ride, I did a lot of thinking and as usual, most of that thinking was entirely mundane, like “Why is my rack squeaking so much?” and “Where’s the next place I can pee?”

The last thirty miles were particularly exhausting, first due to the aforementioned second mountain pass, and then second, because for the last 20 miles (most of which was mostly downhill) I was deafened by the incessant passing of innumerable cars. At least 30 vehicles passed me every minute, one every second or so, usually in bunches, all going at least 60 miles an hour.

So, one of the thoughts I had was to reflect on what may happen to our country when the gas runs out. How will all these people, in their SUVs, motorhomes towing SUVs, and giant pickup trucks pulling motorboats, jet skis, and all-terrain vehicles get from one place to another? And what will happen to a town like this one, Sisters, way up in the woods, accessible only—unless you’re willing to spend 10 hours on a bike—via the internal combustion engine?

The other thing I thought about a lot was the hundreds of dead and dying moths I saw. Orange with black spots, about as big as a half dollar, they littered the road for the middle forty miles of the ride. I guess it it’s just time, late August their life cycle coming to an end. I put a carcass in my handlebar bag’s clear plastic map holder where I could admire it.

A dead moth makes it to Sisters; me, I’m dead-tired.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Train Ride

I’m on the train from Seattle to Eugene, Oregon, where I will spend the night before riding my bike to Bend for a five-day yoga workshop with Manju Jois, who is the son of Pattabhi Jois, the guru of the type of yoga I practice, Ashtanga.

It’s not so bad, although this last hour of about six is getting a bit long. I much prefer it to driving, in any case.

What I like best about this Amtrak Cascades route is that I can hop on my bike at home, put it entirely assembled in the baggage car of the train, retrieve it at my destination and cycle to the hotel where I’m staying for the night. This seems terribly civilized and makes me feel as if I’m in Europe, except that I can understand the intercom announcements—and the beer I’ve been drinking en route is Budweiser.

We’re stopped now is a place called Albany; it looks pleasant enough, if a bit mall-like. I’m always reminded when I see a place like this that people live everywhere; there’s probably not a modern dance troupe or bubble tea café anywhere for miles and yet the place is thriving.

Right now, there’s a guy a few rows ahead of me whose iPod is so loud I can hear his music pounding through his eardrums. He’s listening to something that sounds like silverware clattering around in a clothes dryer. Once again the truism obtains: the worse the music, the louder it’s played.

Amtrak appeals to the older traveler. For instance, I saw a beautifully dressed woman in her sixties who bought a split of wine to drink by herself in the lounge car; I found that both pretty cool and somewhat pathetic. Across the aisle from me was a man who was at least eighty; he brought his own lunch; surprisingly it was sesame noodles.

Then there are the old grouchy people—like me, tormented by some youngster’s “music.”

Clowning Around

Last night, Mimi, Chris Badgely, me, and 8 other people dressed up as clowns and went to the Emerald Downs horseracing track to drink, gamble, and otherwise raise good-natured hell in public. It was an intentionally absurdist endeavor on our parts occasioned by the track’s unintentionally absurdist endeavor, the annual between-race running of the Weiner Dogs, in which a dozen dachshunds bolt from a standard horse-racing gate 100 yards down the track into the waiting arms of their owners.

Mimi stole the show; she went as “Abraham Linclown,” a whiteface circus performer version of our country’s 16th President.

Sweetly enough, one of the adult clown’s moms was also with us which meant that we had three generations of clowns, two drinking heavily.

I went as Nutty Professor Clown, sort of Jerry Lewis meets Beetlejuice. After a few belts, I totally got into my character, affecting a voice somewhere between Krusty the Clown and Jackie Mason. Soon enough, I was also Drunken Racetrack Tout Clown accosting random gamblers and asking them which horse they liked in the upcoming race and offering my own (invariably mistaken) predictions.

Chris played his gladiator clown character, Hilarious Maximus to the hilt; bellowing commands and exortations to our clown posse while simultaneously managing to put away copious amounts of bourbon and when that ran dry, plenty of vodka, too.

Three reactions typified people’s responses to us. Some were genuinely frightened or at least pretended to be in order to keep us away. A smaller percentage of people were authentically amused; some of these wanted pictures with us. Most people, though, (surprisingly enough to me) ignored us; they seemed to be pretending either that we weren’t dressed oddly or that seeing people dressed up as clowns was an everyday occurrence.

All in all, I had a gas, but being a clown did nothing for my handicapping; I picked no winners, and even the obvious clown hunch bet “Parade Scene” finished out of the money.

Friday, August 18, 2006

327 Words "Patchkit" Alleycat

In celebration of bikes, bikeshops, beer, coffee, the 327 word essay, and to squeeze all the remaining fun from summer before college starts again, 327Words, in conjunction with supportive bicycle retailers, drinking establishments, and coffeeshops, presents the First Annual 327Words Patchkit Alleycat, to be held on Saturday, September 23, 2006, starting precisely at 3:27 in the afternoon.

Participants will be required to visit 3 coffeeshops, 2 bars, and 7 bikeshops to complete the race. Confirmed coffee stops include Victrola and Zeitgeist, bikeshops on tap include Velo Stores, Recycled Cycles, Free Range, and TI Cycles; bars to be determined; after-party, though, is scheduled to take place at Madrona Eatery.

At each bar, riders will be provided with a malt beverage, and at each coffeeshop, a cup of joe.

At the initial bikeshop--2020 Cycle--riders will receive an empty patchkit box. Then, at their six subsequent stops, they will pick up another item for the kit—vulcanizing fluid, patches, sandpaper, etc.—completing the race when their patchkit has seven components, including the box. Prizes are expected to be awarded for Fastest Overall Times, First Lady, DFL, and Miss(ter) Congeniality.

Entry fee will be a suggested donation of 10 dollars, which will cover each rider’s patchkit, beer, and coffee. No one, however, will be turned away if he or she really wants to ride; “scholarships” are available.

All-ages riders can drink soft drinks at the scheduled beer-drinking stops.

This ride is inspired by and the organizer owes a great debt of gratitude to the organizers of other delightful alleycats he has been fortunate to participate in, including R.E.Load Baggage's’ “Cops n’ Robbers” Alleycat, Chris from .83’s “Brews, Brewed, and Bruise” race, The Critical Mass Incident Legal Fundraiser Race, and of course, the Dead Baby Downhill and Messenger Challenge.

Details of the Patchkit Alleycat will be forthcoming as the date approaches. For more information or to volunteer, email Dave at

This notice itself is 327 words; well, now. Now.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Woo-Woo Medicine

This summer, for various reasons, I’ve tried a number of alternative medical treatments, including deep-tissue massage, cranio-sacral therapy, acupuncture, and most recently colon hydrotherapy. While each of them made me feel better in some way, none was really profound, and I’m not entirely sure that I wouldn’t have felt better had I taken the money I spent on the treatments and bought a plane ticket to go lie on the beach for a few days.

I guess I’m somewhat skeptical about the ability of any sort of treatment administered by someone else to really make me feel much better. It seems like the most effective things I do to heal an injury or recover from a cold are things I do to myself. When I injured my neck, for instance, nothing felt better than doing a headstand between two chairs with my head hanging free; when I feel a cold coming on, I still think the best treatment is self-administered echinacea and massive doses of vitamin C.

It’s odd that, as a physician’s son, I should be so wary of the healing arts.

Or maybe not.

I know that my aversion to hospitals is at least in part a product of being dragged to my dad’s office at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center on numerous Sundays either before or after Steelers games. And even though I liked that we didn’t have to go to the pediatrician to get our throat cultured when it looked like we might have strep, I was still made very nervous when, in order to remove a splinter from my foot, Dad would first sterilize the needle with a match.

Overall, healing is a strange business. If it works, it makes itself unnecessary, so it seems like professional healers have a vested in interest in your being unwell.

All of the practicioners I went to this summer invited me back for further work; something’s sick about this, but I’m not sure it’s me.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Interview with Pluto

Crack correspondents (or is that crack-smoking?) from 327Words have secured this exclusive interview with the planet Pluto, which has recently had its qualifications as a planet called into question by top astronomers and scientists.

327: It looks like there’s a chance you’ll have your status as a planet reduced to merely an ice ball in the Kuiper Belt, what’s up with that?
PLUTO: Old news; turns out the eggheads have EXPANDED their official definition of planet; I’m set now, planet Pluto is secure!

327: But apparently that means other “objects,” like the really big asteroid, Ceres, and maybe even your own moon, Charon, will become planets.
PLUTO: An asteroid? Please. And Charon—you’ve got to be kidding!

327: Charon’s half as big as you are, no?
PLUTO: Pardon me, but Charon simply follows me around everywhere! He is in my very own orbit!

327: So can you propose a definition of “planet,” then, that makes a distinction between you and Charon?
PLUTO: How about history? Or astrology charts? Would you please tell me what sign your own Charon is in?

327: Seems pretty arbitrary.
PLUTO: Listen, I never asked to be a planet, anyway. I was perfectly happy being unseen to the visible eye for centuries. But I’ve paid my dues doing the planet act, night at day, being there for anybody to look at, appearing at shopping center openings, you name it.

327: So you want the club to remain exclusive.
PLUTO: I’m just saying that back in the day, we had standards. If you wanted to be a planet, you had to act like one. Bare minimum: revolve around the sun, why don’t you?

327: But back in the day, people thought that you and Charon were one single planet.
PLUTO: I’m not saying we didn’t have good times, I’m just saying there’s only room for so many planets in the solar system. Nine was good enough for Carl Sagan; it’s good enough for me.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Two Wheel Fetish

I own seven bicycles, which is easily six more than anyone needs. Still, I use all of them regularly and count it a good day on which I ride at least three.

Although all of my bikes are steel, each is slightly different and every one has an application for which it is better suited than the others.

The Rodriguez tandem excels at carrying two riders. I use it to drop Mimi off or pick her up at school. Invariably, on the leg of the trip when she isn’t riding, some wag will call out, “Hey! You lost your stoker!” That was funny the first dozen times I heard it.

I have an orange Rambouillet, which is a classically-styled sport-touring rig. It’s ideal for Sunday morning rides and fair-weather commutes.

The 650B-wheeled Saluki is my faux-french randonneur and commuting bicycle. I also use it for heavy shopping runs and trips to the library.

I bought a Trek 420 for 10 bucks at a garage sale. Outfitting it with a sprung saddle, upright Albatross bars, and a front basket, it has become the “420 bike,” perfect for riding when stoned and to pick up a six-pack at the store.

The single-speed Quickbeam is my messenger-fantasy bike; I’m not gnarly enough to ride fixed, but I like racing around town in the “shiftless bastard” mode.

The Miyata Triplecross, powdercoated to anonymity, is my bombproof rain bike and late night downtown cycle. Too ugly to attract thieves, it still rides beautifully.

My Bridgestone XO-1 is the one real luxurious excess. I only ride it on the nicest of days and to places where I won’t have to leave it locked up outside.

Yesterday, I rode the 420 bike to yoga at dawn, the Quickbeam on some morning errands, the tandem to pick Mimi up at camp, the XO-1 on an afternoon spin to the park, and the Saluki to get orange juice after dinner. Now that was a really good day.

Monday, August 14, 2006


Every few weeks, for no reason I can ascertain, I wake up around 3:00 in the morning and lie in bed tossing and turning for at least an hour while my brain tries to kill me.

Plans and worries, typically about matters of little consequence, stream through my head, unabated by my attempts to control them. I try deep breathing, counting sheep, visualizing the Ashtanga yoga series, but nothing works. Soon, I’m fretting over how to get my laundry done or where I should celebrate my 75th birthday. The fountain of anxiety keeps gushing no matter what I do, so I just ride it out, flopping around like a fish out of water.

I know I should get up and read a book, but usually I just stay in bed, doing a cost-benefit analysis of getting up and reading. So instead of spending half an hour perusing a text that would make me sleepy, I waste twice that much time wondering whether it would be worth my while to open a book.

Typically, of course, the concerns that keep me awake have lost all their power to confound by morning. Last night, for instance, I was bedeviled for at least 30 minutes by worries about how I could possibly reschedule a meeting I’ve set up for later this week. In the cold, cruel light of dawn (actually the soft glow of my desklamps), all I had to do was send one email and everything’s taken care of.

It’s not so bad in the summer when I know that, if it were really to come down to it, I could take a mid-day nap. During the school year, though, when that’s not possible, I’m kept awake by the scary prospect of being sleepy all day long in class.

If I really had it together, I’d get up and write a piece for the blog; if that didn’t induce sleepiness, I could always summon the sandman by reading it.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Concrete Strike

In Seattle right now and for the past few weeks, all the major concrete suppliers have been shut down by a strike on the part of union drivers, engineers, and machinists. I support their efforts to improve salaries and working conditions, but it’s a drag that their job action has put the brakes on our studio project; we’re dead in the water until they go back to work and probably two weeks beyond that before the building’s slab can be poured.

I’m trying to be philosophical about the delay; there’s nothing to be done, so we may as well not stress out about the hold-up. I’m pretending I’m in Italy or France—somewhere where labor unions can shut down the whole country—I’ll just kick back with a glass of red wine until it all blows over.

But it’s hard not to get impatient, especially when we had hoped to be well into framing up the structure by now.

And yet, I realize that such impatience is entirely something I’m doing to myself. The only schedule for this project is one we’ve invented; as a result, I ought to be able to let it go.

I could take this as an object lesson in perspective: in the long run, will it really make any difference whether we get the building done in September, October, or even next Spring?

And shouldn’t I just be grateful I’m in the luxurious position of being able to afford this project at all?

If I can step outside of my own concerns, I see there’s something really apt about a delay in the concrete phase of the project. After all, the foundation of our building will presumably be its longest-lasting feature. Isn’t it appropriate that this is the slowest component of its creation?

One day, I’m sure I'll look back on this delay as a minor speedbump on the road to our building’s completion—a speedbump made from sand, gravel, and cement.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Getting Organized

I spent a couple hours this morning moving stuff around, throwing junk out, and in general, putting things back in the places I think they belong.

Every so often, I wake up with this desperate need to get organized; I look around my house and feel like the clutter is closing in, so I somewhat frantically start chucking and winnowing and filing in what is ultimately a rather vain attempt to put the things I own back into some semblance of order.

I’m not sure why this happens, really; I just know I feel a better when the books and papers on my desk are stacked from the largest on the bottom to the smallest on the top—and I feel even better when there aren’t any stacks at all.

I have an inkling that I’m motivated in part by the fear that I will end up one of those crazy old people who lives in a house with so much junk that you can’t even navigate the hallways. I had a customer on my paper route whose apartment was like that; there were newspapers and magazines piled to the ceiling everywhere; I had to walk from his front door to the kitchen one time when I was collecting; what really creeped me out was the way the stacks of stuff rose up and hovered over me like stalagmites in a dark cave.

I also think that I’m responding to some sense of internal disorganization. When my external space is messy, it’s too much a mirror of my internal space. I harbor the belief that if I can just organize my desk, then I can thereby organize my mind.

This, of course, is sloppy thinking exemplified. I’m sure that many of the world’s finest thinkers have messy offices, and I’ll bet that President Bush’s desk is as empty of clutter as his mind.

Moreover, I cleaned my desk before I wrote this and does it really show?

Friday, August 11, 2006

World War III

I wonder if future historians will look back on this time and refer to it as World War III. It’s a sobering thought, and ironically, one that makes me want to go get drunk.

After all, isn’t pretty much every country in the world already at war? Even Australia and New Zealand have soldiers deployed in the Middle East; even “neutral” Switzerland has soldiers stationed in hotspots around the globe.

I’m not sure what else is needed for historians to qualify today’s situation as what old newsreels referred to (in that godlike newscaster voice) as “world at war.” Maybe just new newsreels referring to it that way.

Perhaps, though, we want to avoid naming what’s going on today as the third world war. Perhaps to do so would empower it; perhaps the proper strategy is to poo-poo current global conflicts; as long as we don’t admit we’re in WWIII, then we won’t be.

I always used to think that people in the 1920s and 30s who referred to WWI as “the war to end all wars” were horribly naïve; I thought they must have been very embarrassed when WWII came along and proved them so wrong.

But all my life, I’ve been pretty much led to believe that WWII was the final global war; people in the latter half of the 20th century were simply too sophisticated and interdependent to wage a worldwide armed struggle. But that’s been proven wrong time and again; if anything, we’re less sophisticated and more polarized than the people who stumbled and slid into the first two world wars.

Sci-fi movies set in the future typically make reference to the third world war; usually it’s remembered as having ended in nuclear holocaust. I suppose that’s what it would really take for historians to qualify today’s conflicts as World War III; on the other hand, if nuclear holocaust is the criterion, then there probably won’t be any historians around to do the qualifying.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

That's What It's All About

In March, I went to Tanzania for 3 weeks with a group older men from the West; our purpose was to meet with elders from indigenous African tribes to learn about being elders in our own communities. It was a profound experience; I was awed by the African landscape, amazed by the flora and fauna, but most moved by interactions with people, both natives and those I traveled with.

The high point of the trip was doing the hokey-pokey with hunter-gatherers.

We had spent the day with a group of Hadza tribespeople in the Yaida Valley, a sea of acacia and baobob trees extending for miles to an immense shallow lake bounded by the sheer cliffs of the Yaida escarpment, where the earth rises straight up to form endless canyon walls. The Hadza are one of the last extant hunter-gatherer peoples on the planet; they live essentially as they have—and where they have—for the last 30 thousand years.

At sunset, our group gathered with a handful of Hadza elders, led by a wizened imp of a man named Kampala, reputed to be 94 years old, but ageless as an elf.

The Hadza, through our translator, told us their creation story, a tale of a man-eating giant and his daughter. We then shared ours, a cobbled-together version of the big bang.

As darkness fell, the Hadza sang some of their traditional songs—beautiful, haunting call-and-response pieces, like old-time Southern spirituals; a few had dance components, as well.

They asked that we sing some of our songs; we did “If I Had a Hammer,” and then, to demonstrate a dance piece, performed the “Hokey-Pokey.”

When we got to “You put your whole self in,” Kampala leapt in and out with the rest of us, and we all collapsed in laughter that filled our beings and carried us away to our tents, connected by a bond as old as time itself: the hokey-pokey, that’s what it’s all about.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

What Do You Know

I spent the morning chatting with my colleague who teaches chemistry at Cascadia. He’s so articulate, especially when discussing teaching, that he makes me feel like a babbling fool and I’m also intimidated by his utmost confidence in the scientific method as a means to yield truths about the world.

I’m sure his confidence is well-placed, and I wish I were technically-minded and well-organized enough to reliably draw conclusions about causes and effects from careful observation and testing.

But I find that I can’t quite shake my magical beliefs about how the world works.

Even though I’m extremely skeptical that there exists an unseen realm that makes things happen in this visible one, I still seem to arrive at many conclusions wherein the causal connections between things are hard to identify. And I have a hard time letting those conclusions go even in the face of scant or nonexistent supporting evidence.

For example, I remain extremely sympathetic to rather vague notions of instant karma, at least for me. I can’t help believing that the universe pays me back pretty quickly when I do something I probably shouldn’t have. And while I also believe that this belief is probably a product of a cognitive bias that has me only noticing the evidence which supports my prior belief in instant karma, I still believe it.

Or, for instance, when I’m trying to diagnose the causes or cures of an illness or injury in myself or my loved ones, I tend to intuitively arrive at my conclusion while simultaneously rejecting evidence that would refute it—ironically mimicking, more or less, how our medical insurance company works.

As a student of philosophy, I was never that interested in epistemology, which always seemed to me to be so much intellectual hair-splitting over issues of little consequence. But in the real-world, questions of what makes something true or at least reasonable to believe are critical.

And how do I know that? I just do.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Discover This!

Here, well into the 50th year of my life, I still harbor the vague hope that I will one day be discovered.

I cling to the aspiration, informed by my days as an aspiring comedy writer in LA (or maybe it was the movie, Barton Fink), that somewhere, some cigar-chomping impresario will run across my ramblings and summon his secretary with a command to get me phone immediately. When I pick up, he’ll bark into the receiver something like, “Kid, I like your stuff,” and offer me a fat contract, guaranteeing this idyllic summer lifestyle for the rest of my days.

There will be 327 action-figures, coffee cups, drug paraphernalia, and eventually, a movie about my life starring Hilary Swank in drag. Best of all, I’ll even get my own Wikipedia entry.

But is this really going to happen? In the words of the Magic Eight Ball: “Don’t Count On It.”

In the first place, if any discovering is going on, it ought to be me doing it. At this point in my development, I should be the one finding and fostering new talent. There’s just not that many bigwigs out there who could seriously call me “kid.” More than likely, they’d be referring to me as “dad.”

Second, I think I’m not really cut out for fame. To be a star, you have to be willing to do lots of things that you don’t really want to—like I can’t imagine that Matt Dillon really looked forward to being on Good Morning America today—and I’m just too curmudgeonly for that.

Finally, suppose it did happen. Suppose, for instance, that you, yourself, are that cigar-chomping bigwig reading these words and summoning your secretary to get me on the phone so you can offer me the guaranteed big bucks. Suppose she is dialing the phone right now.

So, shouldn’t it be ringing?

I told you it wasn’t going to happen.

Is that a brilliant discovery or what?

Monday, August 07, 2006

Dead Baby Downhill and Messenger Challenge Races

Friday evening, I participated in the festivities associated with the 10th Annual Dead Baby Bikes Downhill and Messenger Challenge races. I rode in the “long board” alleycat rather than the downhill event, which I sort of regret, but so be it. Mostly, I feel bad about missing out on the raucus community of the main race, especially since, in the messenger challenge I was immediately so far behind, I essentially did it alone.

I did, however learn—or rather, re-learn—an important lesson: don’t get stoned BEFORE the race. Being high made me totally overthink the directions on the race manifest, causing me to lose precious seconds—or more like quarter hours—at every turn. For instance, right at the outset of the race, I wasted about 10 minutes trying to find someone in the Church of the Bicycle Jesus to absolve me for my cycling sins, when all I really had to do was leave from there, our designated starting point.

On the plus side, being obviously destined to finish DFL, I had no qualms about stopping at convenient watering holes—notably the Twilight Exit and the Rendevous—for in-race-libations. The beer didn’t improve my time, but it did augment the golden glow of the lovely late-summer evening.

By the time I finished the course, which took us from Beacon Hill, through the International District, over Capitol Hill, across Westlake to Queen Anne, and then all the back down to Georgetown, the after-party was in full swing. All the beer you could drink as long as you used your official Dead Baby water bottle, a couple of cool cycle-powered amusement park rides, and thrilling bunny-hop, jousting, and foot-down competitions for your viewing pleasure.

My high point was the ride home, half a dozen woozy riders escorting a guy peddling furiously on a 16-inch wheeled kid’s bike. This was what I was looking for all evening: having fun riding in a group of cyclists having fun riding.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Quit It

In his column today, even Thomas Friedman suggests that it may be time for the U.S. to leave Iraq, which makes me glad not only because he has he mostly supported the invasion, but also because it’s great to see a nationally-syndicated columnist endorse one of my own favorite courses of action: quitting.

Most of the time, quitting gets a bad rap, you know, “quitters never win.” But that’s not fair: lots of times quitting is not only the preferable course of action, it’s also the most reasonable, sensible, and even victorious thing to do.

I’ve quit jobs, relationships, schools, teams, projects, classes, activities, and habits (both good and bad) ; I’ve even quit quitting, and I can’t think of any time I’ve really regretted it.

I quit a busboy job after 3 hours, a lawn-mowing job in a morning; I dropped out of a college in 2 weeks, a language class after one session, and a math course as soon as the professor handed out the syllabus.

Naturally, there’s something to be said for sucking it up and working through difficulties, but “toughing it out,” when it’s obvious it would be better to just get out strikes me as overly hard-headed.

The hardest part of quitting is before you do it and the worst aspect of it is afterwards when you kick yourself for not having done so sooner.

I agonized for weeks before resigning from this awful desktop-publishing job I had in LA in 1989; the second I quit, though, I felt fine; I only wondered why I had put up with it for so long.

Should the U.S. up and leave Iraq, there will be people who say that we should have stuck it out. But the big difference between those people and the ones we’re putting up with now is that they won’t by trying to kill us with roadside bombs.

Maybe it’s just me, but I’d rather quit Iraq than quit living.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

What Is It Good For?

Back in olden days, people used to wage wars for obvious reasons: gaining territory, overthrowing vicious tyrants, liberating kidnapped maidens, stuff like that. But I don’t understand what the hell people are fighting and killing each other for these days: promoting democracy? Asserting sovereignty? Showing off?

Thomas Hobbes said that the three principle causes of quarrel among people are competition, diffidence, and glory. I would add at least a fourth—vengeance—and perhaps a fifth: arms dealers. That said, however, I still don’t get why all these military conflicts rage unchecked all around the globe.

And more to the point, I don’t see how many of them can ever possibly end. When the goal of the fighting isn’t even clear, how can anyone ever know it’s time to stop? As we’ve seen, claiming “mission accomplished” doesn’t make it so, and if I don’t even know what my mission is, how can I ever say it’s complete?

As far as I can tell, many of the combatants in current wars have as their goal nothing else than the extinction of their enemies. I suppose this is a time-honored objective, but it strikes me as hopeless. The more people you kill, the more enemies you make, so unless you kill everyone, there will always be more fighting.

I could almost understand a war for oil, if it, too, didn’t seem self-defeating. Isn’t it likely that more petroleum products are used and burned in waging such combat than would be secured by winning it?

Over the years, Mimi and I have had a number of water fights and they always unfold pretty much the same way. It starts with a squirt gun or a few drops flicked from a finger. Soon cups of liquid are being exchanged, then buckets. Eventually, it escalates to spray from the source and a tug of war over the garden house.

At least, though, we always know how it will end: in tears, usually mine.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Small Victory

Today, Chris, Mimi, and I set up the floor of the eventual studio for hydronic radiant floor heating. It all came together as envisioned, even though I could not, beforehand, picture how any of the steps was going to be performed.

I worried, at some point—usually around 3:30 in the morning—that every piece of the project would present an insurmountable challenge. But each was eminently do-able, thanks in part to a few methods we devised for steps that had kept me lying awake.

First, we had to lay down plastic sheeting over the graded dirt. I was worried that this would be a nightmare of measuring and cutting but the sheet unfolded conveniently and didn’t even require that I tape it to the walls; rocks held it fine until the insulation sheets could be lain.

The sheets were easy enough to score and break to size; Chris fit the tricky bits around the plumbing he installed.

I stapled the next layer of plastic to the sheets; nobody told me to do this, but it worked.

Once I saw holes drilled in concrete with the roto-hammer, I was confident about getting the rebar into the walls and, especially when Chris was hammering, this confidence was well-placed.

Zip-ties were our innovation in tying the steel together. We also used them to secure the mesh to the rebar frame. Industry standard is wrapped wire; our method, though nominally more expensive, was infinitely less trying.

It also gave good work to Mimi. She was our designated “little nipper; her job was to cut off the long ends of the ties drawn tight.

And the only difficulty in getting the plastic tubing zip-tied to the mesh was managing the 1000 foot spool of it; but Mimi, acting as “tube wrangler,” took care of that.

At the end of the day, the whole thing looks we knew what we were doing.

Nobody is more surprised or pleased by this than me.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Reading the News

I’m told that newspaperman and pundit H.L. Mencken once said, “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.” I say, “For every complex problem today, there are no solutions and even if there were, they would be unworkable.”

War in the Middle East, incompetence and corruption in government, doping and dopes in the Tour; it’s all too much. In the words of the cannibal, “I throw up my hands at it all.”

You’d think that with the vast technological resources available to us that our ability to address these complex social, political, and moral issues would be up to the task. But by all appearances, our skills are woefully inadequate. We have the tools to get us deep into trouble, but can’t figure our way out.

I was about eleven and had taken apart my bicycle’s derailleur to fix it. I soon realized that I had no idea how to reassemble everything. So I took out a hammer and smashed it all to bits.

Unfortunately, there’s no global bike shop where we can, in tears, take the broken bits of our world to and have the mechanic put it all right. And no worldwide Dad to help pay for the repairs that our allowance doesn’t cover.

I realize that the proper response to things is to take small steps. Do something: help one person, plant a tree, write a single letter to the President, making sure not to use big words. But then those small steps seem so tiny and pointless. If I’m bailing water on the Titanic, I want something bigger than a thimble.

So, in the end, I ride my bike, diddle on the computer, fix dinner for my family. Solutions to the world’s complex problems remain a mystery to me.

It’s all too much to think about; I think I’ll think about something else. May as well take a hammer to it; I’ll start by hammering my head.