Thursday, November 30, 2006

We Want What We Do Not Want

Human beings are very strange creatures.

Ever since the snowstorm earlier this week, I’ve been listening to people (including myself) talk about their journeys home Monday night. This person here spent four hours on the freeway to go five miles; that person there abandoned his car and walked home three miles through the blizzard; another one over there spent the night in a hotel rather than face the commute.

On the one hand, the stories are complaints: “Oh, it was awful; you can’t imagine how I suffered; you’re lucky you aren’t me.” But on the other hand, there’s a gleam in the storytellers’ eyes that tells me different: “At last! Something happened to me! I got to experience life out of the ordinary routine. How alive I felt!”

As I sit here writing this piece in the airport as we prepare for a trip to San Francisco to celebrate cousin Seth’s 50th birthday, I’m overhearing the guy behind me tell how it took his brother six hours to get from the Seahawks game on Monday night to his home in Tacoma. And even though he’s bemoaning his sibling’s misfortune, you can tell he’s just a tiny bit jealous.

His brother has a story to tell that he doesn’t; in fact, he has to tell his brother’s story in order to have one to tell.

What’s this made me reflect on his how often and how much we want what we don’t want. The very things we most strongly resist are those we most covet: anything to knock us out of our routine and humdrum existences.

Preparing for our weekend trip, for instance, has been a headache. I was thinking earlier that there’s nothing less relaxing than getting ready to relax.

Still, given that for the next few days I’ll be doing something different than usual, it’s worth it.

This doesn’t mean, though, that I want our already-delayed flight to leave any later than it’s already going to.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Cut and Run

I probably could have ridden all the way home on the Burke-Gilman Trail today, but it seemed like one of those cases of discretion being the better part of valor to bail and take the bus after riding on crunchy ice for a couple miles from Bothell to Kenmore.

Navigating the shoe-imprinted crust was moderately do-able, if rather more harrowing than I liked. My wheels bounced on the divots in the ice, causing me to lose traction regularly, and almost fall too many times for my taste. Even worse were bike tracks—maybe some of them mine from Monday night—which grabbed at my tires and forced them in unintended directions.

Besides, it was starting to get dark; if I couldn’t see the trail well, chances of wiping out were even greater.

So, I took the bus to the U-District and rode home from there. Except for the still ice-covered blocks around my house—which forced me to walk gingerly, leaning on my two wheels for support—that part of the commute was relatively uneventful.

Aside from making me wonder whether I could construct snow tires by wrapping zip ties around the wheels between each spoke, my decision to take public transit partway also caused me to reflect on the US military mission in Iraq.

Jen and I were talking the other night about the currently emerging public discussion about a US military withdrawal, the so-called “cut and run” strategy that Democrats have been accused of advocating.

And what I was thinking was that sometimes cutting and running—if that’s what it is—isn’t so bad.

If the US military presence in Iraq is on as slippery ground as I was today, (and they certainly are) then it’s perfectly understandable that they should pull out.

Moreover, as philosophers say, “ought implies can;” and if the US military can, in fact, no longer help in Iraq (and perhaps they can’t) then they are under no obligation to stay.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Snow Day

Is there any more beautiful phrase in the English language?


The snow and ice have rendered area roads sufficiently impassible that the administration of my college (along with Seattle Public Schools, too), has cancelled classes for the day.

Mimi and her buddy Ani are already up and out—just as early as if they had school—sliding down the front yard on cardboard sleds.

I’m here at the computer, noodling about on my own stuff instead of grading papers—which I ought to be doing in any case.

Kids today have it made with their internet sites to let them know that school is cancelled; I remember huddling around Mom and Dad’s clock radio hoping to hear the on-air announcement that Pittsburgh Public Schools had the day off. And of course, it was always the case that the suburban schools got closed while students in the city had to slog through the sleety streets to sit in overheated classrooms.

A couple years ago—before I had tenure—I took the bus all the way out to Bothell on the snowiest morning of the year—it took about 2 hours—and the moment I walked through the door, it was announced that the college was closing for the day. Another 2 hours back on the bus followed by a thrilling uphill bike ride through snowy Capitol Hill brought me back home.

Today, (on the other side of the tenure mountain), I was fully prepared to cancel my morning class if school hadn’t been closed. This probably bespeaks a sense of entitlement, but I’m spinning it as an evolved compassion for my students who would have to drive in over icy roads.

I want to get out on my bike and see what it’s like trying to navigate the icy streets. Last time we had a snow day, I wasted most of it on the bus; this time, I’m not going to miss it being on the computer.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Snow Ride

Today’s entry was going to be about what lightweights Seattleites are when it comes to weather—how our recent little bit of snow has been made such a big deal of (from people’s reactions to a light dusting of powder, you’d think the sky was dropping flaming meteorites instead of gentle snowflakes), but that was before my semi-epic bike ride home this evening that took me through a blizzard, sheet-icy roads, and turned out to be a full-on adventure lasting two and a half hours compared to my usual travel time of just over an hour and thirty minutes.

I almost didn’t make it; that is, I practically gave up about a third of the way from school to home. In Lake Forest Park, on the Burke-Gilman trail, the fast-falling fat flakes were accumulating rapidly; at least two inches of wet snow had already fallen, and more flakes were coming down fast enough that my tracks were covered almost as soon as I laid them.

Fat handfuls of snow stuck between my tires and fenders, at one point, so thickly that my rear wheel stopped turning altogether. As long as I was able to maintain a straight line, I could poke along at around five miles an hour; anytime I skidded out—which was every hundred feet or so—it was practically impossible to get started again.

For some time, I had no choice but just give up and walk.

If it weren’t so beautiful—such a bona fide winter wonderland—I would have despaired of carrying on.

I passed just a handful of fellow cyclists; I got wished “Merry Christmas” by two of them.

Eventually, the snow thinned out, and by the time I got to the UW, the trail was all but clear.

I thought the fun was over, but the last few blocks in my neighborhood, the streets were paved with ice.

Fun as it was this evening, should be a riot tomorrow morning.

Sunday, November 26, 2006


It’s halftime in today’s Steeler-Ravens game and it looks bad for the boys from the Burgh. They’re down 17-zip, but it’s not even that close; they’re getting beat on both sides of the ball; it will be truly amazing should they come back in the third quarter.

But, of course, there are far more important things to care about; today’s paper has chilling accounts of violence in Iraq, Sudan, Bahrein, stories of poisonings and shootings, editorials on racism, rape, economic strife in the US and abroad, and photos illustrating pain and misery far exceeding anything I could feel should the Steelers fail to come back and win today—or even ever again.

I keep saying this, but I have a hard time feeling it; I know that the suffering of a single child in Darfur is of greater consequence than even a Superbowl victory, and yet, here I am, pounding the table as the Ravens threaten to expand their lead in a game that, in all reality, is essentially meaningless.

One of the standard complaints about the moral philosophy known as Utilitarianism is that it sets the bar for ethical obligation too high: if our moral mandate is to maximize overall happiness, then it would seem that we ought never to go to the movies or just hang out when we could be making the world a better place.

My intuition that there’s something amiss about being more exercised by the Steelers losing than by civil war in Iraq is informed by the Utilitarian impulse: I should be doing something better for my fellow human beings than simply sitting here, grinding my teeth as Roesthlisberger gets flushed from pocket once again.

If they lose today, though—which is looking more likely as Baltimore has scored again—I may finally be free; I probably won’t devote my Sundays to saving the world, but at least I’ll have more important things to feel bad about than Pittsburgh’s losing record.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Critical Mass Evening

I went on the critical mass ride last night, in part because I wanted to see what the bike parade would be like against the backdrop of the busiest shopping day of the year.

The ride meet-up time overlapped with the official downtown Christmas tree-lighting ceremony, so, at 6:00, Pine Street in front of the Westlake Center was solid with pedestrians. A number of cyclists tried to inch our way through the throng; I eventually gave up, turned around, circled the block and met up with fellow riders from the south.

We milled about; the crowd of walkers thinned out, and eventually, about a hundred cyclists began a loop through Belltown, Pioneer Square, and off to Seattle Center where a handful of riders circled the so-called “Ghettodrome”—the Seattle Center fountain—while others laughed and cheered until the cops—or at least the threat of them—broke it up and everyone went their separate ways.

Traffic was heavy but not as crazy as I expected it to be; my favorite parts of the ride were when we got to weave, en masse, through gridlocked streets around Fourth and Pike. Drivers seemed to take in in stride; I only saw one shouting match between a guy in a car and a rider corking an intersection.

I spent most of the later part of the evening, just riding around—to Queen Anne, over to Fremont, on to Ballard, and then up to Greenlake for the midnight races. It was chilly but dry, relatively quiet for Friday night, but maybe people were at home recovering from turkey hangovers. I was glad to be on a bike, burning off the mashed potatoes, grits, and pecan pie.

I know I had all sorts of brilliant thoughts for saving the world and for creative things to do in my business ethics course next quarter, but here, in the morning light, all I really recall was the joy of being out on two wheels.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Meat-Eating Vegetarian

I’ve been a vegetarian for about 15 years.

I didn’t stop eating meat out of any deep philosophical conviction; it had more to do with aesthetics and the way I felt physically after a meaty meal.

I think it was a hamburger at a barbecue in Minnesota that convinced me I’d rather not eat dead animals and so I just stopped doing so.

Subsequently, I came to find the arguments in favor of vegetarianism fairly compelling. Peter Singer’s book, Animal Liberation persuaded me against factory-farmed animals in particular; Fast Food Nation made a strong case that the meat industry is arguably even worse for the human beings involved in it than the animals; plus, as a student of yoga, I’m moved by the principle of non-violence—ahimsa—to refrain from contributing, in my diet, to the suffering of sentient beings.

Still, I’m not, and have never been a fanatic: I’m not vegan—even though I’m aware that the dairy cows and chickens that supply my cheese and eggs don’t have it so great—I don’t go around with “Meat is Murder” stickers on my bike; and it doesn’t bother me to dine with people eating steak, or bacon, or even veal.

Last spring, in Africa, the Maasai tribesmen we were camping with slaughtered and roasted a goat in our honor; I sampled some of the cooked animal (although not the proffered raw heart); it was fine—sort of chewy and sweet—and I didn’t get sick or grossed out or anything.

About 10 years ago, I spent a weekend at my friend’s brother-in-law’s cattle ranch, doing the City Slickers thing; we ate beef three times a day and I lived to tell the tale.

Last night, at Thanksgiving dinner, I tasted a few bites of turkey; I’m not suddenly moved to hit KFC for lunch, but on the other hand, I don’t feel as if I have to go do some sort of penance at PETA headquarters, either.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving!

Here’s some of the things I am thankful for:

I’m thankful that my family and I are healthy, safe, and as happy as can be expected of thoughtful, slightly neurotic Americans in these dawning years of the 21st century.

I’m thankful that I have the love of a good woman and a really great kid.

I’m thankful I live in a country that affords me a broad range of freedoms, including the right to publicly—or at least as public as this blog—to state my dissatisfaction with the government and say things like: “The social, environmental, and foreign policies of President George Bush are horribly misguided; the decision to invade Iraq was, from a moral standpoint unjust, from a practical standpoint deeply flawed, and from a humanistic standpoint disastrous.”

I’m thankful that I have a job that I like pretty well, that gives me ample opportunities for creative self-expression, and which allows me to feel—sometimes, anyway—that I’m making some small contribution to the betterment of society.

I’m thankful I have a home that is warm, dry, and comfortable, that’s conveniently located along bus lines in a city with enough cultural, social, and gastronomic charms to keep me feeling alive and engaged with the world at large.

I’m thankful that I get to ride my bike nearly every day and that my town is bike-friendly enough that I usually feel adequately safe on the road to get out and ride at all hours of the day and night, sometimes in states of consciousness where it would be quite unwise to operate a motor vehicle.

I’m thankful for my friends, both in Seattle and elsewhere who generally tolerate me with requisite bemusement and help me to feel that I’m appreciated by at least those who have a somewhat skewed way of looking at things.

I’m thankful that I was born on March 27th and so I only have to write 327 words a day.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

One Glove

Every time I see a single glove lying by the side of the road, I think, “That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen,” but of course it isn’t. (That designation is held by the inability of the most powerful nation on earth to successfully educate all its children and to set foreign policy goals that secure peace and prosperity around the globe.)

Still, I find something terribly poignant about a pair-less hand warmer misplaced or forsaken by its owner. It speaks to me of broken relationships and failed connections, of links lost and opportunities overlooked. I can’t help imagining the disappointed glove owner and even more, the glove’s partner itself.

I wonder if the left misses the right and vice-versa. Does the glove that stays in the bike bag or glove box pine for the one left behind?

Today, on my commute, I saw three solos—one by the side of the road, two near the trail. The first was a ski glove, the second, a model meant for driving, and the third, the kind sold at bike shops.

Oddly, the second, I believe, was the partner of a lost glove I saw the other day. I wondered if the owner just tossed in, thinking it might find its pair. Or perhaps the glove itself set out on a journey to reunite with its other half.

Now there’s an idea for a Pixar feature film—or maybe just a short.

It’s not uncommon to see a single shoe by the wayside, either, but for some reason, that doesn’t evoke in me the same feelings of longing. Perhaps it’s because a lost shoe would typically be discovered right away; a glove might go missing and not be noticed by its owner for some time—long enough for it to be long lost indeed.

As I re-read this piece, it strikes me as the literary equivalent of the lost glove—something is certainly missing.

And that’s sort of sad.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Eight Years Hence

My dad died eight years ago today. He was a great man and the world is a poorer place without him.

A classic 20th century American success story, Alvin P. Shapiro, born December 28, 1920, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, rose from his humble boyhood living above Shapiro’s dry goods store on Staten Island, to become Herr-Doktor-Professor Shapiro, senior attending physician at Presbyterian University Hospital, full professor on the University of Pittsburgh Medical School Faculty, author of over 300 articles in peer-reviewed journals, winner of numerous grants and awards in his field of internal medicine with a specialty in clinical pharmacology and hypertension.

He was also a kind, loving, and consistent dad who taught me all sort of things including how to patch a bicycle tire, the proper technique for mixing a martini, an abiding delight in ideas and argument, and what it means to be a man.

I miss him all the time, especially on occasions like this, or at Thanksgiving, or anytime I need perspective, or last year when the Steelers finally won the Superbowl again, but most of all, in relation to my daughter, Mimi, who only got to know her Opa for a year and a half of her young life.

Even when she was an infant, they had a special connection. His first words upon seeing her were “give me that baby,” and no one was as able to soothe her colic like him.

As she grows up, I see more aspects of his personality in her; I mourn the opportunity to see those two connivers conniving together.

The first full moon after his death, we pointed out to Mimi the resemblance between the lunar globe and her grandfather’s round and gentle face.

For several years afterwards, whenever she saw the full moon she would cry: “There’s Opa!”

The sweetness of her joyful recognition was all the more bittersweet for his loss.

Seeing him in her is much the same everyday.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Not As Bad As It Looks

In the fall, it rains a lot in Seattle. And this fall, given that we’ve already set a record for the rainiest November ever, it rains a lot for a place that rains a lot.

Consequently, in addition to spending lots of time out in the liquid sunshine, I also spend lots of time preparing to go out in it. This involves putting on my gear—wool and/or or “breathable” plastic depending on how wet it is—but also getting myself into gear to face the wet.

If it’s morning, this will typically involve trying to gauge how hard it’s raining from the pitter-pat on the roof; if it’s evening, I’ll probably be squinting at the streetlamp down the block in an attempt to determine the direction and intensity of the downpour. In any case, I’ll have to balance how badly I think I need to go out with how uncomfortable I think I’ll feel once I’m out there.

While this calculation is far from exact, one thing I have discovered this season is that most of the time, it looks much worse than it is. Once you get out in them, the conditions that looked miserable from the living room or porch are not nearly so bad as they appeared.

And even if they are truly lousy, the awfulness generally doesn’t last as long as expected.

Today, for instance, as I stood under the building’s eves preparing to leave Cascadia, the rain seemed torrential. I braced, as I began pedaling home, for a chilly, sodden commute.

In fact, though, it was really only dismal for a mile or so, and within twenty minutes of leaving campus, the rain had stopped completely.

I’m sure there’s a lesson in here somewhere; I can’t tell though, whether it’s that we shouldn’t let our fears about what might be prevent us from doing things or that once we’re doing something, we can put up with much more than we anticipated.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Football Dad

Larry wrote about sports today so, me, too.

I’m still clinging to the thread of hope that Steelers will win the rest of their games and make the playoffs this year; it’s a mathematical possibility, if not a very likely one.

I take today’s game against the hated Brownies as a metaphor for the entire season: a dismal first half, atoned for in the second, as the boys in Black n' Gold stage a miraculous fourth quarter comeback, scoring the winning touchdown on an improvised shovel pass from Roethlisberger to Willie Parker with forty seconds left to play.

I’m embarrassed to admit I did the classic football dad thing: the whole family and our houseguests were waiting on me to take a much-needed stroll around neighborhood, and even after holding them up for “one more play” for fifteen minutes, I ultimately let them leave without me, pacing around the house until the game was finally over—on the last play when the defense managed to knock aside a Hail Mary pass from the Brownies QB.

A few times already this season, I’ve tried the alternative approach, leaving to perform parental and/or spousal duties while the game hung in the balance, thinking that this would appease the football gods and secure a Pittsburgh victory, but by and large, that hasn’t worked. Maybe all along they weren’t testing my mettle as a husband and father, but rather as a committed fan.

More likely, (hard as it is to believe) my behavior has nothing to do with whether the Pittsburgh Steelers win or not.

There. I’ve said it.

I know that my belief in any sort of connection is entirely a product of what philosophers call the “post hoc” fallacy—seeing cause and effect between events that are merely correlated, like thinking the sacrificed sheep makes the rains come.

Just to be on the safe side, though, for the Ravens game next week, I’m crashed on the couch drinking beer.

Saturday, November 18, 2006


In a familial operation rivaling in its planning and execution D-Day or at least the casino heist in Ocean’s Eleven, we managed to get two dads—cousin Seth and me—two moms—Jen and Seth’s wife, Catherine—and two kids, Mimi and cousin Miranda—from home, out to dinner, off to the Harvest Festival and Gidden’s School, and then finally, on to the Paramount Theater where we enjoyed last night’s concert by the Portland-based folk-trad-alt-prog-rock band the Decemberists.

It was a swell show; the music lovely, haunting, toe-tappable, sing-alongable, earnest and quite sweet. I’ve been enjoying the band’s strange new album, The Crane Wife, which, if I understand correctly, is based loosely on some sort of Chinese Folk tale.


Sometimes the group veers towards early Spinal Tap territory, but they do so with such lack of pretension and excess of naiveté that it comes off as charming. Even the lead singer, Colin Meloy, who I’m sure could be accused of taking himself too seriously, appears—at least on stage—to be a pretty regular guy having a great time making music he enjoys.

That’s what I got, anyway.

Mimi had seen the band last summer at an outdoor concert, had gotten a souvenir t-shirt (with a bicycle on it), and hasn’t protested too much lately if you call the Decemberists her “favorite band,” and so it was really heartwarming to see her last night, in the balcony seat the row ahead of me, peering steadily through Jen’s opera glasses at the group on stage.

Sometimes they sound to me like Jethro Tull from the Thick as a Brick period. Tull was the first concert I ever went to by myself, at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh, back in, it must have been 1971.

So there were a few moments last night when a really nice full-circle thing was going on for me, connecting all of us in the theater through more than three decades of music.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Snooze Alarm

One of the longest-running and seemingly least tractable disputes in our otherwise halcyon state of wedded bliss revolves around the use, misuse, and/or non-use of the alarm clock’s snooze button.

Jen believes that the repeatable five-minute delayed wake-up chime is a soothing and effective tool in making the difficult transition from sleep to wakefulness; I am of the opinion that the damned thing is a pernicious and hateful device lying on the scale of evil in the general vicinity of the Saturday night special handgun and Hasbro’s “My Little Pony” doll for girls.

It’s like this:

If I have to get up at 6:00 o’ clock, I set the alarm for 5:59, let it ring once, and then throw myself immediately from the covers before I realize how painful it is to leave bed. Jen, on the other hand, faced with a 6:00 am wake-up call, will make her clock start going off at 5:30, intermittently nudging her awake at five minute intervals, each one another step from dreamland to the real-world.

Jen sees my method as cruel and unusual, a disrespectful slap in the face of the venerable realm of sleep and dreams.

Hers to me is Chinese water torture; a steady stream of painful awakenings, half a dozen times in half an hour.

Such is the shape of many of the deep controversies in the contemporary world—abortion, affirmative action, gay marriage—where reasonable people (check that, scratch gay marriage) can disagree.

This morning, I tried setting aside my usual flopping and sighing to experience it as Jen does. I used the snooze period to enjoy few extra winks and to reflect on the piece I would write on this, a slow news day for me.

Perhaps, therefore, that’s what parties in these other longstanding “holy wars” can try; putting oneself in the mindset of the other may not end the controversy, but it may be a new sort of wakeup call for all involved.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Aches and Pains

Getting old sucks to be sure, but as far as we can tell, it’s superior to the alternative, so one has little choice but to carry on, going more or less gently into the long evening which precedes that eventual good night we will all eventually bid the world.

Along the way, it’s inevitable that we will experience of a variety of aches and pains, the former, dull to throbbing, the latter, from minor to stabbing and everything in between.

Life is suffering, after all, and even though it’s not always intense—a long downhill with fellow cyclists after the right application of alcohol, cannabis, and caffeine makes it all feel much better—the human condition is one in which pain is inescapable—especially if you’ve got a job, kids, a mortgage, dreams, goals, ideals, or any combination thereof.

And it seems to get more so with each passing year.

This morning, for instance, as I jumped into my first caturanga dandasana, I felt a serious twinge in my right wrist. Why? I don’t remember doing anything to it. Did I simply lie on it funny? And is my body so old and tired that I can injure myself while sleeping?

Of late, I’ve also been experiencing this strange phenomenon wherein by bending my neck to the side, I can induce numbness all the way down my arm. Are my muscles retracting upon themselves? Will I eventually curl up into a body-sized fist?

Larry Livermore has written of feeling “considerably more than [his] age,” and while I’ve yet to have a medical procedure that lays me up and gives me too much time to reflect upon aging, the daily bumps and grinds of longer life certainly give me cause for reflection.

At the risk of sounding like Dr. Phil I would say: I can’t avoid the pain, but I can choose how I respond to it.

And I guess first of all, that means no more complaining.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Losing Things

Deb said that when she gets busy and stressed, she tends to whack herself accidentally; me, I seem to lose things.

In the last week, simultaneous with the part of the quarter where everything seems to be hitting the proverbial fan, I’ve lost 3 glove liners, a bicycle lock, two readings for the applied ethics class, a pedal dust cap, the coffee cup from my everyday thermos, the “sport nipple” from my backup, several pens, twenty dollars, and a scrap of paper on which I’d written a really good idea for today’s piece, the result being this instead.

Granted, a few of the above were the result of a bit too much beer on last Thursday’s .83 ride, but the others were misplaced in the everyday sober course of events.

It’s the mysteriousness of the disappearances that gets me; one moment, my gloves are right there, in my handlebar bag, the next, “poof!” they’re nowhere to be found.

I try backtracking, visiting stores I’ve been, but to no avail. Shop owners look at me with pity, but they’re shaking their heads at my incompetence, not my loss.

One explanation for these losses is that I’ve simply got too much stuff to keep track of; the universe is just helping me winnow down to what I really need. I know from experience there’s truth in that: for instance, every time I get a backup stash of pens, I end up losing all but one.

At some level, then, losing things is liberating; perhaps as the years pass by and I misplace more and more aspects of my own mind, I will feel freer and freer.

Most losses I eventually come to terms with; I do, however, still mourn the disappearance of this flowered windshirt from the 1970s that I borrowed from my Dad. When I didn’t come back from the ski resort with it, I think we both felt that I had mislaid a part of his youth.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Rust Never Sleeps

That’s the title of a Neil Young album, about a decade after I really liked him.

(One of my fond early teenaged memories is having my sister identify the track on After the Gold Rush—"Southern Man," of course—that I liked best without my telling her; she figured it out just by the way it rocked.)

I think Neil meant it pretty literally and I’m sure he’s right. (Being the owner of steel bikes in the wet Northwest, I think about that all the time, especially as I’m wiping down my frame after another rainy ride.)

But today, I noticed how the metaphorical rust never sleeps either. Having not been to the yoga studio in a couple days—Sunday off, then Monday, practicing at home—combined with a general inability to get up and out of bed in time for a full practice but two days last week, I felt especially stiff and old on the mat this morning. I remarked how quickly one backslides when the practice isn’t truly consistent.

When I studied t’ai chi as hippy boy on the Panhandle in Golden Gate Park back in the late mid-seventies, my teacher, Bing Leong (IIRC), used to say that missing one day of practice set you two days back. While I’m not sure I agree—the potential for getting into negative numbers seems too great—the math makes sense. If I miss today, then tomorrow, at best, I’m where I was yesterday, 48 hours behind.

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” wrote Emerson, and no doubt, that’s true, too. “Staying the course” at all costs represents at best, a lack of imagination, at worst, a strategy for disaster.

Still, sometimes there is something to be said for old-fashioned gumption—knuckling down and forging ahead in spite of temptations to throw in the towel.

If rust never sleeps, shouldn’t I at least get out of bed and head off to the yoga studio?

Monday, November 13, 2006


Today, I enjoyed the rare experience of being pushed along by a tailwind while pedaling between home and school or vice-versa.

The prevailing winds—or at least my perceptions of them—are such that, usually, either direction I go, I seem to be fighting an invisible hand.

Heading out to Bothell in the morning, the currents stream down from the north, holding me back as I grind my way to work. Coming home in the evening, the south wind blows in my face, making my pedaling cadence more sluggish with each stroke.

Today, though, I was lifted along, racing the fallen leaves that danced before me. I hardly broke a sweat even though I made excellent time, halfway convincing myself that somehow, overnight, I’d become a far stronger rider than the day before.

That’s the thing about a tailwind: you don’t really notice it, unless you do. Usually you (that is,I), just think “I rock! I’m a god!” Or wonder: ”Was there testosterone in this morning’s coffee?”

When I teach an Affirmative Action unit in the applied ethics class, I sometimes use the tailwind as metaphor for privilege. When we’ve got one, we underestimate its benefit. Conversely, when the wind’s in our face, it’s practically impossible not to notice it. In fact, we (that is, I) may even occasionally overestimate the difficulty it creates. Nevertheless, in the interest of leveling the playing field, it may be fair to give those riders who are fighting the wind something of a head start—or at least bikes that cut through the gale as efficiently as possible.

There’s an old (Irish, I think) toast that goes something like, “May the road rise up to meet you and the wind always be at your back.” A lovely sentiment to be sure, unlikely as it may be.

Still, for one fine morning I got to experience at least the latter and so, I raise my glass to the four winds in gratitude.

Sunday, November 12, 2006


We’ve had a rainy week here in Seattle—no surprise, really, this being November in the Northwest.

As it is, though, pretty much every time I’ve gone outside since last Sunday, I’ve had to face the liquid elements. It’s not always—nor even usually—hard rain; typically, the precipitation is between a mist and a drizzle (although Tuesday last was a steady downpour.)

I don’t mind the rain; and I tell myself that again and again to make sure I’m convinced. I enjoy riding my bike in the wet, and it also keeps the riff-raff off the trail on my commute.

Lots of people, though, look fairly miserable; the drowned rat aesthetic pervades. Jen and I were out having a drink last evening, and looking around the pub, I couldn’t help thinking about mushrooms and mold as I observed the patrons.

Here’s the requisite broken record point: rain is much more annoying when you’re driving than when you’re on a bike. Granted, you get wetter on two wheels than in four, but you’re prepared for it. When I drive, I maintain the illusion that if I dart quickly in and out of the vehicle, I won’t get drenched. Consequently, I’m constantly getting soaked between front door and car door. On my bike, by contrast, I’m geared up as soon as I leave the house, so even though my plastic and wool take water, I stay relatively dry.

I try to stay out of conversations in which people complain about the weather; for one thing, the concept of “bad” weather confuses me. It’s not bad for the trees and plants, is it? And ducks love it, too, I’m sure.

I was prepared to stand on the wet sidelines today at Mimi’s soccer match, but I’ve just been offered a ticket to the Seahawks game. The part of the stadium I’ll be in is covered, so as long as I don’t drive, I won’t mind the rain at all.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine

Jen and I went out on a date last night—dinner and a show. The dinner was a Manhattan and French fries and the show, Little Miss Sunshine.

I loved the movie, and not just because it was a rare opportunity to see a non-animated film in a theater without not just our kid, but any kids.

The writing was superb. The screenwriter brilliantly captured those wincingly painful moments of interfamily communication, miscommunication, and non-communication. The characters were perhaps more than ever-so-slightly over-the-top, but by exaggerating their foibles, they were rendered, I thought, even more believable.

I was also impressed with the direction, which I thought used color and shot framing to illustrate all those moments in striking and often hilarious detail.

I laughed out loud a lot of times: when the Alan Arkin character was giving his grandson the advice to “fuck a lot of women,” when the mute teenaged son scribbled on his notepad the advice to his sister to “go hug Mom,” when little Olive does her stripper-influenced routine for the Little Miss Sunshine pageant.

But I also got choked up plenty, too: when Olive hugs her brother after he learns his dreams of being a pilot will be dashed by his color-blindness, when failed motivational speaker Greg Kinnear’s dad gives him props for at least trying something; and the last scene as the yellow VW van rolls down the highway into the sunset.

I know some reviewers have accused the movie of being some sort of indie film 101-type exercise: a road picture with quirky characters thrown together by circumstances who come, through those circumstances, to find love for each other and themselves, and sure, I guess that’s a fair complaint.

Still, the film never goes all Hollywood on us; the dead grandpa doesn’t return to life; Olive doesn’t take first place in the beauty pageant; the losers don’t suddenly become winners.

But they do, at least, learn to play a different game.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Why Not This?

I rode out with the .83 gang last night—a slightly disjointed tour of the west side, from downtown to lower Magnolia, then across the locks to Freelard, up and around the hill to Golden Gardens, back to Ballard for bar-drinking, then finishing up around the Fremont firepit before coming home.

I got pretty stoned pretty early and so, between the pedaling (or, I guess among), had all sorts of deep thoughts that elude me now, but I did fantasize about a vast US government-sponsored program to put bikes on the streets of political hotspots around the world.

Suppose, for instance, instead of spending 300 billion dollars on tanks and bombs, we spent just a pittance of that—say 300 million—and flooded Iraq with people on bikes. Suppose it took five thousand bucks to send a bike and rider to Baghdad for two months; three hundred million dollars would put sixty thousand riders on the streets; wouldn’t that do more to create stability and peace than our current policies?

(Come to think of it, probably nearly anything would; imagine if the US just sent any person who wanted a job, gave them a couple of thousand dollars and a suitcase full of iPods.)

Here, in the cold cruel light of dawn, I’m not nearly as impressed with my plan as I was last night; still, I don’t imagine it’s that much wackier than whatever Gates is scheming to do at the moment; and it’s certainly less outlandish than what has been attempted these last few years by Rumsfeld and Co.

In amidst a couple dozen cyclists, especially fueled by cannabis, caffeine, and wine, I begin to believe that the two-wheeler really could save the world. I guess this would qualify as the paradigmatic pipe dream, but it’s pleasant enough to dream about.

I’m sure I overestimate the potential of the bicycle to heal the world.

No doubt because riding bikes makes me feel so much better.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

No Argument

I share the conceit of most philosophers that good arguments matter.

So, I assign students in my applied ethics courses essays that defend positions through the use of reasoned discourse. Typically the authors of these pieces eschew personal anecdotes—and usually even specific examples—but proceed instead by appealing to theoretical principles and thought experiments.

But talking to students today, (trying to figure out why so few of them seem to be doing the readings), I learned that most find these sorts of arguments to be singularly unpersuasive.

It’s not just that they find the “intellectual” approach difficult to follow (although that, too); it’s that they tend to not be engaged by it.

“I want stories about real people,” said one student.

“I want a variety of perspectives that show me why people think the way they do,” said another.

All this is rather surprising, especially since it became clear to me that what's meant is what, as philosophers, we tend to discourage focusing on: instead of justification, they want explanation.

Students (and I generalize here) don’t care nearly as much about the warrant that writers have for the positions they hold as they do about the experiences that writers have had that lead them to hold those positions.

I wonder if that’s why, for instance, post 9/11, so many people got so upset when anybody proposed that we try to understand why the terrorists committed those acts: the distinction between justification and explanation is simply not made—in fact, explanation is offered AS justification.

The most common argument that I heard in our discussion today was something like, “Well, I (or my people) did it this way, so other people should, too.”

That really makes me think that for many students, it all comes down to experience.

And if that’s the case, why am I wasting my time and theirs having them read arguments?

Shouldn’t I just bring in guest speakers and leave it at that?

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Election Night

Jen and I hung out at the Spitfire last night with a couple hundred other people who were, with us, drinking, watching the election returns, and talking loudly at each other as the reports from around the country came in, broadcast on the sports bar’s twenty-something flat-screen TVs.

The mood was fairly celebratory as the crowd was made up almost entirely of white middle-class liberals who were enjoying immensely seeing Republican candidates go down hard from coast-to-coast. The cheers for Rick Santorum’s concession speech were particularly raucous.

I had a good time talking to a guy named Roman, an owner of a trucking company, who had been invited by the Republican party, a year or so ago, to be honored as “Small Businessman of the Year;” receiving his prize was contingent upon paying the $5000.00 a plate entrance fee to the awards dinner, which, as a lifelong Democrat, he found hilarious.

We wondered together whether Barak Obama will be the Democratic nominee for President; Roman said that his dream ticket would be the Senator from Illinois for the top spot with Hilary as his running mate. I myself find it hard to imagine that she’ll settle for number two. But we’ll see; anything’s got to be an improvement over the last six years.

I’d been to the Spitfire before, to watch some World Cup matches; those times, I was one of only half a dozen patrons in the place. Last night was a very different scene: the place was so packed, you could hardly move; the wait staff was swamped, and lots of people were illuminated by the glows of their laptops as they checked results and blogged, I guess, in real time.

Still, the event did have a kind of sporting event feel about it that struck me as a bit odd. Cheering at a sports bar? Is this what politics has become?

And if so, could we make sure that the Steelers run next time?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Convenience Charge

The telemarketer on the other end of the line asks me if “Mrs. Dixon” is at home.

“There is no Mrs. Dixon living here,” I point out, affably, especially for someone who has had to run up the steps and tear around the living room trying to find the missing phone before it stopped ringing.

“Are you Mr. Dixon?”

“There is no Mr. Dixon here, either.”

“When do you expect Jennifer to be home?” asks the solicitor, trying another tack.

“May I ask what this call is in reference to?” I inquire, shifting the conversation myself.

“It’s just a courtesy call,” comes the response.

But, of course, it’s not. If anything, it’s a rudeness call, interrupting my life and evening as it has.

Later, I’m trying to buy six tickets to the upcoming Decemberists show at the Paramount Theater. Seats are $25.00 a piece, with a $2.50 facility fee each. On top of that Ticketmaster wants to tack on $8.50 per for a “Convenience Charge.”

Convenient for them maybe, certainly not for me.

How is it that language has gotten so perverted that rudeness can be called “courtesy” and inconvenience “convenience?”

I suppose it’s just symptomatic of a culture in which torture is referred to as “persuasion” and where simply repeating a lie over and over makes it true.

Now, I don’t mean to sound all traditionalist here; I’m all for neology as a rule, but I do think we need to be somewhat careful about making words mean things they were never intended to.

“Star,” for instance, was never meant to refer to anyone voted for by national cellphone poll.

I am glad, however, that language is living. We were playing Scrabble last night and on my last turn, I was left with an “F,” an “A,” and a “Q,” but no “U.”

Thanks to courteously fluid nature of English, I was able to win the game by spelling “FAQ.”

That’s what I would call convenient.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Shoulda Made Soup

So now, I really don’t care about the Steelers.

(Well, unless they can run off eight straight victories to finish 10-6; that should make the playoffs.)

I thought I had pulled out all the stops yesterday: I did all my chores; I laid out the Terrible Towel upon which I set out Mom’s and Dad’s rings and watches; I even cracked a Rolling Rock at kickoff.

But still the Black n’ Gold looked more like the black and blue: six turnovers, including something like four in the Red Zone. Once again, the Steelers dominate a team statistically, but end up on the short end of the final score.

I’m thinking that Pittsburgh used up all their luck last year; I guess that’s worth it, given the Superbowl title and all.

Or maybe Mom and Dad out there in the universal ether just don’t care anymore—having gotten their “one for the thumb” and so aren’t channeling good vibes through their jewelry these days.

I think the real problem, though, is that I didn’t make soup during the game.

Instead of preparing a hearty dinner for my family and listening to the contest on Internet radio, I mostly sat on my ass (by far the best place to sit, in any case) watching it on the tube. Had I been in kitchen, I’m sure the football gods would have been kinder to my team.

I tried to make something happen in the fourth quarter when the Steelers were down eight; with six minutes to go, I left my warm dry sitting room to watch Mimi’s soccer game, thinking surely that would surely be the sacrifice needed to propel my boys to victory.

But even that didn’t work; Hines Ward fumbled in the end zone, a sure sign that the Steelers were done for.

So I came home and made soup anyway; it was a longshot to be sure, but how else are they gonna start their winning streak?

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Chores to Win

After the Steelers dropped another game they should have won last Sunday, I started feeling sorta relieved, like “Well, at least now I don’t have to worry so much about them and can get on with my life Sundays and the occasional Monday evening.”

But that was just sour grapes and by Tuesday, I was deep into calculations of mathematical possibilities, assured that if the Black n’ Gold run the table—or even if they lose just once more—they ought to be assured of a playoff spot.

So, come Sunday morning, I’m doing what it takes to ensure they win: I got up early and did all the week’s shopping, including a couple of unusual items I had to make an extra stop for; I took out all the garbage and recycling; I did the dishes and put them away; I paid outstanding bills, folded the laundry, vacuumed and mopped the floor, shook out the bathroom rug, and even cleaned up my downstairs office.

The only thing I haven’t done is grade some student papers; I figure if I do a couple that should be enough; I’m not asking for a blowout, just a simple win.

Now, reason tells me that there’s no correlation between my taking care of domestic duties and the Steelers prevailing on the football field. However, experience tells me different. Before last year’s Superbowl, not only did I mow the lawn, but I also washed the windows and scrubbed down the upstairs shower. It’s no wonder that Pittsburgh both crushed Seattle and turned the referees in their favor.

Of course, there have been times I’ve done all my chores and still seen the Steelers lose; the 1997 AFC Championship game, for instance. That can be explained though, by the fact that I failed to vacuum under the couch and that instead of recycling the empty yogurt containers, I just through them in the garbage.

Today, I’m taking no chances; I even dusted.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Coffee Drinker

I’ve been a coffee drinker for over forty years.

When we were kids, my mom would let my sister and me have “coffee milk,” which was a small slug of java, lots of milk, and as much sugar as we wanted. It’s no wonder I grew up to be not merely a coffee drinker but a bona fide addict.

In fact, one of the only times my mom showed exasperation with my youthful indiscretions was when—at about age 19—I told her I had kicked the coffee habit in the interest of dietary and bodily purity. Having merely rolled her eyes when she became aware of what a pothead I was in high school, and having just shrugged her shoulders and cautioned me to be careful when she discovered I was occasionally taking psychedelics around that same time, she, by contrast, launched into me when I tried to sell her on the value of kicking caffeine.

“Why that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard!” she spat, no doubt punctuating her remark with a hit off the glass of watery iced coffee that was never far from her reach. “Really, the nonsense you children today believe.”

While I may have gone a few more months drinking ginseng tea and Celestial Seasonings “Roastaroma” blend, I clearly came around to her way of thinking soon enough. I remember having an espresso one afternoon in San Francisco—it would have been the summer Elvis died, 1977—and feeling so delightfully jittery and sweaty that I was all but hooked.

These days, I consume about a quart of coffee a day. The pot I make—French press for the last decade or so after years of Melita filter— in the morning (minus a cup or two I drink right way) goes into a thermos I carry on my bike. I space two or three more cups throughout the day, usually finishing the last one right before my ride home.


Friday, November 03, 2006

Sex and Drugs (I Hope)

Maybe Ted Haggard, as the Times puts it, “one of the nation’s most influential Christian leaders,” didn’t take the methamphetamine he bought from Michael Forest Jones, and maybe the former president of the National Association of Evangelicals didn’t have sex with the self-described former gay prostitute, but I sure hope so.

It’s just too good not to be true.

Here’s a guy who believes that homosexual sex is a sin and whose organization has come out (no pun intended) in favor of a Constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage all the while he’s in a hotel room, smoking glass, getting nasty with a dude!

The only thing that would make it better would be if Karl Rove were there in diapers shooting smack and being flogged by a teenage runaway.

I, of course, don’t mind a bit what Mr. Haggard does to get his jollies—although for his wife’s sake, I sure hope if the reports of sex are true he used a condom, and come to think of it: meth? Wouldn’t cocaine be sort of more appropriate for a gentleman of his wealth and standing?—but it’s the hypocrisy that’s just so over the top.

Or maybe it’s self-hatred. Which I guess would explain the meth.

Of course, if the reports are false (although Haggard did admit to buying the drugs, just not using them—didn’t inhale, right?) then it’s really unfortunate. And not just because Haggard’s not hoist by his own petard, but because here we’d have another case of someone being publicly vilified for their (even alleged) homosexuality.

It’s creepy that people would be more exercised by Haggard being a pole-smoker than they would be by his opposition to gay marriage.

That’s like being more upset that Kerry made a bad joke than that Bush is responsible for the deaths of over 3000 American soldiers and perhaps as many as 650,000 Iraqi civilians as a result of pursuing his illegal and unjust war.


Thursday, November 02, 2006

Free Will, Eee!

Next week, in the Philosophical Questions class, we will begin exploring what’s my favorite of the classic philosophical problems, free will.

There are, as I understand it, two versions.

The theistic one goes: if God is all-knowing, then certainly He knows my every decision so that means my actions are fully determined, thus I can’t have free will.

The materialist version goes: since we are physical systems, all of our alleged “choices” are nothing more than responses to stimuli, all of which are subject to physical laws, so when it comes right down to it, the Big Bang started it all, and ever since, things have just unfolded according to cause and effect laws; thus, I can’t have free will.

I myself am very sympathetic to the second version; as far as I can see, it compels us to accept the conclusion that free will is an illusion, one that we have no choice but to accept anyway—which is small consolation, but then again, we would have to think so.

The practical problem that ensues from our having no free will is well-known: since we can only be held accountable or praised for actions that are freely chosen, then it’s not obvious we can never really be blamed or praised for anything. I like this when I break a dish; I’m not so pleased with it when I help an old lady across the street.

One way out of this problem is to note that even if our actions are determined by God or nature, it’s clear that some of them are more under our control than others: if I hold a gun to your head and ask you to choose between your money or your life, one could argue that your so-called “choice” is not nearly as free as your decision to read this piece which—although it would probably increase my readership to do so—I assume no one forced you to at gunpoint.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Giving Up Giving Up

There are a number of things I do—or keep doing—out of fear that if I stopped doing them, I’d stop for good.

One, of course, is writing a piece day for 327 days (I’m up to 86 days straight so far). I’m pretty sure if I skip a day and am forced to start all over again, I’ll give up—not merely from the daunting nature of being back at day 1, but also because I won’t be able to not notice how absurd a task I’ve set for myself.

Another is commuting regularly to school by bicycle. I seem to be getting slower by the day. This morning, I was passed by a middle-aged guy on a mountain bike with knobby tires and flat bars. (I did draft him for a while; my ego can only take so much.) If it weren’t that the bus has gotten completely unreliable (the last two times I’ve ridden it, it’s been over 15 minutes late), I might take to using my U-Pass instead of my pedals all the time.

Yoga, too. On Monday and Tuesday of this week, I couldn’t drag myself out of the warm bed to brave the cold trip to the Ashtanga Yoga School. I did my usual abbreviated home practice and it was only the fear that if I didn’t get there today I might never go again that got me to the studio.

So, I can’t really tell if my stick-to-itiveness in these cases is to be commended; one could easily conclude that if it’s only habit that’s making me continue, then I ought to relent. On the other hand, I don’t want to throw in the towel too easily, especially if giving up would mean giving up something good for good.

I’ve wondered (even semi-publicly) what my life might be like had I not given up other pursuits; for now, then, I’ll see what happens if I give up giving up.