Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Halloween Whim Whams

My mom used to call the phenomenon of kids bouncing off the walls on Christmas and Halloween the “whim-whams,” and I can think of no more apt description for the behavior that Mimi and her friend Ani are exhibiting this evening.

A few minutes ago, they were holding arms and jumping up and down while yelling “It’s dark! It’s dark!” even though it was barely crepuscular outside.

And I type currently, Mimi has her Headless Horseman costume on and is preparing to head out for the big candy foray; although she is thrilled at the prospect of a head full of sweets, I think she’s more into the acquisition of goodies than the actual consumption of them.

Fourth grade may be about the pinnacle of the Halloween experience. You’re big enough to be able to handle the whole thing and not be scared by other kids on the street, but still young enough to find the experience pretty magical: you dress up in costume, go around to people’s houses, and they give you stuff!

I went as the Mummy when I was nine; my wrapping, though, was made of toilet paper, so when we got the inevitable Halloween night rain shower in Pittsburgh, the whole thing melted away. I remember not being too terribly upset by that; I just put some dirt on my face, threw on a flannel shirt, and went as a bum.

Jeff Wilcox and I stayed out till something like 9:30; we could barely carry our pillowcases full of loot home.

The world is a somewhat different place these days; I can’t imagine letting Mimi roam the streets by herself like we did; Jen and I will tag-team chaperoning the kids. My favorite part of that is having the opportunity to snoop into the houses of people in the neighborhood.

I find the prospect of that relatively appealing; it’s not nearly thrilling enough to give me a good case of the whim-whams, though.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Birthday Girl

Today is Jen’s birthday, so I really should be mixing drinks and arranging flowers instead of writing this.

But maybe part of being a truly loving spouse is to be somewhat predictable and to carry through on one’s projects; if that’s the case, then I can at least take a little while to write today’s entry before we go out to the birthday dinner.

And offer a few words in praise of Jennifer Dixon, love of my life, light of my heart, on this the occasion of almost half a lifetime of birthdays celebrated together.

The first year I knew Jen I borrowed her car on her birthday and brought it back with a set of four new tires. That’s probably the best present I ever got her in all these years; arguably the best present I ever got anyone—although the armadillo handbag I bought for my mom one Christmas might offer a run for the money.

Subsequently, I’ve usually tried to write a poem or something; I can never match, though, the phenomenal works of art she has given me on special occasions in my life.

Her generosity in sharing of her talent is unmatched; I’ve got a whole collection of handmade books, precious found object sculptures, and beautiful cards marking my own birthdays; she’s got a box of yellowing pages with inadequate wordplay on them.

As a public artist, Jen Dixon has created works that are grand in scale but touchingly personal in their affect on the viewer. As the creator of personal gifts, she has an uncanny ability to draw upon universal themes which emerge through focused renderings of specific incidents in an individual’s life.

When I see the pieces she has showered me with over the years, I feel like I’m a unique and wonderful person who matters to the universe in some unique and wonderful way.

It may be Jen’s birthday, but I’m the one who gets the real gift.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Costume Party

We all got dressed up and went to a Halloween party last night; Mimi stole the show as the Headless Horseman, complete with bloody vertebrae poking through her severed neck; Jen was resplendent as Tammy Faye Baker, raccoon eyes from tear-streaked mascara and all; I went as a zombie version of Homer Simpson’s neighbor, dubbing myself “Dead” Flanders.

At first, I didn’t have much fun. I forgot that if you choose a boring person to impersonate, then people will be bored by you. Much better to do as I did the year before last and go as a party animal like David Lee Roth.

As dead Ned, my repertoire was pretty limited; all I did was introduce myself, “Hi Dead-ely-o, Zomberino.”

Later, though, when people started trading wigs and apparel, the party kicked into gear. I particularly enjoyed wearing a long red-haired tress and a powder-blue leisure suit jacket. It wasn’t obvious to me what the character I was supposed to be playing at that point was—some sort of bass player for a British prog-rock band—but whoever it was, he was sure a lot more fun than Flanders.

Now, it should be obvious, but this did make me reflect on what a big difference one’s appearance makes—not just to how others see you, but to how we see ourselves.

As Ned, I was all shy and mousey; when I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, it made me even more so. As prog-rock guy, I couldn’t help but be smarmy and opinionated; I had to live up to my hairdo at the very least.

I’d like to think I’m not so shallow as all this in real life, but to some extent, I’m sure I am. When I’m having a bad hair day—or month, as the current case may be—I feel less lively than when the locks fall across my forehead just so.

Maybe it’s time again to change wigs.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Lessons From Experience

I spent an hour and half this morning over coffee with fellow Africa traveler, Buck Elliot, and talking with him reminded me of several things I’d forgotten, hadn’t noticed and/or have been overlooking.

He said he came back from Tanzania last spring feeling really engaged by the question “What really matters?”

We all did in some way; I think Buck is doing a better job than me, though, in paying attention and, as Richard Leider puts it, “noticing the signs” that indicate to him where his passions lie and in what direction his hand naturally turns.

I feel like I spend at least a portion of my energies successfully shutting myself off from messages that reach out to me; Buck likened it to watching notes in bottles float by, thinking, “Later…I’ll pick up the next one.”

But there is only so much time.

It occurred to me in our conversation that—for me, anyway—the authentic lessons are those drawn from experience and yet I find myself learning the same ones over and over again:

The truth, however inconvenient, cannot be avoided.

We must work together to save each other.

It’s always easier said than done.

Last night, I rode in the midnight bike race around Greenlake and came in dead fucking last behind even a guy on a downhill mountain bike who couldn’t sit down because his seatpost was slipping but I’m not sure that’s telling me to stay home, which illustrates, I think, the challenge for me:

Of all the possible messages, which ones do I heed?

Hunter-gatherers would say to attend to those that sustain us.

But that makes it way too easy, which is to say way too hard to avoid.

So, unless I’m willing to be authentic and wholehearted, then why am I kidding myself? Unless I’m willing to do what I say, why say it at all?

Unless, of course, the reason for saying it IS to make me do it.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Alternate Lives

Deb wrote a piece entitled “Sometimes I Wonder,” and I do, too. At many points my life might have gone in other directions and while I’m not entirely sure that free will isn’t an illusion, I speculate on who I would be if it had.

In seventh grade, I had it all figured out. I was going to the University of Vermont for undergrad, University of Colorado at Boulder for medical school and would hang out my shingle as an orthopedic surgeon in Vail. Had I done that, I’d surely now co-own a restaurant along with my condo and my Range Rover.

In high school, I was set to graduate from the University of Chicago and then Columbia Law. By now, I’d have made partner and would probably be divorced once, if not twice.

I could have stayed in San Francisco in the late eighties and stuck to doing stand-up comedy. Maybe I wouldn’t have my own sitcom, but I’d at least be opening for headliners in Vegas.

Later, had I really committed to being a writer in Los Angeles, I’d probably have gotten a staff position on some Fox or WB Network show. Chances are I’d also have seen what the inside of a minor celebrity rehab facility looks like.

Instead of going to Paris in 1987, I could have moved to Minneapolis with the other folks from Wilson Learning. By now, I’d own a home in Minnetonka be thirty pounds heavier than my current weight.

Rather than coming west to grad school, I might have remained a corporate consultant; surely I’d have sold my business by now and be a sought-after motivational speaker.

And then I might have finished up the Ph.D. instead teaching at Cascadia. I could have a tenured position by now at a four year school in the Southeast.

I’ve not real regrets about how things have turned out; I wish I could sample those other lives, though, just to be sure.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Slow Ride

I rode the 420 bike home from school today. (I took the bus in as usual on Thursdays—to read the Stranger and catch up on my pop culture for the week.)

The noble lugged steel Trek is my most upright of bikes: English 3-speed style bars, cork grips, sprung Brooks saddle; probably the heaviest of my rides and certainly the one that induces me to ride most slowly.

Although I wouldn’t take it every day, I’m recommending I ride it in more regularly, a couple times a month, at least.

Traveling more slowly than usual has much to recommend it.

First, it’s easy. Typically, at some point during my commute, I get to pedaling faster than I mean to. Maybe I’m fighting the wind or trying to get a hill over with; my heart races and my breath comes in gulps.

Not once today did I feel like I was really working.

Second, my ego is lulled to sleep. Most days, there comes a time when I’m compelled to pick up the pace because someone passes me or I’m trying to prevent that from happening.

Today, I didn’t care—even when the pair of chunky chicks on fat tire bikes left me in their dust.

Third, the view afforded by the Miss Gulch position allows me to notice and enjoy the lovely fall colors especially clearly. It’s not that I’m usually in a deep race crouch or anything, but today I was heads up, looking around, and really appreciating the brilliant yellows and reds of this fine fall day.

Finally, the slow bike wasn’t even that slow. I left school at 4:00 and passed the UW at around 5:05. This is only a handful of minutes longer than it usually takes.

Instead of going home, I met Jen, Mimi, and Mimi’s friend at Central Cinema to watch “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.”

The 420 bike really is the two wheeled equivalent of my hero, Don Knotts.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Time Tracking

I completely lost track of time today; I got out of my 1:15 class at 3:20, knowing full well I had a meeting at 3:30.

And yet, I sat down at my desk convinced I had two hours to kill before the meeting started.

So, I did some grading, organized a bunch of files, and started prepping for class tomorrow.

I began considering what piece I might write for today’s blog and considered how I could write something that was closely related enough to the classes I’m teaching that I could justify to myself using the computer in the office to do so.

Thinking this might take a while, I glanced at my watch to see how much more time I had before the meeting was to start.

Dad’s Rolex read 4:15. “That’s weird,” I thought, “I’ve been wearing it regularly, why would it wind down? And even if it did, how could it be almost twelve hours behind? Wouldn’t I have noticed earlier? Have I not looked at my watch at all today?”

Suddenly, it dawned on me that it was Wednesday, not Tuesday. I hadn’t had two-plus hours between my class and the meeting; I’d only had ten minutes.

I arrived at the meeting 45 minutes late, but thankfully, it didn’t matter too much. (I suppose that’s the nature of meetings; perhaps I learned something today.)

Mainly, though, I got to thinking about how, for the most part, especially at school, I’m pretty much at the mercy of the clock: class starts at this hour, meetings at that one; it’s time to go home when the big hand’s on the five. Or six.

I compare that to Africa last spring when we were advised to put our watches away as soon as we landed at Kiliminjaro.

And I miss those lazy days of summer when I didn’t wear a watch for weeks on end.

Ironically, I’m counting the hours until I can do that again.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Ethics of Spying

I saw philosopher and legal scholar Anita Allen give a talk at the UW today entitled “The Ethics of Spying on Others.” In it, she explored four scenarios that illuminated criteria which could conceivably justify covertly collecting information on people without their knowledge.

These were 1) in the arena of international relations, where a country’s real security is at risk, 2) in the corporate world, when an organization’s vital interests are at stake, 3) in personal relationships between adults, where one of the party’s deep personal interests might be seriously compromised, and 4) in parental and other caregiving relationships where the caregiver has good reason to believe the person under his or her care could be harming him or herself.

I was particularly interested in the last one (which actually came first during Dr. Allen’s talk) because it made me wonder about instances where it might be okay to spy on Mimi in the name of preventing her from harm.

As a parent, it seems obvious that I’d be justified in looking through her room if I thought she was hiding something that was hurting her—methamphetamine, Ayn Rand novels, Carrot Top CDs—but as a kid, I would have been livid had my own parents snooped in my desk drawer or read my journal looking for signs that I was injuring myself.

Dr. Allen didn’t really get into cases where there might be disagreement over what constitutes harm. Say, for instance, that I suspect my daughter of falling under the influence of kids who hand out Lyndon LaRouche pamphlets. I believe that she would be doing herself a great injustice to become involved with the Libertarian Party and so I dig under her mattress looking for campaign material.

Would I be justified? Not if it’s not certain harm is being done.

Allen did say, though, that it’s not spying if the spied-upon knows s/he is being observed.

So, if you’re reading this Mimi, considered yourself informed.

Monday, October 23, 2006

No Time Like the Present

I once saw comedian who did a funny bit about old people driving slowly. He wondered why grandma and grandpa took it so easy behind the wheel when, after all, they didn’t have all that much time left to drive. “When I’m old,” the comedian ranted, “I’m gonna be flooring it all over the place. Outta my way! I’m gonna die soon!”

I was in my twenties when I heard that routine and it made perfect sense to me. I thought of all the times I’d gotten stuck behind some old guy woolgathering as he poked along, making me miss the green light, and couldn’t understand it either.

Now, though, that I’m much closer in age to those folks the comedian was parodying, I empathize much more with slow drivers than ever before.

The difference is that I’m not so much in a hurry to get to the next place anymore. I’m pleased enough to be where I am and to enjoy this moment now as much as possible.

This isn’t to say that I’m comfortable wasting time; I realize that in order to do all the things I’d like to do in the time I have left, I’d better get cracking and not procrastinate. However, I also don’t consider nearly as many things as I formerly did to be wastes of time.

Getting to where I’m going is a destination itself. To some extent, as long as I’m someplace, that’s good enough for me.

Broken record observation: The above is more likely to be true when I’m on my bike than when I’m in my car. On the bike, even when I’m going slowly, I’m still on a bike ride. In a car, when I’m going slowly, I’m stuck in traffic.

Of course, as Jen’s hairdresser once observed, this is probably because I drive a Ford station wagon.

If I drove a Porsche, I wouldn’t be in such a hurry to get out of the car.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Soccer Dad

Of all the parent-y things we do, attending the kid’s soccer games is one of the parenty-est.

We stand there on the sidelines with our fellow moms, dads, and other guardians. At Mimi’s age, the teams don’t officially keep score, but parents—and especially kids—alike always know exactly how many goals have been made by each side.

The grownups are polite; we cheer for both teams and don’t get too obnoxious in encouraging our little players to excel. This isn’t to say that we don’t mutter under our breaths or make unintentionally snide comments about kids on both sides of the ball.

Right now, I’m watching the Steelers on TV; I compare my attitude watching the boys in Black n’ Gold to the girls in Blue and White. So far, I’ve never sworn or pounded the table at anything that has gone on in one of Mimi’s games. Already, I’ve cussed half a dozen times and thrown the newspaper twice—and it’s only the second quarter, and the Steelers are winning.

Mimi asked me what’s my favorite sport to watch; I told her, of course, Pittsburgh Steelers football. She admonished me for not choosing Jackrabbits’ soccer.

I guess it’s because, in part, I don’t really consider her games a sport—not yet, anyway. If she’s still playing at fifteen or sixteen, though, when if they’re officially keeping score, maybe then, I’ll be painting my face and screaming at the field.

But maybe not; after all, they don’t serve beer at youth soccer games.

I’m always aghast when I read about parents who attack umpires or coaches; I can’t imagine ever turning into one of those dads. But then again, it wasn’t but a few years ago when I never could have imagined being a parent on the sideline of a kid’s soccer game.

All I ask, therefore, is that if you read about me wigging out someday on the junior soccer pitch, don’t blame the Steelers.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Strange Communication

I’m riding back from the store last night with the essentials: beer, ice cream, and tortilla chips.

Crossing Jackson Street from the Red Apple parking lot to Walgreen’s is sometimes a little tricky. Cars drive too fast on Jackson, and there’s often lots of vehicular confusion as cars exit one lot and drive across the street to the other.

I often ride in the crosswalk to cross; cars don’t usually stop for me and I don’t expect them to, but at least I’m more visible. Once to the other side, I then jog left on the sidewalk into the Walgreen’s lot.

And that’s just what I did last night. As I’m doing so, I’m aware of this early 80’s Cadillac Seville, banged-up a bit, with a broken muffler. It, too is making the cross from Red Apple to Walgreens, gunning its unmuffled engine as it does so.

I’m about parallel with it as we cross; then I nip inside it from the sidewalk, thinking we’ll both go on our merry way.

The guy stops hard, though, and starts jawing at me.

“You’ve got to decide what you are, man! You’ve got to either be on the road or on the sidewalk! You wanna be a car, be a car. You wanna be a pedestrian, be a pedestrian! You can’t be both!”

I think he’s drunk and I don’t want to get into it with him, so I just smile and nod, thanking him for his advice.

But he just keeps going: “I don’t see you, I could run you over!”

I assure him I’m even less interested in being hit than he is in hitting me but it doesn’t seem to register. He’s in full rant mode, raging about how he’s lived in the neighborhood fifty years, how he’s sixty-five years old and has never had an accident.

I realize now it doesn’t matter what I say, so I just shrug, tip my cap and pedal off.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Stoned Rats

It turns out that smoking pot may slow memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s—at least if you’re a rat.

Elderly rats given a marijuana-like substance did significantly better at navigating a maze than their counterpart rodents who weren’t.

This is good news, as it portends the likelihood I’ll still be able to find my way home after a night out in a few years, although locating my house keys at the door is another matter altogether.

It’s probably not that the stoned rats had better memories; it’s probably they were just more used to maintaining in a state of reduced memory function.

One of the things I sort of like about getting stoned is how it confuses me. Consequently, I’m able to take great satisfaction in the accomplishment of the simplest tasks. I tie my shoe; it’s like, “Wow! Incredible! Take the rest of the day off.”

I wonder if the stoned rats wouldn’t have done an even better job of getting through the maze if the researchers put some ice cream at the end of it.

Generally, I get the anti-munchies when I’m stoned. While I don’t mind another beer or two, the idea of food tends not to appeal to me—at least at first. A few hours later, when I’m coming down, I can tuck it in pretty well, but initially, I’d rather just poke around the house or take a bike ride.

My guess is that the pot-smoking rats showed signs of improved memory function in part because they were seeing their world through the slightly different perspective afforded by marijuana intoxication. I’ll bet they moved more slowly than the control group rats and looked at things more closely, too.

Last night, I was pretty stoned (not to mention more than a little tipsy) on my bike ride home. I had no trouble remembering how to find my house, although right now, I’m sort of vague on how I managed to do so.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Tuesday, Cheese Sandwich

I like my job, I really do.

You’ll get the standard complaints from me that issue from most academics: meetings, grading, these kids today who don’t do the readings, but for the most part, at the end of the day (and even the middle), I’m happy to be a college teacher.

I have plenty of creative freedom; I get to hang out with interesting people and talk about things I’m interested in; I generally feel like I’m making a more or less positive contribution to the world, and I have a schedule that lets me ride my bike a lot and do yoga most days.

But the daily grind of it all gets me down.

Granted, I’m not sitting in a cubicle, pushing the same papers back and forth all day long; the classroom is often a place of surprise and mystery, unexpected things happen that require me to be nimble on my feet and not lapse into boredom and despair.

But still…

I perform pretty much the same routine every day: commuting, working, sleeping, metro-boulot-dodo as my French friends used to say.

Monday, yogurt in a cup, Tuesday, cheese sandwich, Wednesday cottage cheese, and so on.

I don’t think that human beings were meant to be such creatures of routine. “Old men should be explorers,” said T.S. Eliot. Too often, this old man feels like he’s just wearing the same path bare over and over.

Of course, this is all on me. If I really want to explore, I can. For instance, on Tuesdays, by way of a change, I could have almond butter and jelly.

I don’t have to teach the same set of readings year after year. Instead of slogging through Kant, I can assign students to try to make sense of Foucault, for instance.

Of course, that would require me to do something different than usual. And am I enough of an explorer for that? Or am I not old man enough?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Lame Commute

My regular bike ride from home to school usually takes me about an hour and a half; the other way is about ten minutes longer (there's more uphill, especially at the end). Fairly often (especially as the weather gets wetter), I put my bike on the bus in the morning; occasionally (especially when it's still light) do I use the bus option on the way home.

Today was one of those days, though.

My legs were feeling tuckered out; plus, I wanted to stop at Trader Joe's on Capitol Hill to get snacks for a meeting at school tomorrow and it's a more convenient route there to come from downtown where the bus lets me off; also, I figured I could use the bus ride to read this chilling account of Shell Oil's environmentally destructive human rights violations on the Niger Delta called Where Vultures Feast; so I had enough reasons to go lazy and save a little time--I thought.

As it turned out, it took me nearly two and a half hours from office to back yard; even if I had ridden slowly and stopped at TJ's, I could have done it in little more than two.

Traffic was staggering, especially on the freeway. Had I been driving, I would have been banging my head on the steering wheel and swearing. On the bus, at least I could doze--that is when I wasn't beating myself up for not riding.

I'm wondering if my experience doesn't continue to build the case for cycle commuting. Already I get around way faster on two wheels on shorter trips in the city, but if getting home from Bothell turns out to be quicker via bicycle than by car, then why drive ever?

Sure I got a little wet when I rode today, but at least I didn't have to listen to some guy's boring cell phone conversation.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Earnest Parents

I gave a presentation tonight at a private school in the Sand Point neighborhood. A dozen parents showed up to hear me speak on the advertised topic of Critical Thinking and Moral Education for Young Children. In fact, I only tangentially touched upon that, focusing instead on a number of exercises I've used in to explore ethics with students in philosophy for children classes.

I demonstrated three different activities: one, a Prisoner's Dilemma-influenced game that encourages students to cooperate rather than compete, second, a reading from Stuart Little that helps develop an understanding of classroom rules and norms, and third, a card game called "Hand Dealt" that introduces players to a Rawlsian conception of justice as fairness through simulating the choosing of principles of just distribution from behind a "veil of ignorance."

All in all, it went pretty well; parents were engaged with the activities and they asked thoughtful questions and made good eye contact with me throughout.

But what really struck me about the evening's participants was how earnest they all were. To a person, they seemed deeply committed to being the best moms and dads they could be even if that meant coming out on a Tuesday night to their kids' school to hear some guy tangentially-affiliated with the University of Washington talk about how to raise good kids.

And when it turned out that wasn't really what I was going to do, they hung in there, hoping for some guidance of some sort on the road to improved parenting.

I'm not sure I would have done that; I'm not sure I'm as good a parent--or that I'm as good at trying to be as good a parent--as they are.

I was invited by a former professor and even offered an honorarium to be there; if I'd have had my druthers, though, I might have been out drinking and riding bikes instead.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Absurd Ashtaga

I am a serious student of Ashtanga yoga, and have been for over eight years. I consistently practice six days a week, three to four of those at the Ashtanga Yoga School studio, where I spend between an hour and a half and two hours bending and sweating, the other days at home, where I usually shorten my practice to around forty-five minutes or so.

On studio days, I get out of bed at 5:30 in the morning and even when it’s raining like today, ride my bike about a mile and a half to begin by 6:00. At home, I’ll often sleep in a bit, but I still try to start by 6:45 at the latest.

The practice itself is difficult for me; it requires a good deal of jumping and stretching and if the room is warm (as it usually is at the studio), I’m soaked in sweat by halfway through.

And yet, day after day (except Sundays), I continue. I’ve practiced sick, hungover, with a sprained wrist (twice), a tweaked neck (on several occasions), a tight back, sore knees, on vacation, at philosophy conferences, by myself, with a group of over 200, in the woods, on the floor of the bathroom at a casino, before my father’s and mother’s memorial services, and besides the hundreds of hours I’ve expended doing poses, I’ve also spent on the order of eight to ten thousand dollars taking classes, workshops, and going on retreats—and this without ever yet making it to India.


I’m not sure. Often, I find myself thinking that the whole thing is totally absurd: I could be sleeping, cuddling in a warm bed with my wife or and catching a much-needed forty winks more.

It’s got to be more than just the exercise and yet, I don’t entirely buy the underlying philosophy of yoga as a means of liberation.

Were I truly liberated, I wouldn’t be getting up tomorrow at 5;30, would I?

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Mushroom Show

I went to the Puget Sound Mycological Society’s annual wild mushroom show today; had an enjoyable ride through the misty rain to Magnuson Park; I arrived feeling appropriately fungus-like; and, while I enjoyed the homemade quality of the event—hand-lettered signs and all—I was underwhelmed by the exhibits, even those that featured giant boletuses or amanita muscaria.

I was expecting something more like the show I saw in San Francisco when I was a little hippy boy in the city; as I recall, there were tables upon tables of mycelium, with all sorts of moldy-looking folks waxing rhapsodic about their stinky, smelly, and gooey fungi.

Today, there was a pretty good selection of folks who looked like they spent a lot of time pawing over rotting treetrunks, but there wasn’t as much of their decaying bounty as I expected.

My favorite part of the day was looking over the shoulder of someone who had brought a bag full of mushrooms from his backyard to be identified by one the resident experts; I learned a few things about what’s growing in my own yard.

I figured out that we had shaggy parasol (lepiota rachodes), which apparently, makes pretty good eating, although the one that had been growing in our garden turned out to be too rotten to cook.

I almost bought a shitake growing kit and I still may; growing mushrooms seems about the right level of difficulty for someone with my abilities as a gardener. The fruit of mycenia springs up magically, after all; so I’d be unlikely to botch it. Plus, it would be funny to talk about having a brown thumb instead of a green one; Mimi would appreciate it, anyway.

Becoming an expert mycologist is one of those things I’ve always halfway aspired to; it became obvious to me today, though, that I’ll never be a mushroom maven; on the other hand, I’m still hoping that I’ll be remembered as a fun guy.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Custom Bike

I spent a few hours yesterday with Steve Hampsten, owner and designer of Cycles Tournesol, and ended up putting in an order for a custom road bike, to be delivered in about six months or so.

I’ll be spending around four thousand dollars when all is said and done, which is a hell of a lot of money for anything, much less for a bike, even though close to three quarters will be covered by the insurance settlement on the Rambouillet.

I’m ambivalent about the expenditure, not so much because of its impact on Mimi’s college fund or my retirement (we spend three times that a year just for the interest on our home loan) but moreso, because the utilitarian in me wonders whether I ought to direct the cash to something that makes more of a positive difference in the world.

I do console myself slightly that I’m supporting a local small business and helping to keep alive the craft of lugged steel bicycle construction, but I’m not, obviously, donating the cash to famine relief or even to bicycle-related causes.

I have this idea, therefore, that I’m not sure I’m going to follow through on but which I will at least think about and aspire to in some way.

Suppose I were to raise the same amount of money I’m spending on the bike and donate it to my favorite local charity, BikeWorks. I’m not entirely sure how I’d go about that (my preferred idea would be to put together an Xtracycle with a B3 SoulBlender and ride around selling smoothies and marguerites, the profits from which I would send BikeWorks’ way.)

This is likely to be one of those admirable ideas that never comes to fruition, but I’m hoping that if I keep it in mind, I’ll at least have my heart in the right place.

And maybe instead of going for full Dura-Ace, I’ll opt for Ultegra and give some of the difference away.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Long Time Gone

One thing is certain: we will all be dead a lot longer than we ever were alive.

Thus, it might seem strange that we spend so much energy on the quality of our lives; we might do better to spend it on the quality of our deaths.

Montaigne said, “the ceaseless labor of your life is to build the house of death.” Hmmm…

Perhaps we give so little attention to the quality of our experience after we’re dead because we won’t be around to experience it. Why should I care if things suck when there’s no possibility of having to deal with it?

But as Aristotle points out in the Nichomachean Ethics, we do consider it possible for the quality of a person’s life to change even when they’re dead.

Imagine that you successfully devote your life to coming up with a cure for the common cold, and as a result, are acclaimed as the most brilliant inventor of your day. You are heralded in all the media and your name is made legion. After you die, though, it is discovered that your “cure” causes a rare and particularly virulent form of cancer. Thousands die as a result of your life’s work and you are vilified for centuries to come by anyone who hears your name.

In such a case, you didn’t really lead the life you thought you had led, so even though you’re not around to be made aware that everything you worked for was an abject failure, we might say what you took to be a happy life wasn’t so happy at all.

One way to guard against such a possibility could be to reach out to as many people as possible in your life and help make their lives a little richer. Then, even if it turns out after your gone that your life did suck, there will at least be some other lives that were made better by your having lived.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Sacrifice of the Few

I was quite moved by Bob Herbert’s piece in the NY Times today about how little the average American is sacrificing—compared to your average soldier or soldier’s family—in the Iraq War.

It’s true. I can completely ignore the pain and suffering of U.S. military and their families—not to mention that of the reported 600,000 Iraqi civilians who have died since the U.S. invasion begain.

So, I began to wonder what would count as a commensurate (or at least appropriate) sacrifice on my part. Obviously, I’m not willing to give up my life or the life of my loved ones but what should I—or the average complacent American—do?

Here’s what I propose: (and it’s based on the assumption—perhaps flawed—that the underlying reason for this war is oil). Suppose I said that until the war is over (that is, until all U.S. combat forces are brought home) that I would refuse to drive a car.

That’s probably what I should do, but perhaps there will be occasions when I need to get Mimi somewhere, to which the tandem is impractical, so suppose it’s this: I will refuse to drive in a car by myself until the war is over.

Now, perhaps that’s not really a sacrifice for me. (Perhaps a greater sacrifice would be to HAVE to drive places, that is, if sacrifice is doing what you don’t want to but should.)

But suppose if all Americans adopted this policy, at least as an aspiration. Suppose every time we wanted to go somewhere, we tried our best to go by bus, or carpool, or train, or bike. Or even cab.

That would indeed be a sacrifice. It certainly wouldn’t be as great a sacrifice as Sargeant Krause, and certainly not as great as Lieutenant Zelinski, but it would likely qualify as a lot more than most of us are doing.

Would it help to save lives if we all helped to save oil?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Better Class

I did something in ethics class I usually don’t do: I told students what I think.

(Well, at least about this week’s issue: drug legalization).

I tried to make sure they understood what I was up to; not to get all preachy or make them think they had agree with me or fear for their grade. Rather, I tried to explain that because I was dissatisfied with class on Monday, I thought I would try a different approach.

Students appreciated that I copped to my failure last class; when I said that failure was because of me, not them, laughter rippled through the room.

I began by saying, “I think that the war on drugs is one of the most, if not THE most misguided of all our country’s policies and I’m going to explain why we ought to radically reform current federal and state drug laws.” Some students sat up and paid a bit more attention when I said this; I think most expected me to argue for a far more measured approach.

I then gave what I thought was a pretty clear 20 minute or so lecture, basing my case on four points: first, the standard argument that the primary social ills associated with drugs are a result of drug prohibition, not drug use, second, that paternalistic restrictions on people’s liberties are rarely justified, third, that the war on drugs represents and leads to unjustified infringement of people’s basic liberties (this is the one that appealed most to students), and fourth, that much of the case against drugs depends on misinformation and lies.

Students mostly listened, except for one who fell asleep with his head back and mouth hanging open. (He did come up to me after class, though, and apologize.)

Our discussion was more lively than Monday’s. I heard from two students who rarely say anything and a few pushed back pretty hard at my proposal.

Good for them and good for our class.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Nuclear Aspirations

No doubt this reveals my ignorance of global politics, but I’m having a hard time getting very worked up over North Korea’s recent nuclear test. I realize that the major concern is not that they’ve successfully blown up an atomic bomb, but that they are now in a position to sell that technology to so-called “rogue nations” and terrorists groups who would then use the nuke on the U.S. or our allies. But even so, this threat all seems so hypothetical and paranoid; I’m much more scared by more immanent dangers like the pollution killing all the undersea life in the Puget Sound, or civil war in Iraq, or Alex Rodgriguez ending up again in a Mariners uniform.

Fear over the atomic bomb strikes me as almost quaint these days; I think all those Beltway insiders who are stressing out so much over North Korea are feeling a bit of nostalgia for the simple days of the Cold War when all we had to worry about was whether the Russians would nuke us and spark World War III. Having a single enemy whose nuclear arsenal poses one big threat seems much easier to deal with than multiple terrorist threats around the globe.

Therefore, I’ve decided, as a public service to our government and military, that I too will develop a nuclear bomb. None of this paltry A-bomb stuff for me, though; I’m going all out for the hydrogen model right off the bat, Tsar Bomba size.

Not only will this reconfigure the arena of global politics, it will also give me a great deal more leverage in my dealings government and industry.

I just dare some cop to give me a parking ticket when I’ve got my H-bomb in the trunk.

Let’s see how fast I get my refund from Amazon.com when they realize their customer is a nuclear power.

Best of all, Washington can stop worrying about Pyongyang and start paying way overdue attention to me.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Bad Class

Had kind of a train wreck of an ethics class today; even had a moment in the middle where I got that total flop sweat thing happening. I was trying to explain the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions and I felt like the students didn’t care and didn’t understand; I started to not care either and as I plowed through the thing, I noticed a few heads on desks and those vacant stares that are the bane of a teacher’s existence. If had been a hole in the floor to drop through at that point, I would have.

I think the problem was mainly that I didn’t come clean with students; that is, I held back my views on the issue in a situation where they really wanted to know what I think.

At least that’s what I think right now.

We’re exploring the question, “should drugs be legalized?” I began the class by asking for their general background on a variety of illegal drugs; I just wanted to get a read on what they know about cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy, heroin, psychedelics, and methamphetamine. I think they were a bit unclear (maybe I was too) where this was going; I probably should have told them what I know about these drugs; that would have at least have given them an idea of what I was looking for.

Our goal is to explore various arguments for and against legalization; I think I should go in on Wednesday and present what I think is the best case to be made for decriminalizing all drugs; then at least, they’ll have something to push against in discussion.

I’m always reticent to argue for a position I hold in an ethics class; I’m worried that students will think that their grades depend on agreeing with me. I’m going to take that chance this time.

If they disagree with me, they can just chalk it up to my being an old stoner.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Rocket Race

I took third in yesterday afternoon’s Rocket Race, an outer space/space travel-themed alleycat organized by .83-er, Denny, who—in real (non-bike) life—is an actual rocket scientist.

Heeding my own oft-ignored advice to refrain from getting stoned until AFTER the race resulted in my choosing a pretty good route, enabling me to achieve podium status, beat all the girls, and achieve by far the lowest negative number should you subtract my age from my finishing position.

The race took us to seven stops, all of which had something to do with the heavens or things blasting off heavenwards. Even the start: Denny set the 21 riders on our way by launching a water-bottle rocket; we had to wait for it to take off and land at the race lift-off site on Kite Hill in Gasworks Park.

At the first stop, the Greenwood Space Travel Supply Company, we had to fill out a “crash report” and have it signed by the woman who worked there. With racetosterone flowing through me, I rushed through the report, failing to really give it the attention it deserved. Fortunately, my narrative description of the crash, “Sorry. I blew it!” earned me a signature, even though I left most of the form blank.

My next stop was the Fremont Rocket, where I atoned slightly for my prior haste by helping another rider find the information we were required to put on our manifest.

I hit the Mars Bar before the Space Needle; then from Seattle Center, to the Army/Navy store where I was “punished” for incorrectly identifying a fuel tank as a rocket by having to slam a shot of whiskey.

I rocketed by the last three stops—the Comet Tavern, the Satellite Lounge, and Lloyd’s Rocket—on the way to the touchdown site where I drank some beer and inwardly glowed bright as the full moon at my finishing position before launching myself back home to my own happy little crash pad.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Rearranging Furniture

Every so often, Jen and I get stoned and wander around our house and yard imagining all the things we’d like to do to make our home and garden more functional, beautiful, and pleasant. Sometimes, if we’re feeling particularly ambitious, we’ll push the living room furniture around into a new configuration and sometimes it will turn out that—even next morning—our new arrangement represents an improvement over the old.

That’s just what happened last night, and today, as I look over the new position of couch and chairs, I’m not only pleased with it, but surprised we put up with the previous placements so long.

I’m sure there’s a metaphor in here somewhere: something about not noticing what’s right in front of you and an unreflective willingness to accept arrangements you’re unsatisfied with. How many times have I wished that the lighting by our couch was better and done nothing about it? What does this say about my acceptance of other annoyances that could be relatively easily taken care of?

It often comes down to a choice between effort and complacency. I’m willing—and generally think it’s good to be willing—to put up with some discomfort; I’m not obsessed with the perfect environment; on the other hand, to the degree that I am willing to swallow things that stick in my craw, I may be making myself more uncomfortable than I have to.

This isn’t to say a person should always pick scabs; I do think, though, that when you’ve got one that’s catching on your socks and pant legs, you may as well go for it. (How’s that for a metaphor being in there somewhere?)

What’s curious now is to notice how long it takes me to not notice the new way the living room looks. When will I come to accept the new arrangement uncritically and what sort of recreational stimulants will it take to make me see it in a new way?

Friday, October 06, 2006


I spent the better (worse?) part of today grading student papers.

I don’t mind it as much as I make out; it just takes a lot of time, especially the first few in a batch and more especially, the first paper of the quarter.

I enjoy reading (most) students’ writing; I’m genuinely interested in what they have to say; I like making comments on their ideas (plus I can’t help myself from correcting simple errors like saying “then” when they mean “than” and writing “it’s” when they mean “its”), but I don’t like, and I’ve never liked, putting the number on the thing.

In recent years, under the guidance of more experienced colleagues, I’ve taken to using what we call “rubrics” to do the grading. I construct a chart that shows students just what I’m looking for; if they do all the parts of the assignment in accordance with the criteria I lay out, they can expect to score pretty highly on the piece.

I’m ambivalent about this. Part of me is all for transparency; after all, if I can’t describe what I expect from an assignment, where do I get off grading it? On the other hand, part of what makes an assignment good is that a student identifies for him or herself what qualifies as a good paper and does it.

Chances are, though, that this is just a “misery loves company” attitude on my part; since I had to do that as a student, I damn well expect these kids today to have to, as well.

School as hazing ritual, that’s what it’s all about.

I’ve toyed with the idea of having students grade themselves; one time, as a graduate student, I asked, on a short paper assignment, for students to write an argument for the grade they though they deserved in the class.

Most students were harder on themselves than I would have been.

It looks like that hazing ritual business really works.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Who Am I?

In my Philosophical Questions class, we’re on to the topic of personal identity: basically, questions like “Who am I?” “What makes me me?” and “How can I be the same person I was when I was an infant (assuming I am) when so much of who I am is so different?”

The past few times I’ve taught this class, I’ve had students explore this topic early in the quarter. It tends to be an issue they’re naturally drawn to and it sets up a spirit of inquiry that has generally formed a pretty good foundation for examining other, more abstract topics on down the line.

Oddly, the “problem” of personal identity is not one that usually draws me in. While it’s interesting to wonder what this thing I recognize as “me” is, I’ve tended to have a hard time seeing how it really makes a difference. Whether I’m a soul, a body, a psychic substance, or just an illusion, whether I’m the same being I was at 6 months old, while that’s all reasonable fodder for discussion and barroom chatter, it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference when I’m out in the world, on my bike, or cheering the Steelers on to a much-needed win.

I like the thought experiments we usually play with in exploring this topic, though. All those switched-mind examples, where we get to wonder where Dave is when his mind is placed in another person’s body, those to me are fun to think about. And they usually lead to spirited in-class discussions.

Today a student gave a lovely analogy raising concerns over whether such examples are even theoretically possible. He pointed out that when you make a disk image of a computer’s hard disk and try to install that image on another computer, it just doesn’t work.

Of course, analogies between minds and computers are potentially problematic, but probably no less problematic than the thought experiments they are meant to illustrate.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Quoting Myself

Most people who blog have probably had this experience: you’re talking to a friend or family member about something that happened and you realize you’ve either already blogged about it or that it would make good fodder for a future entry.

It’s especially weird when it’s the former and you feel compelled to say something like, “As I wrote on my blog, blah, blah, blah…”as if your interlocutor has hung on your every written word and is rolling his or her eyes because what you’re saying is old news and has already been said so much more eloquently on the internet.

Even as I write this, I imagine talking to Jen about it, in which case I’ll be talking about writing about something that I had written about talking about.

The possibilities for recursion are endless.

It’s equally weird to view experiences in my life as potential subjects for blogging about. For instance, Jen and I are planning on going out tonight to see a show; a small part of its appeal is that I may be able to count on having subject matter for tomorrow’s piece.

I assume, of course, that this experience is not unique to contemporary bloggers; I’ll wager that autobiographers and journalists from time immemorial have felt the same way. Being one’s own Boswell in real-time, however, might make the sensation more acute, or at least more immediate. In the past, I would likely have been saving up my experiences for future opportunities to write about them; here, I’m turning them over and out almost as soon as they happen.

My family lived in Holland for six months when I was eleven; I kept a travel journal nearly every day of the trip. When I look back at it, I marvel at how the kid I was could compress so many new experiences into just a single page a day.

Now, I’m amused that I can expand so few into another 327 words.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Partially Impartial

My struggle these days as an instructor (apart from the usual effort to assign and grade papers) revolves around my belief that the classroom ought to be a place where ideas can be exchanged freely and in which all perspectives are valuable in the search for truth, and the contrary feeling that my views—at least about some things—ought to be advocated.

This is especially true when it comes to the matter of Americans’ use and abuse of natural resources, especially petroleum, especially gasoline.

It’s not like I have a particularly evolved or nuanced position on the matter; basically, I believe that most of the world’s social problems can be traced more or less directly to our consumption of fossil fuels and that, individually, and collectively, we all have a responsibility to—insofar as we are able—drive cars a lot less than most adults in America do.

So, while I try to create a climate of understanding and appreciation for all points of view in my classrooms, there’s part of me that just wants to get up on a soapbox and tell students straight out that every time they get behind the wheel of a car—especially when they’re the only person in the car—that they are failing (at least a little bit) in their moral responsibility to the planet, and more importantly, their fellow sentient inhabitants of said planet.

I very much enjoy being a teacher; I love creating experiences where students can come to better formulate and articulate their views, but there’s a growing part of me that wants to be more of an activist.

I like allowing students to come to their own conclusions; there are some areas, though, in which I want them to come to mine.

Ours is a commuter campus; most students (and faculty and staff) drive here; I think I’m doing some good teaching philosophy; my nagging suspicion, though, is that I’d do much better advocating bicycling.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Foley a Duh

As the Times reports it: “Former Representative Mark Foley of Florida has checked himself into a rehabilitation facility for alcoholism treatment, and Republican leaders in his state were meeting today to try to find a replacement for Mr. Foley, who resigned abruptly on Friday after reports surfaced of sexually explicit communications with Congressional pages.”

So they guy likes to get tipsy and send sexy emails to kids; that’s creepy for sure, but does he send them because he drinks or does he drink because he sends them?

I’m no saint, and I hardly ever pretend to be (remember, I have tenure), but even when I’m drunk, I’m not compelled to email chat with teenagers.

So, Foley may have a drinking problem, but that doesn’t seem to his main difficulty. Perhaps instead of checking into a rehab clinic, he ought to check into a high school—that might do a better job of alleviating his fascination for youngsters.

I get tired of people blaming their character flaws on substance abuse; granted, getting loaded is apt to make the hidden parts of our personalities come out more—when I’m drunk, I’m incredibly witty and charming, after all—but it’s not the booze that puts them there…and it’s not obvious that being sober will take them away.

I think Foley’s checking into a rehab clinic is an attempt—intentional or not, I don’t know—to avoid taking responsibility for his actions: “The devil—that is, demon rum—made me do it.”

We’re supposed to feel sorry for the guy because he suffers from an illness—alcoholism—rather than feel repulsed by him because he’s a letch.

I’m not particularly moved by this appeal; to me, he doesn’t get off the hook because he’s a drinker; rather, he gets deeper on the hook because in addition to being a creep, he’s a creep who can’t hold his booze.

After all, am I to be cut slack because I wrote this sober?

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Errands by Bike

My friend, Andy Davidson, and I were reflecting the other day on the pleasures of running errands by bike. Andy reminded me of the difference between cruising to the hardware store on two wheels so that you can prop your bike right outside the front door versus driving over, circling the block looking for parking, and eventually returning home because it’s too much of a hassle to deal with.

I rarely go to any store by automobile, so I forget—or block from my mind—the headaches associated with running errands on four wheels. I generally consider any time I take the car to be an opportunity for cycling lost, so whenever I can go to the grocery, hardware, pet food, video, or drug store on my bike, I’ll usually take it.

Sunday mornings, especially during the school year, I try to get most of the week’s shopping taken care of while everyone else is still dozing. I realize this makes me a boring creature of habit, but what I like is to get out of bed about 8:00, put the panniers on the Saluki, ride up to 15th Street, have coffee and read a couple sections of the Times at Victrola, and then do the shopping.

I can fit lots of stuff in my two big Jandd bags—easily 75 or 80 pounds when the load includes potatoes and orange juice—and if I tie stuff like eggs and chips on top, I usually make it home without breaking or crushing them.

If I had to get in the car, drive through traffic, park, get out of the car, shop, put the groceries into the car, close all the doors, get back behind the wheel, drive home, park, get out of the car, take the groceries out of the car, and then go back to close the car and lock it, I’d hate it.

On the bike, though, it’s just another pleasant Sunday morning ride.