Friday, October 30, 2009

Dress Up Ride

After circling around Ballard for a while, trying unsuccessfully to raise anybody via telephone, and even attempting to manifest the ride by taking an individual safety meeting at the deserted Fremont firepit, it became obvious that the only way I was going to locate the bike gang, out on its annual Halloween dress up catastrophe, was to don my own outfit and trust that the magnetic attraction of asshats on bikes in costume would inexorably pull me towards wherever the collection of characters—including, I knew, a pocketless Fred Flintstone, at least one Santa, and the inevitable Ronald McFondle—had tumbled into.

And it worked like a charm: for no sooner did I slip into my Tonya Harding tutu, than I passed by, on the Burke, near Gasworks, a rider already calling it a night, who informed me that people had already left Flowers in the U-District and were heading towards the Wild Rose on Capitol Hill.

I figured that, at barely 10:30, it was probably way too early for that plan to take hold, so I reckoned the Met, and was rewarded in my conjecture by happening upon the bike pile outside the Crescent on Olive, guarded, sorta, by Batman, Pee-Wee Herman, and the random G.I. Joe, I guess.

Inside was, among others the Crayola Crayon, the Unicorn, and scariest of all, Mini-Me Derek, complete with five o’ clock shadow and bag.

Songs were sung, beers were swilled, and eventually, the anthem was shouted, which made it all the more strange that a microphone should disappear (later, I’m told, to reappear) as we made our way back on two wheels into the night.

They loved us at Dick’s—at least I thought so—and Cal Anderson park welcomed the bedraggled pack of remainders; I pedaled off towards home after sharing a nightcap with Herr Flintstone; unlike some, I’ll bet, I didn’t wake up in costume; I know, though, that magic is found when it’s on.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Spiritus Mundi

It’s been an odd week or so at school: things seem to be proceeding just fine in the classroom, but around campus, all sorts of odd little confrontations and conflagrations keep sprouting up. For instance, I had to break up an almost-fight between a couple of students last Friday, or for another, more than one of my fellow faculty members have received sort of veiled threats from students, or at the very least have been the implied target of implied aggression, whether or not those threats or aggression really have any authentic intent behind them.

On the one hand, I’m sure there’s a logical explanation for this—it’s the start of the school year, folks are adjusting to new schedules and demands; the economy sucks and that makes people more stressed-out and brittle than usual; as faculty union president, I tend to hear more about this stuff these days even if similar things have gone on in the past—but the hippie in me wants to make sense of the situation by ascribing it to something more: the movement of the Sun in Scorpio, maybe, or perhaps some emerging zeitgeist struggling to be born—but whatever the case, it sure seems to be coming in waves, and the more it piles up, the more it piles up, those waves crashing harder and harder against the shore we cling to in what increasingly seems like a vain attempt to persevere.

I’m usually not such a downer, but it’s hard to feel otherwise when the gyre seems to keep widening and the worst remain so full of passionate intensity. Unlike Yeats, I don’t imagine any Second Coming—I’m not even convinced there was ever a first—but I do think the spirit of the world is hurting right now.

I’ve been planning on going as a Hooters girl (or perhaps ghoul) for Halloween night; maybe instead, I’ll dress up as a rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.

Monday, October 26, 2009


In stories like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Stephen King’s The Stand, or that Will Smith movie where he’s the last man alive, or I guess maybe most paradigmatically, Mad Max, you’ve got this hardy band of survivors (even if it’s only a band of one) doing all they can to persevere and carry on the human race against all odds and in the absence of convenience stores, television news, or professional sports.

Good for them.

But if it comes down to that for me, I think I’ll join the faceless masses who didn’t make it; I’m not all that interested in doing whatever it takes to make it after the apocalypse or Armageddon or the invasion from outer space that devastates the human race.

I mean, I don’t even like it all that much when the internet goes down for a morning because of fallen phone lines; it’s not that I’m a big old sissy about roughing it—although there’s that, too—it’s more that I appreciate the benefits that accrue from being a member of a functioning society. If I’ve got to hole up in my basement with a cache of canned food and an AK-47, I think I’d just rather call it a day—and a pretty crummy one, at that.

Which is another reason I’m voting against that terrible, selfish, misguided, and inane Tim Eyeman initiative I-1033. Basically, the result, should it pass, will be to help create the conditions whereby civil society as we know it is set to crumble.

Are you the sort of person who appreciates the fire department, police force, higher education, social services, and roads you can drive on? Then you should be against it.

Are you the type of person who looks forward to living on canned goods and sleeping with your automatic weapon at your side? Then you shouldn’t be voting, anyway.

Am I overstating things? Maybe, but when you’re talking apocalypse, better safe than dead.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Wide Margins

Wendell Berry, in his essay, “Solving for Pattern,” offers a number of criteria of what he calls a “good solution.” Among these is that a good solution has wide margins.

The idea, as I understand it, is that a good solution is one in which you can fuck up royally and still succeed. He cites the example of Earl Spencer, a farmer who managed to make his farm profitable by doing more with less, the point being that when you develop solutions whose tolerances are way too tight, too much can go wrong too easily and consequently, nothing really works.

I mention this because the lesson has been for me these last two Thursday nights that the bicycle has such margins.

Last week, for instance, a person (admittedly one like no other) could take a swan dive on metal diamonds and still be up for a night out six days later. And then, tonight, another human being can roll his bike smack into the front of a speeding car and still arrive for tipsy karaoke singing less than an hour afterwards.

Compare either of these to similarly spectacular accidents on four wheels with a motor and all of us would have been attending two funerals in the past 8 days, which isn’t to say that we all shouldn’t be saying, “Fuck! Be careful!” but which is to notice that if you’re gonna be a stupid idiot, then there’s no better place to do so than on a bike.

Put the fun between your legs, definitely, but I guess it’s worth noticing that if you’re dead, it doesn’t matter where the fun is, anyway.

The other thing that’s become patently obvious is that while homing in on and catching up to the ride is kind of like a satisfying detective novel, what I really miss is arriving at the start of things, having no real idea how they’ll turn out, but being confident that wide margins will prevail.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Two Hours Alone in Your Head

My school installed wi-fi throughout the building last year and students have taken to it like Kirstie Alley after donuts; everywhere you go, you see them sitting around, emailing, checking their Facebook accounts, and playing World of Warcraft or Halo; and once in a while, even connecting to the library to download the readings I’ve assigned.

I’m pretty relaxed about this because, after all, I’ve got no real room to complain; as I sit at my computer working, I’m constantly looking to see if I’ve gotten that one important electronic mail message that is going to change my (admittedly pretty good) life for the better, or occasionally logging into the bike gang’s forum for updates on inanity and injuries, or reading the New York Times online between opportunities to keep up on blogs written by friends, family, and strangers who I know only by their online words.

Still, what I don’t get is why a solid handful of students--and I notice this much more when I visit other teachers’ classes, although I know it goes on just as much in mine—have to slyly and not-so-slyly check up on the interwebz during the mere one hour and fifty minutes (minus a break!) they’re sitting in class. This is addiction, pure and simple.

Unlike my life, by contrast, which really might feature an email from the Secretary-General of the U.N. requiring immediate attention, or, even more critical, a text update from my kid to bring home some magic markers from work, what possibly could be so urgent in the life of a 19 year-old that he or she would have to stay on top of it 24/7?

I keep thinking that, look, you’ve got another fifty or sixty years to be connected online; you’ve only got 110 minutes to bask uninterrupted in the ideas of Descartes, Plato, and Bertrand Russell, so set close up the screen, okay? And try thinking with your mind!

Yours truly,
Andy Rooney

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Rising in the Dark

Shades of seventh grade, when—in the cold and dark of the Pittsburgh winter—I would rise, as the plastic tab that made the numbers in my pre-digital era alarm clock, flipped over from 4:29 to 4:30 AM, and drag myself through the pre-dawn streets, canvas bag stuffed with Pittsburgh Post-Gazettes over my left shoulder and flopping against my right hip, like some sort of underground miner, my entire work day (mine a mere hour and a half as opposed to more than eight, though) taking place in the pitch black, until I could finally make it back home and fall back into bed, still before the sun rose, and then get up for real when at last the day had faded into gray, and run as fast as my pre-teen legs could carry me, to slide into my seat in homeroom just as Mrs. Hyman began calling roll.

Well, only “shades” of that, but still, I’m not digging these mornings at all; they’re the one where I do have to get up when it’s still dark and am compelled to pretty much complete my entire yoga practice before the sun peeks its head above Lake Washington to the east.

It’s no way to live, really; people weren’t meant to wake up when it’s still dark—except maybe on weekend mornings to go skiing or take a bike ride.

We’ll get a little reprieve next weekend, I guess, when the Bush-era extended Daylight Saving Time ends, and also, in as a bonus, another much-needed hour for carousing on Halloween night.

I’m looking forward to that, even though it means that the long lines of cars on the 520 highway waiting backed up to cross the floating bridge that I pass by on my bike ride out to school won’t be quite so long, (thanks to daylight); that means I won’t get to feel quite so smug; however, I will, at least be more awake to enjoy it.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Viable Viaduct

Mimi had a birthday party to go to yesterday; I’d finished all the grading I was going to do for the day; Jen set her projects aside and so the two of us went downtown in the afternoon for a late lunch that turned, instead, into early happy hour.

We landed for a time at Lowell’s in the Market, a place I always forget about when I’m looking for somewhere to have a beer mid-day, which is a shame, because it’s quiet, reasonably dark, and really has a great view, not only of the eye-burningly hot Asian girl bartender, but also, more to the point, of the Sound, and even more to the point of this piece, of the Alaskan Way Viaduct below.

That point being: as I stood gazing out the west-facing windows of the restaurant, enjoying the way the sun played off the water between downtown and Alki, and I could see the way drivers couldn’t help but slow slightly and turn their heads to the right to take in the view, it came to me in one of those (what my friend Richard Leider always calls) blinding glimpse of the obvious…

Save the Viaduct!

Don’t tear it down; don’t dig underneath it; don’t replace it with a boulevard.

Save the Viaduct!

We already have what we all want: a reasonably fast auto route along the western edge of the city, with unobstructed access to West Seattle.

And it has a view!

Moreover, it’s just inconvenient enough to have the desired traffic-calming effects and, while it doesn’t get everyone out of their cars, it envisions a time when traffic was no worse than in 1962; a worthier enough goal to aim for.

All it needs are a few improvements:

There’s got to be a bike lane, of course.

And ideally, more pedestrian access from beneath to the waterfront.

Some kind of planting would be nice.

And it shouldn’t fall down; we can certainly afford that.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Sobered Up

In the list I’m compiling, “Everything I Need to Know I Learned in point83”, number .27 is “If you want to see a bunch of drunken assholes turn into paramedics, take a face plant.”

I’ve witnessed it happening twice now in person and have read evidence in other instances, my point being it’s a reliable principle, and no longer needs to be tested empirically, okay?

The predominant experience for me this evening was how fine it was to see faces, familiar faces in familiar places, faces I like to look at, faces to be seen.

At first…

Everyone was on their worst behavior:

I showed up at the ride just as it was getting kicked out of a bar more or less on purpose. We split up all over the place on the way to the Knarr, even though both Derrick and white Scott (welcome home!) were wearing dresses.

One of the notions I recall bandying about was the valuable function of just getting drunk sometimes; to do so has got to be an element in the human condition; I’ve seen it lots of times and shared a case for it with Ben; we are allowed that.

The sobering thought for me is how much more important are the connections among us than the differences between us.

I guarantee that all the shit any of us were fighting over, either in our heads or with one another or both, is set aside when you see somebody wreck on their bike, or even, as in my case, come upon the crash to be right there witnessing that transformation I mentioned above.

We all know what really matters—even though we require misfortune to notice—is simply being there when we really need each other.

We had to call for an ambulance; I like living in a city in a state where that happens; it’s all going to be okay, but only because we’re in it together.

No on I-1033.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Meat Anxiety

I’ve been a vegetarian (I think it’s weird when people say “practicing vegetarian, as if it’s something you try to get better at through repetition) for about 20 years.

Occasionally, during that time, I’ve had a bite (or more) of meat; I don’t think of myself as a fanatic or anything; it doesn’t bother me if other people consume animals; (I even happily grill a steak for the kid); and while I do believe that there’s an ethical dimension to our consumption practices, I can’t really see on what grounds it can be very wrong to eat a cow or pig that has been raised humanely and slaughtered as painlessly as possible (factory farming practices are another matter altogether); in short, my vegetarianism is more a matter of personal taste—I never really craved flesh all that much, seeing hot dogs and hamburgers, for instance, mainly as condiment carriers, a function that Gardenburgers and soy franks do just as well—than it is a moral decision, and I’m sure that if I lived in a place or a way that required me to get my protein from dead animals, I’d have no problem with it whatsoever.

So it’s weird to me that I occasionally have these dreams where I find myself eating meat, wondering why I’m doing so, and then sort of accepting it only to awake—sometimes literally, sometimes in the dream—feeling kinda sick and kinda sick of myself.

Like last night, I was at some table outdoors and there I was chomping down on like five or six breakfast links; I could taste the chewy pork and the little fat globules that give the sausage its consistency. And I remember thinking, “Why am I doing this? Shouldn’t I be eating soysage or something?”

Then, I was pouring off like eight ounces of grease into a Pyrex measuring cup; it was golden brown and smoking; right then is when I remembered I don’t eat meat.

Monday, October 12, 2009


Legend has it that--so regular were his habits--that the citizens of Konigsberg, the Prussian town in which Immanuel Kant lived, used to be able to set their watches by the great philosopher’s daily promenade up and down the same street. The story goes that the only time he failed to adhere to schedule was when he first encountered Rousseau’s book, Emile, and got so engrossed in it that he forgot to take his usual stroll.

While I’m not quite so ossified in my habits, and am more easily distracted by everything from the latest Dave Egger’s book to random postings on the internet, or, for that matter, a bit of leftover Chinese in the fridge, I too, like Professor Kant, am pretty set in my ways, especially when it comes to doing the same thing at the same time day after day after day.

My alarm goes off every morning at the same moment, and I rise with as little delay as possible, to do the exact same yoga practice six days a week except for full and new moon days. My two-slice of toast with cheese breakfast is remarkably similar from Monday to Friday, although sometimes, rebel that I am, I’ll change the flavor of jelly on a whim.

My office hours and classes meet as scheduled every day, and most of the time, Thursday nights are devoted to bike gang.

Nearly every Friday, somewhere between 5:00 and 7:00, I have a beer or two at the Elysian, and Sunday mornings, almost without fail, you could find me drinking coffee and reading the New York Times at Victrola from around 8:00 to 9:00 AM.

I suppose this marks me as kind of boring, or at least, not particularly spontaneous, which is kind of troubling, because I like to see myself as reasonably impetuous.

Reliable, I’m happy to be, but predictable, not so much.

Maybe I’ll change, if I can fit it into my schedule.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


In the aftermath of David Letterman’s on-air apology to his wife and viewers for having sex with women on his show, everyone wants to get in the act.

327 Words received the following transcript from Shane Ryan, Vice-President of the Decatur, Georgia, Bo Jackson High School 11th grade class and starting wide-receiver for their Bulldogs football team.

Read it and weep:

“I’m awful sorry to come before all of you today, but I thought I ought to show my hand, so to speak, no pun intended, before it blows up in everyone’s faces—like that science experiment in Mr. Deaver’s class last Tuesday.

What I’ve got to tell you isn’t easy, especially with my girlfriend, Carrie Johnson, here, but bless her heart, she says she’s sticking by me in this difficult time—at least until football season’s over anyway. Love you, C., thanks.

So here’s the deal: for the last four years—since I turned 13, even before me and Carrie started dating—I’ve been carrying on a secret sexual relationship with my hand. My right hand, if you want to know the truth, and I apologize to everybody I’ve hurt as a result of this, especially Carrie, of course, but also all my teachers, friends, and teammates I’ve shaken with or high-fived.

I never meant for it to happen, it’s just something stupid I got myself involved in, but you know how it is; we were together all the time, and one thing led to another, and before you know it, we were having sex.

And I swear, all along, it’s been consensual, even though, I know, there’s a power differential, me being in control of my hand and all, but I’ve never abused that power, even that time I talked right hand into three-way with my left hand; sorry, really.

Anyway, I’ve broken off the sex, me and my hand are going to stay friends; I’ll be putting Stick-em on for football, but no more Jergens.”

Friday, October 09, 2009

Greatest Show on Earth

I went to Hec Ed Pavilion last night to see the eminent evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, talk about and read from his latest book, The Greatest Show On Earth, in which he lays out what he takes to be the best evidence for what he’s taken to calling the “fact” of evolution.

What impressed me most was the throngs of people—five thousand strong, I’d say—who showed up to hear an academic, admittedly a very famous one, talk about science at a university basketball stadium.

Dawkins was his usual charming and erudite self, offering up some really simple, yet powerful examples for responding to biblical literalism, and apart from a weird comment at the end of the question-and-answer period where he seemed to be implying that France’s immigration policies are too lax, his lecture was measured, persuasive, and intellectually stimulating.

I did, though, find the tone of the evening just a bit too smug, especially the MC for the event, a sharp young man who was the past president of the sponsoring organization, the UW Secular Student Union.

Still, I was glad I went and it made my heart happy to see that at least a handful of my students from Cascadia showed up, even though the material won’t be on the test.

That said, my favorite part of the night was after the talk, cycling around Lake Washington to Seward Park in an unsuccessful attempt to hook up with the Pointy-Threes; as it turned out, I got your typical Thursday bike ride, including the route straight up Rainier from Columbia City, only instead of en masse, I was all by myself which—despite being kind of lonely—made for plenty of pedaling on an unusually warm and dry October eve.

In the end, I doubt any of it conferred an adaptive advantage on my selfish genes, but it was nice that from so simple a beginning, such endless forms most beautiful and wonderful evolved.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009


In researching for my Philosophy of Religion class, I've been reading parts of the brilliant 20th century theologian Paul Tillich's, Dynamics of Faith, in which he undertakes and in-depth philosophical analysis of what faith means and its relationship to other ways of knowing including scientific, historical, and philosophical conceptions of truth.

There's much I find intriguing, especially Tillich's claim that faith and reason, as opposed to competing with one another, are necessary complements; he says, "Reason is a precondition of faith; faith is the act in which reason reaches ecstatically beyond itself." Love that.

But I'm still struggling with what seems to me to be his central claim, that faith is a requirement for meaning and purpose in life. He says, for instance, that "if the representatives of modern physics reduce the whole of reality to the mechanical movement of the smallest particles of matter, dening the really real quality of life and mind...they create a monstrous symbol of this concern [for science], namely a universe in which everything, including their own scientific passion, is swallowed by a meaningless mechanism."

What I don't get, though, is why the mechanism has to be meaningless, or more to the point why--given that it is meaningless--we still can't live meaningful lives. That's the existentialist in me, I guess.

Suppose, for example, I only want to believe stuff that I think I have evidence for; suppose I want to say that I can't accept the idea that there's a transcendent something-or-other beyond the human experience that gives human experience its purpose; suppose I accept a meaningless mechanism in the universe; am I thereby required to say that all my little projects and concerns, all my cares and woes, all my loves and hates don't mean anything at all?

If they don't really, but they do to me, is that a kind of faith?

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Last Chance

Carl Lehmann-Haupt, a speaker at yesterday’s first annual Smoke Farm “Change You Can’t Believe In” symposium, in a talk entitled “Starting Over When It’s Already Too Late,” alluded to—among other things—a practice that I understood as imagining that whatever you’re doing might be, (given the unexpected yet inevitable nature of death) the last time you’ll ever do that thing before you die.

Consider how much more present we’d be in our daily lives and with friends and loved ones if we knew we’d never have the chance to spend our time in this way with them ever again. Carl said that, for one thing, this perspective makes him utterly intolerant, or at least terribly impatient, with ways of being that only scratch the surface of meaning and connection in his own experience.

I tried out that mindset on my approximately 25 mile ride from the farm to the Mt. Vernon train station this morning at 5:30 AM, and I must say, it especially worked wonders on the hills. Imagining that I’d never again have to climb that fucking nearly vertical grade from the river to the road made it almost acceptable, but even more, recognizing that I might never again get to made me feel so grateful I still can, (albeit slowly and painfully), that I was actually, in a kind of weird way, able to savor it.

It also didn’t hurt that the full moon was so bright it cast shadows and the road so deserted that not a single car passed me in either direction for almost two hours.

I had lain awake for most of the four hours I had to sleep worrying about how dangerous the ride might be, but I realize now I’ll never do that again; and I doubt I’ll ever never see so gleaming a lunar dime set behind the wooded hill above Big Lake near Mt. Vernon; I may die tomorrow, but that sure was living today.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Other Minds

One of the standard chestnuts in philosophy is the so-called “problem of other minds,” a puzzle which emerges when you notice that, on purely empirical grounds, it’s impossible to be certain that anybody other than you has subjective mental states.

It’s possible, in other words, that the people around you are just zombies or robots and that unlike you, they only exhibit behavior without the attendant psychological motivation that drives your own actions. It’s a kind of solipcism, the view that all that exists in the universe is oneself and one’s perceptions, a position that Bertrand Russell is reported to have been amused by when, at some party, a lady said to him that she was a solipcist and was surprised there weren’t more people like her.

In any event, one of the typical responses to the problem of other minds is to address it by analogy: since other people exhibit the same behaviors you do and since you yourself have mental states, it’s reasonable to conclude—even in the absence of empirical proof—that they do, too.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that it’s clear my fellow cyclists are not zombies or robots because they, like me, appear to enjoy riding from one end of town to another and then back again the other way in order to drink beer, tell harrowing stories of consciousness-altering gone wrong, and even throw peanuts at one another.

And because I would eschew that last practice, preferring instead to stand outside and appreciate the irony of a deserted warehouse with a sign on it reading something like “Industrial Revival,” I’m compelled to conclude that something has to be going on inside their heads, too.

So, what’s kind of amazing, when you think about it, is how even with all those different internal experiences happening simultaneously, you can all end up, via bicycle, in the same place, at the same time, experiencing the same thing, only different.