Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Basic Humanity

An issue that has planted itself in my thoughts of late is the vitriolic rancor sweeping America. This thought has been triggered by the myriad welfare bashing posts that were a minor trend on Facebook a while back. (They still pop up from time to time, ocassionally from my own family which grates me to no end.) There seems to be a commonly accepted myth that everyone on welfare is a crack addict who milks the system and sits back letting the government pay their ways. It’s not unlike Reagan’s favorite stump speech about the “welfare mom” that hatched in the 80s. The story was proven to be hype. But people latch onto such images, mindlessly repeating them as truths with little concern for the hatred and contempt that is bred as a result. Perhaps it's human nature to despise the notion of someone getting something for nothing. Especially if we “hard working” Americans are getting squeezed ever tighter in a recession economy.

This profiling manifests itself in many ways, like support of mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients. It’s also present in the call for bounties on welfare violators. I’m no fan of people acquiescing to a lifestyle of defrauding the system. However, the popular backlash among many rank and file Americans smacks of hatred, divisiveness and gross labeling. It does little justice to a system that has helped countless Americans better themselves over the years. Growing up it helped my family from time to time. I feel fortunate that we had that assistance and I am lucky to have a firsthand knowledge of some of welfare’s benefits. I believe too many people clogging the airwaves in dissent have no clue. They'd rather spread lies and hatred in an effort to protect their piece of the pie, I suppose.

This is a difficult time in America. It’s made only more difficult when we citizens mimic the infighting and partisanship that our supposed leaders in Washington have made a standard operating procedure. One of my favorite bumper stickers of all time reads “If the people lead, the leaders will follow.” It is as true to me today as it was the day I first saw it. But we are not leading. We are choosing to blame everyone and everything we can, not unlike our "leaders." It’s Obama’s fault, the government’s fault, big corporations’ fault, immigrants’ fault and , now, poor people’s fault.

We must break this cycle of blame, forge and hammer it, refine and focus it to something useful that will propel us forward. Surrender non-productive ideologies for the sake of tangible progress. Quit arguing religion and political party alliance. This movement to vilify the less fortunate among us disgusts me. It’s hatred and resentment personified and it is wrong. Americans engaging in such chatter would do well to focus attention on our leaders and their coddling of the most fortunate among us. Press them to revise tax code in a way that makes the uber rich pay more of their fair share.

Furthermore, quit worrying that someone’s stealing your cheese. A miserly approach to living is never healthy. In our recession climate it will only help ensure we bleed and starve to death a large segment of our citizenry on whom the sun has set. Our insular habits and self-protectionism will be the demise of us all.

On a related note -- long live the Occupy protesters! Our government leaders and business leaders need to realize the people are speaking, even if it's a message they don't want to hear. These people are my heroes because instead of turning their ire on the other (the phenomenon described above) they're directing it at corrupt banks, corporations and leaders who have usurped the Dream that underpins our nation's legacy.

For better or worse questions are being asked, accusations fielded. We'd all do well to get behind that.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Thanks, Dad ... & Super Glue

I was an accident prone kid. I had well over a couple hundred stitches before I started school. Really. (That's counting a major eye injury as well as "normal" dermal sutures.)

My Dad was a carpenter and a pragmatist. He was always getting injured -- from minor to seriously minor. He never went to a doctor. It didn't help that we were chronically uninsured. Doctor visits were reserved for life-altering moments. Blood loss and strong illness were not necessarily those sorts of moments in his regard.

Much to the chagrin of my Mom, Dad would tape flaps of skin back onto fingers using duct tape. For infections he was not unknown to patronize the local pet store and purchase tetracycline. He dabbled in poultices occasionally and generous doses of alcohol were part of the prescription. His pain care regimen was old school -- like teeth clenched against a stick.

I used to think he was a total hard ass. I cut myself mowing the lawn once during my teenage years. While pushing up a hill in our backyard, my footing slipped and I came down on my knee which fatefully planted onto a shard of glass. He met Mom and me in the emergency room as the doc was numbing me up for sutures. "Next time wear blue jeans," was his advice. Then he left to return to work. No matter it was late July in Tennessee -- "Blue jeans, you fucker?!" I mused. Being sixteen, I suppose I would have thought him a jerk no matter what he said.

(I want to insert a caveat that we have taken our kids for all recommended and necessary care, as well as the frivolous visit or two [in retrospect] because we were paranoid. However, in terms of my own personal injuries I have adopted a more liberal policy of professional attention that I owe in no small part to my father.)

Not long after starting college about 20 years ago, I embarked upon a serious interest in rock climbing. Like everything I take on, I read lots to supplement the actual practice of the craft. I learned knots and studied stories of climbs. That's when I first learned that cyanoacrylate -- Super Glue -- can be used to seal wounds in place of sutures. Sounds painful but cool. Like many things any of us read that information was filed into the cabinet of my twenty-something brain.

Being that I have a shop space (and more than a few lacerations occur in my shop courtesy of edge tools), I've had reason to recall that knowledge. I have Super Glue on my adhesive shelf anyway. In addition, I recently read an article about how to properly glue shut a laceration. I've tried it out. It works wonders.

(Let's pause a moment for another parenthetical paragraph. I'm not talking about injuries from powered blades or serious cuts that affect more than soft tissue [read: tendon, ligament or bone]. Rather I am referring to the deep cuts where one cannot quickly stop bleeding with pressure or a bandage so as to resume normal activity. If I retained a lawyer, s/he would thank you for reading that statement.)

Last Sunday morning I stopped by a friend's house before proceeding to the grocery store to get some grillable grub for dinner. I took a stupid spill in the alley hopping an obstacle. I landed on my left hand, elbow and ass. It hurt like hell, but like most accidents on a bike, I jumped up quickly and tried to walk off the pain. It wasn't until I grabbed my brake lever that I realized that wet, slippery grip meant I was bleeding a lot. I must have landed on some glass or something because my left palm was deeply gashed although it hurt nothing in comparison to my hip. Still, it needed attention.

I rolled home and applied first aid. April suggested, and I agreed, that it could use stitches. (One telltale clue is the depth and visibility of fatty tissue.) I told her I didn't want to spend four hours in urgent care on a Sunday and a few hundred dollars to mend something so minor. We have decent insurance, but I value my time. Besides, I've spent plenty of time in hospitals over the course of my life. They all smell the same.

The first application of glue peeled off yesterday. This evening I decided the wound was still flexible enough for another closure. I washed and dried it thoroughly and went to work:

The key, according to an MD whose article I recently read, is to gently hold the skin closed and glue across the laceration in criss-crossing strips. Let dry without gluing your uninjured hand's fingertips to the skin. Bingo!

My dressing consists of a Band-Aid smeared with Burt's Bees Rescue ointment applied over the laceration, and then tape holding the opposing sides of the wound closed (a band all the way around the knuckles). This is then supported by another band in an X configuration opposing any propensity for the cut to re-open, as well as the Band-Aid to peel off, with normal hand movement. Keep in mind this will only be in place for the next 12-18 hours. No need to leave it tightly bandaged longer than that since skin needs air.

Why am I sharing this? Honestly, I think it's good if we realize we don't have to rush off to the hospital at the sight of blood -- even flowing, dripping blood. Save your time. Don't forget the ER staff's time since they have fun stuff like trauma and gunshot wounds to deal with. By the way, hospitals use Super Glue all the time, so this isn't like some wacko application.

Please remember, I'm no doctor, so take everything you read on my blog with a grain of counterfeit French sea salt. That said, next I'm going to work on my skills at reducing dislocated digits. I've got a toe injury that still hurts from two years ago. Something tells me I didn't self diagnose that injury very well.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

More Great Press for Biking & Infrastructure

Stories like this often make my day -- NYT Economix: The Bicycle Dividend. You see, when cycling is part of one's everyday transportation equation it is often easy to get into a rut. This can be due to a number of factors: The emotional effects of dealing with belligerent drivers; the physical effects of riding a bike over distance in all types of weather; fielding off-base comments from non-cyclists who regard bike transportation as freakish; and generally concluding that society is not moving more in support of cycling, but simply polarizing the parties involved into more or less 'for' and 'against' positions.

But when an article like this comes along it reminds me of two things: 1) There are numbers, the result of more frequent study and analysis, that support the benefits of biking on many different fronts (health, environmental, economic) as well as the benefits of investing in bike infrastructure; 2) These articles are popping up more often on higher profile news outlets which signifies greater awareness and interest in the topic. The article is a short read and well worth the time.

I'm not expecting motorists to cheer me or stop and ask to shake my hand any time soon. However, I will bask in the glow I feel whenever I read one of these articles. While the pro-cycling message is agreable to me, that is not the biggest theme I take away from such press features. What really brings me hope is that Americans are beginning -- out of necessity and lack of legitimate counter-argument -- to examine the myriad destructive legacies of building our culture and shaping our daily lives around the automobile. Bike lanes and trails are good, but this realization is the source of truly profound change yet to come.

The article closes with this quote: "Hats (and helmets) off to the bicycle activists and policy makers who work to promote bicycle paths and lanes. They are spinning us all in a good direction." Agreed.

I'd like to take a couple revolutions backward, however, and tip my hat to the vigilant cyclists who have quietly maintained a road presence in the decades up to now, before cycling (specifically for transportation) was enjoying more frequent and positive PR. Many such individuals have been my role models and sources of inspiration. No matter their motivation for biking, they're visionaries all the same.

Monday, June 27, 2011


I'm home on a Monday. It's a beautiful, sunny day. I haven't been outside once. In fact, I am still in my pajamas. A sickness came on yesterday. When I awoke this morning I felt like I'd been dragged behind a pick-up through a gravel parking lot. I don't get sick often, so when the sinus pressure and painful deep coughs set in I tend to shut down if I need to. I slept away a good portion of this stellar summer day.

I try to make the best of most situations. I had a long and pleasant weekend. I was genuinely ready for the work week ahead. There's plenty to do and I want to get it done. However, when it hurts to simply stand up chances are productivity will be nil and mistakes plentiful. Leave it alone. Send the attendance email and walk away. Lie down. Let the body mend.

Last Wednesday I opened a Facebook account. Now, if any of you who still happen to read my infrequently updated blog recall, I have been a vocal holdout from the social media thing. I have numerous reasons for "giving in". Over the years I've sought dozens of opinions on the matter. The facts I kept coming around to were simple: 1) The motivation is pure -- we are social critters; people want to keep in touch and 2) I have the power to make Facebook whatever I want it to be.

The past few days have been full of confirming friend requests, uploading photos and generally attempting to make my page a representation of who I am and what I do. I regard these as valuable considerations since a good portion of the people I've signed on as friends are folks from a past life in a place far away where I rarely visit. Yet, a fondness and friendship endures and I'm looking forward to keeping up with them.

Another motivation comes from what I regard as the highly polarized state of our culture today. A shaky economy, wars many don't support, oil spills and natural disasters haven't helped. We have looming problems with our nation's ability to address energy problems, quality of life for citizens (i.e. economic equality and health care) and the definition of our role as a waning global economic power. Leaders have become little more than bandwagon sensationalists fomenting debates on hot-button topics in order to bolster a fan base for re-election. Fingerpointing has become an art at the Washington level.

Something wonderful I have been reminded of these past few weeks/months is that most people are rational. Really, I believe they are. During a trip to China back in May I was availed of something else (we murdered bin Laden while I was on that trip) -- Americans take ourselves, our problems and our role in world drama way too seriously.

So, in an effort to take myself a little less seriously, I started a Facebook account. It's a small token perhaps, but an attempt nonetheless to curb polarization, cynicism and hate that have become easier than ever to foster these days.

Be well.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


Two happy girls. Happy because they don't tune into weather forecasts perhaps. It's cold and rainy here today. There's talk of the S word falling from the sky tonight. All we can do is wait and see. Spring is lodging here, but we can't seem to locate our esteemed guest for the honorary dinner announcing her arrival.

Willa's just turned three and Sylvia will be six in a week and a half. My how time flies. Seems like just yesterday I was growing my hair and listening to the Grateful Dead. We'll be shipping Mom off in a couple of days for a vacation with friends in NYC. It's a long weekend with Dad coming up. We did this same thing last year. I'm really looking forward to it.


Here's an interesting tidbit on "Made in America." It has to do with cars, but what other topic strikes so close to we Americans' hearts? Honda exports to 30 countries from assembly plants in the US. Hmm ... this topic could be more complex than it sounds. After all, Honda's not an American company.

For some reason the adamant insistence of some people to "Buy American" has always bothered me. It's a protectionist mentality that has little basis in practicality or sustainability. We're better off in our buying decisions to support locally owned businesses as much as possible and to extrapolate downward to purchasing locally sourced products from food to bath soap.

The "Buy American" argument is often waged at the corporate-produced level of cars. It presumes power is in the hands of large corporations. And I think we all have plenty of evidence that equation gets balanced at the expense of everyday workers and taxpayers.

Monday, April 18, 2011


The remains of the longest winter in my short MN history are melting away. Happy spring, everyone. Go ride your bike.


I wrote that "post" over a week ago and intended it to accompany a photo of my bike parked next to a tenaciously lingering snow drift slowly melting on a warm, sunny morning commute. The photo was taken with my new phone -- a smartphone, nonetheless, and smarter than I -- but I have to reconfigure some settings to get things to work for blog posts. If you're in the Mpls area you get the picture without need of an actual photo. Pretty much everyone's been tired of winter for a while now. And it's been spring for nearly a month. That's saying something.

It's easy to personify winter in a less than pleasing get-up when you've gone four months without seeing green grass (e.g. the 'ole man winter' image ... I think I even refered to winter as a baby boomer whose retirement account tanked in one post a few months ago).

I must note, however, that spring has been showing its instability -- its unmedicated, bipolar side. One minute it's warm and balmy like the party's in full swing; the next, spring's sobbing uncontrollably and smashing soft plates of half-frozen precip on the kitchen walls.

Settle in and have another beer. You're better off pinning your hopes on nothing this early in the game.


So I got this new phone. Did I mention that? I like gadgets; I have to fess up and admit I really do. This new phone (a Motorola Defy [with Motoblur], in case you're wondering) has me enamored. I'm glad I didn't hop on the smartphone craze right away because it seems developers are ironing out a lot of things. No, I don't chase technology, but I like a good gadget. I'm especially prone to the compact, powerful gizmos that can store and access an inordinate amount of information. I guess it helps that I don't mind reading small fonts. Oh, and I always wait for my contract to expire so I can get a good deal. Weird.

Right after getting this phone I pondered the list of gadgets I've owned in the past 10-12 years. This is my sixth cell phone (five I actually bought since the first was a hand-me-down). Back in the late 90s I inherited an Apple Newton (anyone remember those?) and followed that up with a Palm III and a T|X purchased five years ago. Whew -- color screen and WiFi! I no sooner bought the T|X than realized I should have bought a netbook instead. I have a netbook now and love the thing. Fortunately I'm not a Mac person or I would have an iPod, an iPhone and now an iPad. I have none of those but can appreciate their appeal, I guess.

Where the hell am I going with this anyway? Oh, my blog!

If you read my blog with any regularity you might have noticed that it gets updated rather infrequently. Well, I think about this a lot more than you might imagine. I've read articles about how no one blogs anymore. I'm hip to the "Twitterization" of our culture. I think there's substance and truth in much of this. Vinyl gave way to tapes which gave way to discs and now it's all in the clouds. Who'da thunk it?

In my case, part of it is the sheer coincidence of timing. Blogs were cool way back when and now Facebook is all the rage. I always enjoy digging beneath pop culture trends to explain behavior though. For me it has more to do with where I was then and am now. A handful of years ago when I started this blog I was a student (again) working part-time in a warehouse. I checked my email 3-5 times a day. I rode my bike from school to work and then home. My mind was on fire with ideas and advocacy. I wrote papers for shcool and vented my spleen on my blog, based largely on the issues I saw on a firsthand basis aboard my bike every day.

I'm still aboard my bike most every day, but things have changed. The infant we had when I went back to school is now a young lady and our second daughter is not far behind. My job is more involved, meaning not only do I reside behind a computer screen for long periods of time in the office, I often bring my work home in order to catch clients in time zones stretched around the world. Don't get me wrong -- I am a lucky bastard and I love my job. But my point is I spend most of my day in front of a computer toiling over emails, documents, reports. I'm often ashamed how long it takes me to reply to personal email (sorry, JB and Aaron). Let alone how long it takes me to work up the resolve to write a coherent blog post.

Perhaps that is the issue that reveals me as a hold-out -- the fact I think of a meaningful blog post as an essay with a thesis, supporting material and a conclusion. In our Twitterized society, publicized thoughts become the prostituted haiku of techno-altered parents conceiving illegitimate children with half-baked intellects.

Perhaps that was harsh. But I digress.

I have this new phone now. Have I mentioned that? It came with all these pre-loaded apps (Widgets, even) to facilitate interfacing with social media. But not blogs, because blogs are no longer legit social media apparently. I can work it out though and as soon as I get my next burst of blog energy to follow this one I plan to do just that.

In the meantime, I've been giving some more thought to the Facebook thing (FB, I understand the kids are abbreviating it these days). This could be due to a couple of things. One is a trend I read about last extended winter that indicated the authorities responsible for the OED (or Oxford English Dictionary, as opposed to OCED which is Obsessive Compulsive English Disorder) began admitting text slang to the venerable tome. Maybe I'm just fighting the inevitable? My new phone has Swype, so I'm texting more, dawg. OMFG YO.

Then last night we watched 'The Social Network'. After seeing the depiction of how miserable all those bastards are I have little hope that anyone created social networking sites based on philanthropy or goodwill. It's all posturing, self-absorption and money-grubbing capitalism. I can dig that desperation.

Why can I dig that desperation? Because I have an immense respect for the breadth and depth of holes that people dig for themselves. And I do include myself ...


On my ride home tonight I had one of the most egregious buzzes by a car I've had in a long while. A Nissan Altima, or some other Euro knock-off sedan, MN license plate 046 ATX, cruised by me above the speed limit on Xerxes just south of Hwy 62 passing within one foot of my handlebars. It was after 9pm. There was no other traffic about and I was lit up like a christ mass tree given the reflectives and LEDs. Didn't see me? Scary. Saw me and hated me and my presence? Even scarier.

I had no chance of catching up to confront but I had half my ride home to ponder. I passed two gas stations on the way and noted fuel is $4 a gallon. Maybe that's it? Maybe it's also the fickle weather that's got people cranky. I don't know.

I do know that a few years ago this sort of encounter made me mad. Don't get me wrong, I had a flush of anger. More so, though, I felt a wave of sadness. I related the story to April tonight and told her my philosophy of riding which goes something like this: "I take every precaution I can to ensure that I arrive home safely and avoid harming anyone else while I'm riding my bike. But I have no control over a driver approaching from behind who doesn't see me or sees me and regards me as little more than a bug on the floor."

I don't smash bugs on the floor and I try my damnedest not to berate those around me. Some of it is human nature, I suppose, lost in the moment of judgment by acquaintances. Still, we can regret and mend. How many are engaging that pattern, however? How many who wage a disparaging word have the courage to apologize? Moreover, how many who buzz a cyclist, intentionally or not, go home and think, "Geez, that was bad. I need to give that person more space because I could have killed her/him"?

The desperation I can dig is the trough that surrounds me, and us, at all times -- dug by people on both sides of the fence who want to berate, name call and otherwise sling shit at thine neighbor.

What is crying foul? In a caustic environment are words apt to burn more than the ire already ablaze in an inferno? The wisdom of age quells my desire to lift my finger, but in return my heart despairs all the more. We are a society of self-absorbed idiots. Fear rules us, not unlike my fear of some driver striking me from behind while I'm blogging away in my mind ... and thinking about getting home to my family.

It's not unlike our fear of $4/gallon gas, or Facebook and the breakdown of our culture. Does anyone truly think that while we stand steadfast by the empty bastions of our freedom that our language, our culture and our very "moral fabric" are not being stripped from beneath us? Apparently, yes, many people think so because there are armed guards with theoretical jurisdiction posted at every entry point as you read this. Thus the hatred for one another, those with opposing viewpoints, within our own country.

Ironically, the "threat" (if anyone dare label it as such) is so far beyond our borders yet embodied within each of us. We are all truncating our language, eating factory-farmed food and consuming willy-nilly. Meanwhile the places formerly known as the third world are emulating and chasing our own wake hoping to ride that elusive wave.

On that note, cheers and good night!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


Happy heatwave. I got back from a balmy 8 days in the UK a week ago and we plunged into the negative digits for overnight lows here in Mpls. I found myself wishing I'd extended my stay across the pond.

Last weekend we swung 'round to highs in the 40s. It's been holding there, so we're in the middle of a slush-n-puddle festival. I was craving the end of winter but this sudden end was unexpected. There has to be a walloping storm around the corner. (Weather's other shoe is perpetually ready to drop in Minnesota.)

I've had a couple of interesting bits drop into my email inbox of late. The first is amusing, perhaps downright funny, while also revealing a few disturbing presuppositions regarding cyclists. Still, it is interesting to note that a competitive cyclist logging thousands of miles in a single race wouldn't be tempted to use drugs to keep himself going. However, the leap that only kids would dare ride bikes without the benefit of drugs to inspire them is narrow if not utterly spurious.

In defense of this mindset, it re-occurred to me recently that what we serial cyclists do is not normal. So if you are among this crowd you should keep in mind that many of the drivers passing you believe the "normal" thing for adults to do is buy a car and drive it places; that riding a bike to get somewhere is what people who've had their licenses revoked must resort to. Have patience with them and remember that oil prices are hiking.

But without further ado, here's Lance Armstrong Does Drugs.

The second tidbit was simply astounding. I didn't dig deeper into the work of Michael Rakowitz, but the concept of building low cost shelters for the homeless (seriously low budget) is fascinating. There's also a pleasant theme of subverting discriminatory city laws. I dig that.

Not long after moving to Minnesota in February of 2002, I was invigorated by the winters. I walked a lot and every time I passed a large building with its heat exhaust spilling onto the sidewalk I wondered, "Why can't this warm air be recycled?" Rakowitz's bivvies do just that.

How much more basically can a theory of conservation be extrapolated? Why should we waste such vital commodities as heat during a MN winter? We Americans have myriad ways to mend.

Here are a few of the Project Parasite examples, or as Johnny Nebraska coined them "Bivy Sacks for the Homeless."

I love new ways of looking at things, new thoughts on a topic. Don't you? Well, if you don't I wholeheartedly encourage you to get right with the lord and start embracing differences, challenges and shit that generally rocks your world.

Make love to your fear. Hug your hate. Water the seeds of your hope. Spring's just around the corner.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Worn Welcome

Winter in Minnesota. I love it mostly. I idealized it while living in Tennessee during my youth. Oh, how I longed to live some place where the snow would visit often and linger more than a few days. I moved here 9 years ago and my wish came true.

That wish has never rung truer than this year. Boy howdy, we have snow to spare. We've had 6 feet of it so far this snow season. It's gotten to a point -- perhaps The Point. If you've read some of my previous posts you'll know I'm a snow shoveling zealot. These days, however, if the snow amounts to less than an inch I don't bother. Let the wind blow it away.

There's been plenty of wind, too, and cold. It's been cold and windy and snowy. Welcome to Minnesota.

Still, there have been bright moments. I enjoy the times when I am out in the snow and can enjoy it without the rush of a schedule. I've snowshoed a bit this winter. It's very enjoyable and extremely warming since it's damned hard work in fresh, deep powder. I've had a few amazing biking experiences. Okay, more than a few to be fair. On one such occasion last Thursday riding my Pugsley at Theo Wirth with co-workers (read: we were not in the office but still getting paid) I felt warmer than anything I'd muster commuting at 10 degrees.

I had a nagging reminder of something at lunch that day. The mention of an unforgettable fact. One of my colleagues, a fellow Tennessee ex-pat, asked me: "So, do you feel like you just love winter, like a native Minnesotan?" I wanted to say I've met plenty of Minnesota-born folks who begrudge winter, but I got his point. And while I was warm from the indoor heat, delicious pizza and camaraderie, I lowered my head and replied, "No. I'm over it this winter."

I'm not a "winter-loving native Minnesotan." The truth is I'll never be a native of anywhere unless I move to West Virginia to live out the rest of my days (but I haven't lived there in over 30 years). Perhaps his question touched more than one nerve.

But who am I to drag you down even farther? After all, from sea to shining sea, we've all felt the icy slap of Old Man Winter this year. Well, I'm not so sure Old Man Winter ain't behaving like nothing more than a baby boomer whose retirement account tanked with the recession. He's pissed and he's taking it out on the rest of us 'cause he had to sell the RV, move into a shitty studio apartment and start drinking Popov vodka martinis.

No, friends, I am here to share the enlightened wisdom of a 5-year old. My daughter Sylvia has crafted, in true Letterman fashion, her second (yes, this is number 2 written just tonight -- since the first one went missing) list of reasons to dislike winter. I submit for your consideration her list in ascending order:

(Oh, by the way, I should mention I'm preserving the spelling for your enjoyment. Laugh and think like a kid for a minute. It will do you more good than all those corny email forwards your relatives send you. C'mon, you know you get them too ...)

reesins we do not like outside
1. it is to colde
2. it is to windy
3. you can't do math
4. you can't cut and glew
5. you can't do progeckt's
6. you can't make papr chanes
7. you can't draw pichrs
8. you can't play elid fodetag
9. you cant run
10. your feet get stuck
11. you haf to put on snow close

I have no idea what a couple of those things mean ... well, specifically, number 8. Sylvia's asleep so I can't ask her. The etymologist in me, however, can't help but revel in the similarity of some kid words to old English (but not in the O.E. 800 way).

Getting back to the coarser topic of the weather: The Earth is gonna tilt again soon and we'll all get to go about fuckin' it up with our internal combustion fascination. With top down and music loud, we'll use great speed and reckless abandon to prove ourselves. Oh man, those will be the daze. Warm and horny without a care in the world.

Maybe winter's not so bad.

Be well, people.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Mincing Words

I’m a fan of words. I can safely say words – the study of the English language and the examination of mechanics, grammar and vocabulary that unite to create meaning – are the one thing I’ve studied my whole life yet never lost interest in learning more about. Perhaps that’s because language binds together everything we do in life. It is fascinating to me that the study of language is not something to be mastered; I will never reach a level where I am confident I can stop, a level where learning more is deemed frivolous or unnecessary. The peculiar thing about language is that we all regress or lapse into lazy patterns of speaking and writing based on interactions with peer groups or the lack of stimulation brought about by fresh words and phrases. I’m in a phase where I’m working against that tendency.

I am not a fan of phrases that permeate our common discourse yet utterly fail to purvey any truth or meaning. Examples of these abound. It’s true that we need a common lexicon of everyday jargon, slang and idiomatic expression. It is part of our cultural glue. I’m not downing those familiar turns of phrase. However, I believe there are some significant ways we negligently attempt to convey meanings that fall short of stating what truly happened or why. I’d like to focus on a couple that pertain to cycling, or more specifically the perilous side of cycling in the age of the automobile.

I began thinking critically about some common phrases and expressions five years ago while renewing literature studies at Metro State University in St Paul. I was enrolled in an information studies course where we examined electronic media and methods of evaluating bias in reporting. I wanted to complete a report linked to bicycle advocacy issues. I did not find all the information I needed for the report, but found some very interesting essays along the way. The articles that intrigued me dissected the prevalent tendency to categorize tragic collisions between motorists and pedestrians or cyclists as “accidents.” How many times do we hear on the news or read in the paper something to the effect of “Automobile Accident Leaves Walker/Cyclist Dead”? Or when reading an account you learn details such as: “Officers concluded the death was an accident. No citation was issued.” It was an accident. We have a dead person and someone who is visibly shaken and affects remorse. Case closed.

I’m not going to pick apart the definition of accident because we have assigned meaning to the word that makes it appropriate to use in cases where the outcome was unexpected. However, what of negligence? Or fault? And what about incidents where the severity of outcome was not unexpected but could have been avoided altogether (i.e. denied intentionality)? Is temporary anger an accident? Strong emotions or hatred (e.g. road rage)? Can these things cause what is truly an accident or is it something more?

My father got us involved in a radical church when I was in middle school. I have mixed feelings about that time in my life, but that’s a topic for another post (if not a chapter in a book – or an entire book). The minister of that church was a former big city police officer. He was kind of a smug, authoritarian, know-it-all prick at times. One of his regular rants was about accidents. He’d go blue on the face defending the stance that there is no such thing as an accident. Really, no such thing. And he believed, to a fault, there was shared blame for every situation. In theory this makes a lot of sense, but it leaves little room for getting shot while walking down the sidewalk or being rear-ended by an inattentive driver. Occasionally bad things happen to people who have done nothing to provoke the outcome. That’s an accident, right?

This idea that there’s no such thing as an accident that has been composting in my brain for the past 20+ years. I’ve come to the conclusion that it holds water, certainly in a theoretical sense, but in the real world, too. There are many steps we can all take to avoid “accidents” that become clearer in hindsight. We say all the time: I should have slowed down, looked the other way, watched where I was going, etc. If we can say these things resolutely, does that not blur the distinction as an accident? The more years I log as a regular bike commuter I’ve come to appreciate this idea of no such thing as accidents. After all, am I not more than 50% responsible for my safety every time I travel by bike? I like to think I operate my bike in a way that holds me more in the 85-90% responsibility range because I try to anticipate the behavior of drivers around me. Is that realistic though?

It’s begun to sink in – it’s not the word (accident) or the expression (it was an accident) that gets under my skin, it’s the implication of the word or phrase. In our society, labeling something an accident negates accountability or fault. And in many cases an accident is chocked up as Fate waving its fickle hand at some poor (injured, maimed or dead) person who should have exercised better judgment. Labeling the death of a human as an accident opens wide the tendency to blame the abstract or uncontrollable (fate, chance, the now-dead victim, the weather) and absolve others so we can get on with life. That’s worthwhile, eh? No doubt, it contributes to the uniformity of cultural discourse and preserves cultural flow. Some would argue this is paramount – to preserve the order of people going about things as normal. However, when our culture is anchored by such graven images as the automobile – a sacred cow that represents much of the status quo, yet is as empty as any idol cast down by early Christian zealots – I assert the cultural discourse must be challenged.

Is it not possible to prove, by simple anecdotal evidence, that there is inverse proportionality between the consequences of culpability and the willingness to admit fault? If the stakes are low (you trample your neighbor’s flowers) it’s easy to knock on the door, say ‘sorry’ and offer to replant them. You know this person (hopefully) and realize the value of preserving a peaceful relationship with him or her since it can benefit you down the road. If the stakes are high (you kill someone by striking them with your car) it’s much more savory to blame something beyond control (chance) and shrug responsibility (and penalty) by playing the accident card. The person was most likely a stranger. You didn’t know them or their family. And what were they doing walking there or riding their bike in the road anyway? ‘I only looked away for a second. My gosh, I didn’t even see him!’ The report states accident. Case closed.

If you’ve not inferred by now my point is the accident claim is a slippery slope. The variables are myriad and so intricate that they deserve more than a cursory label printed in short newspaper headlines and uttered thousands of times in news reports every day. As much as I sometimes despised that parochial figure from my youth, I believe it only fitting to give him credit for calling a spade a spade. An accident is not an accident, but rather a conveniently relabeled trapdoor used to jettison happenings that otherwise might call into question too many of the presumptions upon which our realities are based.

One of the most steadfast presumptions propping up our American reality is that automobiles are vitally important and their operators must be given the most generous benefit of the doubt so we can keep cars on the road, which in turn justifies the need to keep more cars on the road. The result is a grotesque disregard for other forms of viable, human-powered locomotion and the human right to life of those who choose to engage in those alternatives.

The second phrase I intended to pick apart is related, but the explanation is much shorter, so bear with me. What is the greatest fear of most cyclists? That’s easy – being hit by a car. Cyclists and non-cyclists alike rattle that off without a pause: So-and-so got “hit by a car.”

Have you ever thought about that phrase though? It’s ridiculous and nonsensical. One may be physically impacted by the outer shell of an automobile, but one does not get “hit by a car.” This casual phrase that is firmly rooted in our speech personifies the automobile, giving it life, intention and action. Now, one could argue that we have personified automobiles in our culture for as long as they’ve been in existence. How else does one love, pamper and worship something unless it has form? However, my point is not to launch a complex analysis of the role of the automobile within American culture, but to correlate the notion of culpability discussed above.

Personifying the car absolves the driver. It removes one step toward erasing human blame and labeling an incident an accident (it’s the car’s fault). However, the logical retort is plain – cars don’t think or act. I can’t pass up the opportunity to twist a gun rights bumper sticker into a defense of my point. The sticker reads: “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” The logic is sound. Cars don’t kill people. People kill people. Eschew personification and face the ugly fact: Intentionally or not, drivers kill people with their cars. Whether it’s inattentiveness (texting, talking, changing the station), lack of skill and ability or maliciousness, I’m putting it out there – automobile accidents are not accidents at all. They are caused, there is responsibility, there should be culpability and there should be penalty.

Some would laugh at that argument, saying “but a gun is a weapon.” Really, is a gun a weapon? No, technically a gun is a tool (not unlike a car). A gun is a weapon if used to threaten or harm another human being. My Swiss Army knife is a tool, too. Most people (outside of an airport security line) would laugh at its classification as a weapon. However, in trained or determined hands it could be an effective one. Still, I am allowed to carry it with me most places every day.

Can a car be a weapon? Well, if you are someone who quickly leaps to label a gun a weapon, the answer is ‘damn straight.’ Drivers threaten people with their cars everyday. That is precisely the next leap we must make in the American psyche. Hell, most of us consider guns weapons but more and more states are allowing citizens to legally carry them. It’s no stretch, the proof is there – cars are used as weapons everyday to threaten and harm. Yet, in the event of an “accident” all that’s needed to evade penalty is a simple mention of the ubiquitous A word. It’s a sociopath’s dream.

Let’s not stop reclassification with guns and cars and Swiss Army knives. Our culture is full of tools, both physical (e.g. baseball bats, tire irons, ax handles) and intangible (think ideas and philosophies), that are routinely transformed into weapons. What of power, strength and maleness, money and resources, hunger, inequality, dogma and doctrine? But that thesis is the topic of another future essay.

If you're not sufficiently tired of reading, I'll leave you with one of the saddest bike-car stories I've ever read.

Be well, be kind, be nice when it hurts.

Looking Forward

While I'm partially digesting the next essay I'll regurgitate in the form of a full post, have a nibble on the The Year Ahead in Bikes courtesy of Grist.org.

There's some good stuff in there like increased bike sharing programs, more people going car-free and cities adopting transportation philosophies that rewrite so much of the archaic, automobile-centric layout we contend with now. There's also some not so bright stuff like the possible increase in bias against bikes and biking infrastructure. And that is precisely what my next entry will be about.

Subzero temps have been the overnight norm in the 6-1-2 lately. Be well and stay warm.