In which I get half-lost in Ulster County, and stirred by cyclists in Rwanda

I’m not known for getting up very early on Sunday mornings (or any morning, for that matter.)  Yet I went up to Poughkeepsie earlyish this morning (for me) to do a little volunteering for a good cause – Blue Belt Janicik, a bicycle safety awareness campaign put together by the family of a local airman, who was killed riding his bicycle near his base in Texas in 2008.  Please don’t think it sprang out of these noble impulses that I’ve now got to boast about.  I belong to a nearby triathlon club, which asks its members to volunteer at a couple local events a year; I needed to check one off, and the date worked for me.

That said, I was happy to be there doing something (or looking like it, anyway).  The story behind the Janicik cause is both heartbreaking and horrifying to me.  I spend a lot of time on my bicycles, commuting, training, or just plain riding around.  Bike culture has drawn me further and further in over the years – and this month especially, when (like every July, going back to pre-Lance days) I get absorbed in watching the Tour de France.  I’ve never been a competitive bike racer, though I had a intense yearning to do so when I was a teenager (and I’m still a little sad I didn’t find a way to put myself through that punishing training then.)  I just rode a lot, miles upon miles through the summers.   Memories of 14-15 year old me careening down two-lane no-shoulder windy Connecticut roads, on a rarely-maintained Sears bike and (of course) no helmet chills me nowadays.  I never wrecked – not that I can remember, anyway – and for that I’m thankful and probably quite lucky.

The more often I get out on my bikes nowadays, the happier I am.  Yet it’s still a somewhat dangerous pasttime/hobby/way of life, as my own good sense and groups like CARD tell me way too often.  A lot of people are getting hurt or killed on the roads.  It’s preventable.  I don’t want to stop and I don’t want to get hurt.  So whatever little bit I can do for the cause of bike safety and advocacy, I tend to do.  Let’s just say there’s some self-interest there to go with the ideals.

As volunteering goes, it was a short stint today – iffy weather following the heat wave kept the morning bridge-biker crowd down.  After an hour we packed up.  Since I was already at the Walkway over the Hudson, and had ridden my bike up from the train, I decided to pedal over the bridge, along the recently extended rail trail to its terminus, then a few miles down the main road to New Paltz and to Main Street Bistro, my preferred place for a superb $3 weekend brunch.

What was meant to be the wheeled version of a Sunday stroll to a fine, cheap meal, mapped in my mind like this:

Turned into a wandering, sweating, hilly, half-lost 20+ mile journey, mapped in reality like this:

Really, 20 miles isn’t very much to me – when I know I’m going 20 miles.  Or when I know where I’m going at all.  But today I got half-lost once off the rail trail, thanks to a closed road in an unfamiliar neighborhood and a poorly-followed detour.  Not really lost; after a few miles I figured out where I was, but by then there was little point in backtracking.  I rode on.  I hadn’t dressed or prepared for a ride ride – a cotton polo and cargo shorts, no water, no glasses, a banana four hours earlier, masquerading as breakfast.

So it was a pretty Sunday ride and an irritatingly sweat-soaked, want-to-be-there-already, now-here-comes-the rain experience.  Forget three dollar brunch, by the time I got to New Paltz I needed the fat veggie club sandwich and a half-gallon of fluids.

I rode, as I sometimes ride, with my bike lock in one of those flimsy drawstring nylon bags you get as a giveaway just about anywhere these days.  Along with the lock, I’d thrown in a recent edition of the New Yorker.  The one, it just so happens, with “Climbers,” Philip Gourevitch’s wonderful piece on Team Rwanda, a fledgling professional bike racing team made up of a dozen or so young Rwandan men, all dealing to different degrees with the legacy of the civil wars and genocides that ravaged that country when they were children.

It’s an amazing story.  Can you conceive of a neophyte bike team that doesn’t just carry the name of a nation synonymous with mass brutality, but may be helping heal that nation’s heart and soul in some little way?   Did you even realize there is a Tour of Rwanda bicycle race, its stages lined by thousands of spectators, like a scaled-down version of the legendary grand tours of Europe and elsewhere?  This may be difficult to imagine for most Westerners if they think of Rwanda; lucky thing most Westerners probably don’t think of Rwanda, at least beyond “that place in that hotel movie a few years ago.”   Can you imagine that the aspiring pros on Team Rwanda – now demi-celebrities in their country – by and large grew up far too poor to afford even cheap Chinese single-speed bikes, making do instead with wooden bikes – “Flintstoneian scooters made from machete-hewn planks and beams, and fitted with machete-whittled wheels”?  That training in a city tens or even a hundred miles away doesn’t mean throwing the race bike on the rear rack of your Subaru, but riding your one and only bike all the way there?  That some of the team’s members, like Gasore Hategeka, worked their way into the team by racing its members with their loaded bike-taxis, or else by setting off on long solo treks across the mountainous country, partly to train, but mostly to survive.

“Gasore preferred hauling cargo to passengers, and the longer the trip the better: he liked to see the country, and he liked the workout. There isn’t much flat land in Rwanda, and the northwest is all peaks and troughs. Gasore’s village, Sashwara, sits at one of the highest points on the main road, a mile and a half above sea level. To the town of Gisenyi, on the border with Congo, is about forty miles, and downhill almost all the way. For Gasore, who frequently made the round trip in a day, the steep climb home was his favorite part. Although he could make as much as two thousand francs on the Gisenyi run, he took even greater pleasure in making good time.”

The story of these riders (and their American coach, with a trial and redemption of his own) was a big “suck it up, you dumb wuss,” to me grousing about sweaty clothes and a slight thirst and some rain spitting in my eyes on an elongated ride on my shining, smooth-shifting, few-hundred-dollar second bike.  More importantly, it’s ennobling without being tritely ‘inspiring’, because it does not make these young men out to be indomitable heroes or magical prodigies who’ve risen surely through the sport, whom we’ll soon see  rise over the global stage.  Maybe that happens someday.  Probably not.  That’s ok.   A certain kind of triumph doesn’t necessarily require victory.

If you’re interested in bicycles and bike racing, but also recent world history, the complexities of putting a terribly impoverished and traumatized, yet proud and – yes, ‘optimistic’ – nation back together again in the wake of unimaginable horrors, or just the resilience and determination of individual human beings (and perhaps something about the meaning of effort, concentration, endurance, desire), you ought to check this article it out.

“Always expanding and enriching the relationship without breaking it”

“Versification involves a continual reconciliation of two apparently opposed elements.  One is rhythm, in the sense of the fluid and shifting movements of live speech.  The other is meter, in the sense of a fixed, abstract pattern according to which those movements are organized.  And this steady and ongoing reconciliation between meter and rhythm is almost like a loving relationship between two people.  There exists a harmony between that is stable and constant and, at the same time, ever-changing and lively.  The two elements are engaged in a spirited dialectic that is always expressing itself in new ways and is always expanding and enriching the relationship without breaking it.  Furthermore, just as every vital interpersonal relationship has its own character – no two being quite the same – so in the work of every excellent poet, the interplay between meter and rhythm will have special traits and vivacities.” Timothy Steele, All the Fun’s In How You Say A Thing

I’ve just begun reading Steele’s highly-regarded book on poetic meter.  This fragment (with which Steele starts the book) illuminates some of the qualities shared by both well-turned poetry and ‘loving’ human relationships, and thus the way they work at their best.  Push and pull, insistence and acquiescence, cleaving and joining, stubbornness and acceptance, structure and fluidity.  Marvelous.

Drawing water

Sometimes I just can’t help myself; I long for some Olympian point of view, a 50,ooo foot perspective – no, really, the god’s eye view of things, the sense of ultimate authorial omnipotence.  Reading too many novels did this.  Something simple and self-contained crosses my mind or my vision; a ferryboat crossing the river, a electricity substation, a hillside dotted with flowering apple orchards – and I find myself thinking in terms of similar and different patterns.  Of higher and lower order systems, routes and connections.  The lacework of roads, tracks, channels and trails spread across a landscape, over space and time; the flux and flow of digital bits coursing through the world’s wires every second; the evolution of an idea in a culture, of a thought in one’s psyche, of a city neighborhood.   I am entranced by and sometimes produce  rudimentary, abstract  images on this theme – expansion and contraction, abundance and scarcity, conflict and convergence – comprised of many discrete parts or agents.  Every thing on its own, single, yet connected by something.  By the act of observation, perhaps.

This dynamic visualization of rainfall and urban water usage data, entitled Drawing Water (a masters project by UCLA student David Wicks) is mesmerizing to me in that vein.  It’s informative, too.  There are, of course, a zillion such animations and graphic renderings of all kinds thanks to Google Earth and other such mapping applications, as well as the immense amount of aggregated data out there.  People more data-driven than I are doing really interesting things with all of it.  It’s the kind of thing I wish I could do sometimes.  (Via Fast CoDesign)

Now that’s how you start a book review

And if you’re jabbing your own organization a little?  So much the better!

“The New York Times Book Review’s advice and miscellaneous best-seller list — the place where self-help books go to eyeball one another — is a boisterous rolling carnival of hustlers and hacks and optimists and jokers, with the occasional naked lady, tent preacher, dog trainer or television chef thrown in for good measure. Serious books do appear there, but they’re like guests who’ve wandered into the wrong party.”

The NYT’s review of Timothy Ferriss’s “4 Hour Body” is full of barely-restrained, glorious zing.  How could it not be?  Books like this, characters like this can only be karmic payback for critics.   Dwight Garner, you did something right in your past lives to get this assignment.

“If a movie were to be made of Mr. Ferriss’s life, it would star Matthew McConaughey in little rectangular eyeglasses…”

No, I imagine that if a movie were to be made of Mr. Ferriss’s life (heaven only knows, the script is being shopped somewhere), it would be a two hour version of the Aleksey Vayner video.

I’ll let you wander down to the best lines – invoking Klaus Kinski and Snooki, the New England Journal of Medicine and the Skymall catalog – yourself.

Utopia v. the possible

I’ve been reading my Bateson, as well as a couple festschrifts and essay collections devoted to him, and meditating on this lately.

‘Corollary to the pragmatic perspective is what may be termed a premise of possibility. This is articulated in Watzlawick’s exposition of the “utopia syndrome” as a problem-engendering pattern resulting when the ideal is mistaken for the possible.  (Watzlawick, Weakland & Fisch, 1974: 47-61)  This position is based upon the belief that life, at best, is fraught with difficulties and challenges.  Even the most joyous events – marriage, childbirth, milestones of professional achievement – carry with them stressful changes.  In courting accomplishment of any sort, one is often inclined to overlook the heightened pressure, expectations, and complexity that accomplish successful attainment.  The darker side of “self-actualization” has been little explored.  The myths of Horatio Alger, Hollywood and the human potential movement still prevail in middle-class American culture, promoting the belief that anything less than a life which moves from peak experience to peak experience is somehow lacking.  While it might be unreasonable to suggest working for less than the best life, more brutal to the human spirit is the relentless pursuit of chimerical bliss.  In situations where change in the realities of circumstance is all but impossible, Watzlawick writes, “it is the premise that things should be a certain way which is the problem and which requires change, not the way things are. Without the utopian premise, the actuality of the situation might be quite bearable.”  (Watzlawick, Weakland & Fisch, 1974: 61)

It is likely that Watlzawick and his colleagues in affluent Palo Alto see more than their share of utopian clients in therapy, but whatever the case the premise of possibility guides their problem-oriented, behaviorally-focused, goal-directed approach to interactional therapy.  In contrast to many contemporary humanistic therapies which lead one to believe that by focusing upon life’s miracles its problems will vanish (when in fact it is often the miracles which vanish under scrutiny), the message here is more like “attend sensibly to life’s difficulties, and the miracles will take care of themselves.”

The premise of possibility does not compel one to abandon hopes, dreams, ideals or visions of the best human condition; rather it directs one simply to consider the difference between what is possible to achieve within a given set of constraints and what is not, and to act accordingly.’

“Rigor and Imagination” by Carol Wilder-Mott, from Rigor & Imagination: Essays From the Legacy of Gregory Bateson, ed. C. Wilder-Mott & John H. Weakland. Praeger, New York, 1981.

Thoughts on it a little later.

Open, but how open?

Thinking out loud here, about just how much I should think and write out loud here.

I’m making this into a place for the things I’ve written and done over the years, and to talk about and develop the things I’m working on right now.  A little bit of everything, then – oaken barrel of creative-intellectual fermentation, nerdy words-repository, time capsule, place for my own bit of  integrated multimedia personal brandin..gagagaga, gag.

Part of my thinking behind it is simply practical and professional.  Here’s one more thing I can point to when I go job-hunting, something deeper and broader than a CV and a cover letter.  My work and my interests tend to cross disciplines, then go sauntering casually in and out of academia in general; here’s a way to put that across and press my ideas on further, into some new territory.  I’d like to imagine that as it grows and as I grow into it, some interesting conversations and opportunities might just emerge someday.

But how much should I really open up and say?

I’m an open person, for better or worse.  Ask me what I’m thinking about, and I’m likely to tell you.  If I don’t know something, I’ll tell you that, too.  It’s not that I don’t see or understand the value of artifice and front, of social correctness and being politic.  I’m just not into it when it gets in the way of honesty and reality.  My feelings go right there on my sleeve.

There’s no point in even starting this if I can’t be honest and real about things.

Employment’s one of the contexts and a driving force behind this thing.  Being on the market affects everything about me these days, from my future plans to the way I look at the world.  It’s an uncertain time for just about everyone.  Join the club?  I’m in it.

Does it drop you down a peg or three if you come right out and say “look – I’m looking for work”?  Should you really never let them see you sweat?

If I’m thinking about it, I’m probably going to write about it at some point.  Just how open can I be about that here, or anywhere else with my name on it, before I cross an invisible line?  I could just keep safely schtum about it – but what if to hold back is to hinder myself?   Social networks and efforts like this are supposedly the new wave of job searching.  Does it work that way in academic circles?  I’d like to wish it were so, yet I’m skeptical – we’re talking about a group of people that (if you believe the hype and hearsay) is quasi-paralyzed by fear and inhibition until tenure, like Shangri-La, is mercifully reached.   Given that kind of institutional culture, do I want my prospective future employers really reading the site that I’m sending my prospective future employers on to?

Do I even want them reading this tendentious little piece?

I really don’t know. I hardly know where the line is here.  Academics ruminate about these things in places like the Chronicle, when they do, under fake names…but I’m not the pseudonymous type; when I write something, dammit I want you to know I did.  So I guess I’ll find out where that line is when I trip over it.  In full view, right here.

One of the conversations I’ve had with students is on the nature of boundaries in an internet world – that as the world gets faster, more networked and searchable and as we learn to play and live with all these new applications, we’ve got to work out a whole new set of social and cultural boundaries for them.

Twitter’s a good example of this.  Most college students I’ve talked to just aren’t buying it.  There’s a lot of reasons for that, most having to do with the banality they perceive in ‘what are you doing?’  (“I don’t care what someone else is doing!”)  But in seeing only the negative, and thinking by old rules and standards, they may be missing out on some fascinating new possibilities – new ways to get info, new ways to make new kinds of personal and professional relationships, new ways to express oneself.

Communications scholars, of all people, ought to be tolerant of various new kinds of creative, intellectual, and yes personal explorations in new media, even if they’re not all into doing the exploration themselves (and many probably aren’t, and won’t.)  Are they?