an open letter to Joan Didion

As you may or may not have seen, a group of variously-qualified folks just completed funding for ‘We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live’ (the Joan Didion Documentary) on Kickstarter. If you know me, you know I think she’s pretty much the best thing ever, so I was eager to help preserve her legacy. After some reflection, the ‘reward’ offered for my donation sat rather strangely with me. What follows is the very letter I recently mailed to one of my writing heroes.

Ms. Didion,

The irony of this situation is not lost on me. It’s just the sort of thing that you would like, I imagine. I paid half a month’s rent to fund an already-funded documentary about your life for the privilege to send a two-page letter that will allegedly be read to you by an intermediary. That is, if my letter is not too late for this session at which eighteen such letters are read aloud to you as you wear large sunglasses and aloofly smoke cigarettes. At least, that’s how I imagine it. There is no way for me to know you will ever hear these words, so I spent all of that money to buy belief. Which, we may proffer, is priceless. So perhaps that was a bargain.

When I discovered the Didion Documentary project on Kickstarter it was already well-funded, with such appealing options as “YOUR FAVORITE BOOK BY JOAN. Signed by Joan. Domestic shipping included! Plus, all the digital rewards above,” already sold out. If I wanted to make a meaningful contribution, I’d have to pony up for the option to have my words read aloud to you. I felt heroic, preserving your legacy for my generation, buying the privilege to tell you why this matters to me. It’s hard to imagine how I felt so empowered by my meager writer’s wages whenever I eagerly clicked through the donation and payment pages.

To say that I regret the donation would be going too far. As an artist, it feels good to be a patron of the arts at such a young and irrelevant age. I recognize the value of being told that your work matters to people, which you’ve heard so many times that this will be a shout into a cacophonous void, but perhaps my scrawled signature can provide sincere evidence of a human life improved by yours. I, too, was once a dreamer of that golden dream, a disillusioned ex-Central Time transplant to the unreal sprawl of Los Angeles. I felt validated by Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream, with its archetypal street names and delusional protagonists that I knew all too well, for it told me that this was not just a very long nightmare.

I found that elusive thing that great art supposedly has, a reassurance that I was not alone in thinking that we tell ourselves stories in order to live. I’ve always been reluctant to label myself a writer, because really I’m just a survivor.

I use your work to try to tell my story to those around me, handing out copies of Slouching Towards Bethlehem to women I want to love like I used to burn identical CDs and assure two girls at once that Billy Joel’s Scenes From an Italian Restaurant was “our song”. I have since traded my bottles of red and my bottles of white for the plain stated truth: “innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself.” A rather romantic sentiment to share with someone you hope likes you back.

I am grateful for your brand of girl power, which taught me about a timeless and tasteful feminism that resonates far more than anything my generational peers can create. I consume your sentences and ideas with an alacrity reserved for almost nothing else. I know I’m not alone in my feelings, because you’ve had them too, because other people have the same ones about you. That’s worth more than the three hundred and fifty dollars and forty seven cents this letter cost me.

More than anything, I found that once the fundraising was over and the donation cleared and I was sent the address to mail this letter, I barely wanted to write it. You put yourself in the ether through your writing, the same way I’ll put this letter in the mail and on the web. I will let people read slivers of my dutifully bared soul and wince when they try to talk to me about it. Vulnerability depends on a certain printed anonymity.

So, with all due respect, I would rather find my own poetically anachronistic billionaires than discuss Howard Hughes’ hairdresser with you. Of course, you would rank somewhere between Jesus and Abraham Lincoln on the list of guests for one of those all-star dinner parties we are always asked about, but they are always hypothetical.

Uniforms

It is difficult to talk about police without talking about politics. After all, they share the same first four letters and a total of five letters in common. And even if you manage to avoid politics, the talk will inevitably be political. And if using five-sixths of police seems somehow incomplete, switch political for polemical and you suddenly have morphed an even one hundred percent of the word into another, more accurate descriptor of the conversation.

For a variety of reasons, we find it difficult to discuss the police. Even harder to relate to them. We assume that their position of power and possession of weapons makes them somehow completely alien, a different species that manages to hold excessive force and a presumed dearth of intelligence and compassion in a rather humanoid shell. How can they look so similar to us but feel so much less and face so much more?

And yet, we refuse to regard firemen or soldiers similarly. Somehow their equally selfless and stoic service of the cowardly masses is easier to reconcile. Perhaps because they don’t hand out speeding tickets.

Of the many things that concern me deeply about my generation, our utter lack of gratitude is near the very top. This extends to everything from not recognizing our fortune for receiving so many things for free—speech, healthcare, lower projected incomes than our forefathers—to the way in which we are capable of taking synecdoches and demonizing the wholes these parts represent with sweeping ruthlessness. We use the freedom of speech to abuse that very freedom as well as the many who protect it.

I cannot begin to claim immunity to blink-reaction rage at some recent news-worthy trials. But this is not about politics. Or polemics.

I can claim that I’m willing to consider realities in light of the sweeping generalizations made by feel-good-angry crowds. We comfort ourselves in all of our unsureities by believing that things are black and white (pun intended(?)) because we have abandoned a longstanding source of understanding. Good and Evil are no longer things we read about in Books but things we decide on a case-by-case basis. Once the frothing masses have reached a flash consensus, it is bigotry to dissent and uncomfortable to consider the facts. Or admit that accidents happen. Because with no sense of Cosmic Organization, accidents are a fearsome topic. If there is no eternal justice, there is no justice, there is no peace. An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind, but we’ve gotten awfully good at building bionic eyes of late. That leads to a certain lackadaisy. And when accidents happen, the survivors must find their own way to make peace with them.

One of our great follies is the presumption that we know anything, or that we can pass judgment from our couches, or anywhere else for that matter. But this has only recent history in common with the police. Let us consider the notion of a uniform.

In peacetime, shooting a man in plainclothes is murder. In wartime, shooting a man in the uniform of the enemy is called heroic. The lack of uniforms is one of the messiest aspects of the endless war in the Middle East.

At a fast food restaurant, uniforms reduce fellow humans to servile automatons, who are forced to respond “good” when we formulaically ask how they are in exchange for their feigned interest in us. They are likely far from “good,” for they are humans at work with limited upward mobility, but to admit as much would be to break the unwritten rules of the uniform. We do not want to be reminded that our servers are capable of being anything other than good.

The Men in Black?

So when we see men in blue (or black, or khaki, or any number of other police uniform colors), we see uniforms. Symbols of frustration at college parking tickets and high school party bustings, of an allegedly rampant assault on our justice and peace. While the severity of punishment for exceeding an arbitrary velocity or swilling Keystone Light and rum-and-Coke at too young an age are indeed up for debate, the fact that we are safe enough to complain about such things is not. And the idea that we are fundamentally at odds with The Police, a conspiratorial entity that has nobody’s best interest in mind is more infuriating than that 76 in a 70 ticket I got in rural Texas a few years ago. To say nothing of the dozens of beers and bottles of wine I had in my trunk during that traffic stop before my twenty first birthday. About which, the Trooper said nothing.

The Police are indeed people like us, who must work to make a living, who have long since conceded that universal truth, but who, unlike most of us, have decided that their job will be a valiant and thankless one. They are intrinsically hated for the acts of distant men in different uniforms from a different time and place. We don’t begrudge Whataburger employees for the acts of a rogue In-N-Out server a decade ago, but we do hold police officers up to this standard. We don’t even engage in faux pleasantries with them as we share a space, as they keep us safe. We giggle and cheer as we anthemically repeat N.W.A.’s seminal hit, Fuck Tha Police under our breath as we drive by them. The distant injustices of a few are worn as badges of honor by the many. I have no business identifying with men who came straight outta Compton to rap superstardom, but I do. Because it has a catchy beat. The sentiment was of a time and place, but we call it universal. Fuck tha police. A vapid incantation of a post-Rodney King, post-Compton generation that holds chips on its shoulder in an accidentally ironic sign of solidarity. Fuck tha police. Why? Motherfuck tha po-lice. It sounds so good when Dre says it.

Most things are of a time and place. Great artists strive to move beyond that barrier, to create The Universal, The Transcendent. Apparently cops can do it by simply responding to the call of duty. Perhaps I am in the wrong profession.

What’s in a uniform?

We use them to identify, to allow ourselves to approach the guy wandering the aisles at Home Depot without trepidation or to know that the men in the red coats are here to prevent us from obtaining Freedom. We use them to recognize teammates. They ensure uniformity in a sea of anonymous conformity. Amid countless, anonymously unique outfits, uniforms stand out. What felt oppressive in grade school is now a subject of much philosophical consideration and reverence.

Shit Triathletes Say

In my most recent triathlon, a half-Ironman in Palm Springs, California, many participants wore uniforms. Some were triathlon clubs, the Bakersfield Tri-Spokes or the Inland Inferno or the UCSB triathlon team (conspicuously, the only college team represented). Others were a bit more tongue-in-cheek, the ubiquitous “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner” crew and the guy in the tri onesie with the tuxedo pattern on it. One uniform caught my eye as we weaved our way through the arduous course of out-and-back bike rides and runs. LASD. I knew it was some sort of Department, but neither fire nor police start with S. It wasn’t until I started my run way faster than I should have that I got a close enough look at one of the tan and green tops to decipher the vaguely official acronym. Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. This in the days after protesters were lying prone and prostrate on the 101 Freeway in downtown LA, this just two weeks before two NYPD officers and one Florida cop were assassinated simply for wearing a uniform.

The man I caught up to was a triathlete. He was cruising comfortably, warming up to the 13.1 miles ahead of him. He was a sheriff by profession, but we’re all something by profession. As we neared the first aid station just over a mile into the run, we fell into stride and chatted a bit.

“So all of ya’ll are active duty sheriffs?”

“Yeah, man, there’s four of us out here racing. We have a nice little crew, we train together and race together whenever we get time off work.”

“Wow,” (At this point, one of his fellow LASD Triathlon Team members ran the other direction at an enthusiastic clip. He was a full six miles ahead of us.) “That’s a thankless job ya’ll do. Your buddy is killin’ it! (‘Was that a poor choice in figure of speech?’ I’d later wonder.) Thank you for your service.”

“You serious man? Wow. Thank you. I don’t hear that very often.”

I’d like to blame our pace and my thirst, but I was rendered speechless. I offered him a sweaty pat on the back as we tossed out paper cups of HEED (a supposedly more specialized version of Gatorade) in perfect unison.

“You planning on keeping this pace the whole time?” I asked by way of conversation. The nice thing about hobbies is that you have a lot of unspoken understanding with fellow hobbyists. And plenty of nuanced jargon.

“Yeah, I got injured earlier this year so I’m really just feeling it out, but I’ll definitely speed up in a minute. This is just a fun race for me.”

“Dang man, no need to make me feel bad!” He laughed. “Go for it, brother, I’ll see you at the beer garden.”

In this comfortable BS was a deep understanding. There always is. We both spend way too much of our lives on grueling bike rides, running right after those rides, driving to lap pools to make our strokes more efficient. We both live for achievement that exists independently of everything else. We both make sacrifices to participate in the sport we love. We both love a good feast and a nice beer after putting ourselves through 70.3 miles of voluntary torture. This guy is not a pressed uniform or a holstered pistol or a badge. He’s a fellow triathlete who has a job that’s a hell of a lot more dangerous than mine.

Some uniforms are made for specific tasks. Whether it’s flak jackets or logoed aprons, form follows function as often as the inverse. When a fireman dons his uniform to identify himself as uniquely qualified to run towards dangerous situations, he is augmenting his innate bravery with sixty seven pounds of protective gear. From a five-pound helmet to a twenty-seven pound air tank, all of this protection adds a certain gravity to the situation firemen and women face.

So as much as I revered the wicked-fast men of the LASD Triathlon Team, there was one participant in the HITS Palm Springs triathlon whose uniform stood above all the rest.

After swimming 1.2 miles and biking 56 more, one participant didn’t simply swap his bike cleats for running shoes. He pulled on his bunker pants, laced up his boots, swapped his bike helmet for a much less aero version, and pulled on a thick jacket. It was 85 degrees and sunny by the time he started the run. In addition to his sixty seven pounds of gear, this participant wore a metal plaque in memory of two friends and brothers in firefighting who were killed on the job.

I found myself lamenting my long, thick hair by mile four of the 13.1 mile run, greedily stuffing iced sponges into my millimeters-thin triathlon top and squeezing them out over my head. Somewhere along the way I passed this hero headed the other way and felt my perceived problems begin to shrink. As I went out for lap two, I thought about the sheriff I had spoken to on my first lap. Though he wasn’t racing in his uniform, he almost certainly had lost friends in the line of duty.

Nine miles into the run, as I reached my final turnaround point, I finally caught up to the fireman. He was walking through the aid station chugging water. It was clear that the weight of his uniform and the intense December heat were taking a toll on his body. Even in a sub-six-pound outfit, shoes included, the race was taking a toll on me.

I caught up to him and read the plaque as I walked and double-fisted water and HEED. In a way, I was positioned to sympathize with his current situation. He was six miles behind me, wearing sixty pounds more gear. That alone was hard to fathom. Then I pondered the depth of his motives. I have my own, but in that moment they shrank into the distance.

“Thank you, brother. You’re truly a hero. Thank you.”

“Oh man, thank you,” he offered instantly in return.

I looked up at him for a moment, debating slowing down and walking the rest of the race with him. The weight of everything I had done and everything he was doing suddenly weighed heavily on me. I’d like to blame the unbalanced endorphins pulsing through my body, but my eyes welled up with tears.

“I’m gonna start crying if I stay here with you, man. Stop it!”

“Thank you. Thank you, man, thank you. Run hard, man.”

I had to pull my sweat-stained sunglasses off my face as I took off from that aid station. We all have our reasons for doing what we do. But we also all do the same things. As I jogged down that penultimate straightaway, I couldn’t tell the sweat from the tears. This wasn’t about me. It never was, but in that moment I was able to relate a little more to some of the truest heroes this world has.

There’s a lot in a uniform, but sometimes we have to take them far out of context to recognize exactly what they mean. A soldier’s camouflage is not designed to help them blend in in an airport. Nor is a firefighter’s protective garb designed for arduous endurance sports. Some uniforms aren’t meant to be conspicuous, but they can’t help it. How different the fluorescent reflections and sterile tiles of airports are from the dusty, war-torn deserts they’re built for.

Sleep With One Eye Open

Some more stories from the road.

There is little more unsettling than arriving in a ghost town well after nightfall. After plans to camp on Dauphin Island fell through due to nuclear mosquitos and a lack of public land, I biked across the Dauphin Island Bridge, a three mile span that skims the surface of the ocean before rapidly rising to nearly ninety feet high in its center section to let boats pass. It wasn’t until a few days later that someone asked me if I stopped at Dauphin Island. I said that I did, briefly, and they told me a vague story about a man who drove to the bridge’s peak and hurled four young children to their deaths. I wasn’t sure if I believed them until I Googled a picture of the bridge some months later and the name Lam Luong dominated the search results. This had happened less than four years before my summiting the artificial mountain by bike.

Back on the mainland I had two options. Bike to Bayou La Batre, of Forrest Gump fame, along the route I had planned to follow into Mississippi, or continue north toward Mobile, some fifty miles away. I watched the sun set as I coasted down the slope of the bridge toward the peninsula that reached out to receive me, so even the twenty mile option seemed grim. More than fifty miles into the day and running on greasy pizza from one of two restaurants open on the Island, it was one of those times that I wondered why I had chosen to put myself in this situation. No phone call I could make, even if my phone had battery, would make this any easier.

I decided to stick with the plan, to bike to Bayou La Batre in the post-sunset glow that backlit the woods and made the presence of objects visible only by the lack of glow where they stood. Pedaling through the undulating dunes, I thought I saw sailboat masts and shrimping rigs reaching their tired claws up through the thick groves of swamp evergreens. Ghosts of a hurricane or the elusive intent of mankind. Passing cars were frightening based on their intent alone, so desolate were the mysterious surroundings.

There were faint incandescent glows from the forest, bridges over estuaries filled with sullen shrimping boats, and inconsistent safety bumps on the shoulder that threatened to derail me as I wove into them. But none of the spookiness of darkness in the middle of nowhere could match the sixth-sense grabbing, hair-raising eeriness of laying down to sleep outside in a half-empty ghost town. After somehow gaining the blessing of the Harley biker Paul who had authority over the biggest church in Layou LaBatre, I found the two biggest trees in their back lot and fought with the tangled masses of my hammock straps.

I climbed in after having no access to running water or an enclosed bathroom since leaving Dauphin Island. It was dark but far from silent. Sleep seemed distant but desperately needed. Camping is glorious when it’s on your terms, in a national park or a friendly host’s backyard. When you are strung between two trees in a town you haven’t really seen, every crackle or caw activates the adrenal glands and primal instincts. I envied cowboys who could run frayed rope around their campsites to keep rattlers out and huddle together with revolvers in their hands or under their hats. Nothing messeed with them. And there was nobody within a hundred miles of their home on the range, except for the Comanches. When they got you, at least you knew who it was that had your hair in their hand.

Here I had no clue who or what was rustling, be it an alley cat or an axe murderer, and no amount of reasonable thinking could quiet my overactive mind. Even a deranged psychokiller could not exactly predict a lonesome and exhausted cyclist rolling into his town and camping behind a church with a badass patriarch. Still, I didn’t know what color the building fifty feet away from me was, so I couldn’t be sure of much at all.

Dolphins and birds sleep with half their brain at a time so they can remain afloat or alert. It is considered a massive luxury that we place both sides of our brain in sleep mode simultaneously. I have yet to master the hemispheric model of rest that animals enjoy, so that night was a hellish cycle of eye-opening noises and aggressive R.E.M. sleep that my muscles forced on my paranoid brain. If there is an evolutionary advantage to our all-or-nothing sleep pattern, I have yet to hear about it.

Some weeks later I’d recall waking up on the ground in the dewy pre-dawn, my hammock having slowly slid down the tree trunks in the night, and think about those cowboys. If they didn’t get scalped or snakebit, they’d had a successful night. Unless one of them slipped into his boots and a black widow nibbled his toe while he was out riding. It’s the damnedest thing, that for every grim and noisy thing we can conjure in the night, it’s the silent and easily-swattable ones that pose the biggest threat. Even a mosquito that made it into my netting could have left malaria or West Nile and long after it had died somewhere in Bayou LaBatre, I could find my condition worsening in Louisiana or beyond. Neither the mosquito nor the spider benefits from our demise. This perversion of the food chain is largely lost on those who can lock their doors at night.

dauphin island bridge

Clearing the Fog

If you know me or have ever read this blog, you know I have a lot to say about cycling. I find its merits infinite and the poetry of two wheels uniquely liberating and life-affirming. If I didn’t have bills to pay I’d probably do nothing but ride bikes and write love letters to them. Something about the way “riding” and “writing” sound the exact same in a Texas accent confirms my suspicion that they’re inexorably linked.

I’m linking you to a piece written by me, published in a beautiful lifestyle magazine. As is always the case, some of my more obtuse allusions and wordplay got ironed out in the editing process, but I think you’ll appreciate it nonetheless. I’m looking forward to working with Terasu more in the future, and if you like gorgeous photographs and great stories, you’ll enjoy browsing their site as much as I do.

Please click through so I can keep doing things like this and stop writing so much about things that aren’t bikes.

Clearing the Fog

Cheers.

Clearing the Fog

Culvert Gators

A story about the bike ride that was written some time ago.

The rain was so powerful that it was hard to distinguish the drops. Instead of a gentle pitter-patter there was the sound of a river falling straight from Heaven onto Highway 61, amplified by the menacing hum of corporate-issue white pickup trucks from every oil and gas corporation worth mentioning. With standing water covering the majority of the pavement the trucks created enormous rooster tails and side drafts that threatened to blow me off the side of the road and straight into the rapidly-growing culvert-river beside it. There was no shelter or respite, just rain and the vague promise of a place to stay if I could pedal long enough.

At one point I stopped and wrung the water out of my hair, beard, and clothes, having long since abandoned the hope that a rain jacket would help at all. Just ahead on the highway I heard a distinctive interruption in the steady thrum of those heavy-duty truck tires, each and every one of them varying at the same point. When I got back on my bike and pedaled forward I realized that it was what I christened a “Louisiana Speedbump,” a six or seven foot long alligator in his final resting place, perpendicular to traffic and spanning both lanes. After so many miles spent on the shoulder of America’s byways I thought I had seen it all. I also had grown to respect the poor critters, who really weren’t all that different from me. Using the path of least resistance to go about our daily lives, hoping that some indifferent machine wouldn’t render us useless before a predator did the job. At least one way someone would get a nice meal out of the deal.

I realized that there was no way I could move the scaly beast without meeting a similar end so I pedaled on, trying to pay him respect by acting unfazed by the southern monsoon bearing down on me. As a native of the southern plains I am well versed in surprise storms that could float the Ark, but even my pommel slicker heart was growing waterlogged as the hours wore on. The rain was so adamant that looking at a map was out of the question. I trusted my downtrodden optimism that said if it felt like it had been a long time that it had and when I came upon a bend in the road that opened up to a potato peeling plant on one side and a gas station on the other, tears of joy mingled with the drippy grit clinging to my face.

I rolled my bike under the miniscule awning of the filling station and inspected the rear wheel and tire that had already gone flat three times in the past two days, leaving me with no spare tubes and untold dozens of miles to the nearest bike shop in any direction. It was so wet and muddy that this exercise proved futile, exacerbated by the annoying whistling echoing from around the corner of the building. I greedily ate a soggy trail mix bar and cursed the asshole who would stand out here and act like he had something to whistle about.

When I walked around the building to search for some peanuts and the total respite that the great indoors would provide, I was stricken by the culprit. There, in soggy bottom Louisiana, at least forty miles from any city, was an African Congo Grey, the king of parrots. He sat in a large but depressing cage that was generally covered from the downpour, whistling his plaintive captive’s tune. What a splendid bird he was! Even without the numerous feathers that captive boredom had driven him to pluck from his own back, he was a thing of beauty. He looked at me with delight that I multiplied and sent back his way. We stood in this manner for several minutes, silent and splashed by the buckets of water hitting the pavement mere inches away.

I began to wonder a million things at once, all ending in the same conclusion. The parrot needed me, was just waiting for somebody to open the cage and take him away to a better place. I invented a hundred backstories and a thousand possibilities for our future together. He’d ride the rest of the way on my shoulder, a bearded bike pirate and his snarky parrot-on-the-shoulder navigator. I’d write a memoir about my times as a bike marauder, he’d join me on morning talk shows to discuss our adventures. Ex-girlfriends and unrequited love interests would burn themselves on their coffee seeing us sitting with Michael and Kelly.

I’d go through twice as many peanuts and crackers and finally have ears for the unshared thoughts that wash in and out of my mind as the silent miles wear on. I could sleep more soundly at night, knowing that animals are infinitely better at sleeping alertly than our over-domesticated selves ever could be. A watchparrot, a partner in crime, a perfect accessory, a conversation-starter. Where did this exotic avian come from and how did he end up here?

After some shared understanding glances, I bid the parrot a momentary goodbye so I could seek out some snacks and let anyone inside know that the parrot had found a new home. I click-clacked up and down the two aisles in my bike shoes, browsing year-old foods that would likely last another twenty. I settled on a pack of peanuts that I could buy with the change scattered in my saddlebags and filled my bottles with the pungently sulfuric sink water.

When I walked to the counter I was met by a shockingly out of place cashier of Middle Eastern descent. He smiled broadly in spite of the circumstances.

“How are you today?”

“A little wet, man, but not too bad. How ‘bout yourself?”

“Good, good. Will that be all?”

I was mightily tempted to take up day drinking or dipping tobacco, but I nodded instead. “I think so. Say, what’s the story with that bird out there?”

“Ohh yes, that is Reddie. Isn’t he beautiful?”

“So you know his name?”

“That is my bird,” he said with a broad, boastful grin. I could not reconcile Reddie’s thoroughly ravaged plumage with the pride this cashier had in keeping my sidekick locked in a cage outdoors in the miserable rain and humidity.

“Yeah, he’s great.” I set all the change I had grabbed from my bags on the counter to cover the seventy nine cent peanuts and any tax that may have applied. “Have a good one.”

I walked outside, gazed reverentially at Reddie, snuck him some peanuts, and carefully walked in my bike cleats through the newly-formed river in the convenience store parking lot. I poured what was remaining of the six ounces of the old, salty nuts straight into my mouth and placed the crumpled package in my shirt, too miffed to seek out a trashcan. The rain continued to fall at an alarming rate. I clumsily clicked my shoes back into the pedals and set out for Baton Rouge, spirits and socks dampened.

I pedaled forward with a clumsy cadence, pushing the bike forward with stubborn resolve more than any sort of smooth mechanical motion. Though rolling on round wheels, I could almost feel the individual footsteps associated with each pedal stroke. I had let a ridiculous fantasy crack my resolve. I couldn’t decide whether I was more upset at my imagination or the neglective owner of Reddie, whose eyes contained more emotion than many people I’ve met. As with every thought and bodily sensation, I hoped that more gritty forward progress would numb whatever frustration was creeping into my stoic soul.

The miles slowly piled on and the pickups passed at well over the speed limit even as the road was nearly swallowed by the bayous on every side. With such thick cloud cover there was no sense of sunshine or passage of time, sevens A.M. and P.M. equally plausible guesses for what a watch might read. The world was overwhelmingly wet but just warm enough to render this more of a fact than a fundamental discomfort. Far worse than being wet was fearing that my few but dear belongings were being irreversibly soaked to their bones. And the standing water on the highway gave all ground borne debris a more effective vehicle for ending up in my eyes and bicycle chain. Still, I pedaled and the miles came and went as I let my innermost being take control over all petty aspirations of comfort and ease. Without indulging our spoiled side, humans are encouragingly tough creatures. I allowed my mouth to hang open sucking in air as water carved ravines and waterfalls in my beard. I allowed my ego a moment to realize that in the context of modern society, I was quite a badass. Of course, there’s little to being a rebel without a cause.

I had almost forgotten about Reddie and unrequited love when my bike began to get that sickening squirm that can only mean a tire is rapidly losing air. Feeling far too primal to curse or despair, I stopped the bike as cautiously as possible and let it fall to the ground. I was out of spare tubes. I stood for a few minutes reveling in the rain and grand-scheme absurdity of my predicament. Then I took off my socks and shoes and stuck them on my handlebars and began to walk the bike. With all of my gear strapped to the heavy duty frame, there was no less than sixty pounds of stubborn mass rolling on a very flat rear tire. I walked in this manner for no more than two miles before letting the bike fall to the ground again.

I stood and stared into the woods and the culvert on my right. It was swelling and mixing with the bayous that snaked between the stands of green trees and I wondered why I hadn’t traded my bike for a canoe. In my decidedly skewed world, I waited for a length of time that could have been three minutes or three hours and let my focus wax and wane as it saw fit. A log in the middle of the water suddenly began to drift against the current. It stopped again. I squinted and it blinked. The two bumps that were protruding from the water suggested a head at least as big as my broken rear wheel, the rain-slick water offering no evidence of the body it was attached to. I stuck out my right arm with a thumb pointing north or west, hoping that one of the anonymous white pickups flying by might have a human inside of it.

Have Phones, Will Travel

The traffic wasn’t bad on Interstate 35. This is a rare sentence which makes it a good first one. On this rare Saturday I found myself driving north daydreaming of a girl from further north and farther east. I was scarcely aware of the radio or my surroundings, utterly consumed by one of those intense and forgettable thoughts we all have. As I sped through Georgetown in the far left lane something snapped me out of my masturbatory reverie.

A hitchhiker! And a dog! Maybe they’ll provide me with cause for going to Kansas. Perhaps they’ll kill me or give me a story that can make me famous. There’s a particular name for the blink reaction that I have when entering these situations. Nihilistic ennui with a hint of suicidal altruism. Seeking a cure for a crisis of subjectivity in conversation or throat-cutting. Plus, humans have a habit of acting in a way that might please the objects of their affection, even if that object may never know of their actions. Then again, we always find a way to tell them.

I swooped to the right, across four lanes of traffic and onto the shoulder. By the time I’d made my maneuver and come to a halt, I was half a mile down the roaring freeway from where my merciful saviors were thumbing. In my rearview they appeared unhurried, the way only veterans of the world or slasher flick serial killers can. I watched them march through broken glass and tire shards with an unlikely dignity. They were confident that I’d wait for them, or comfortable with the fact that I might not. Typically hitchhikers run towards my car when I pull over, an endearing gesture that I always wish they’d shelf. Formalities are extra insufferable when one party is wheezing.

When they approached I exited the car to assure them that I was for real and to take the man’s gigantic rucksack. He had sliced a pool noodle in half then wrapped it around the straps to create some foamy cushioning between the weight of his world and his skinny shoulders. I found a place for the bag among my own belongings and looked down at the enormous black pitbull with him. We made eye contact in our reflections in her eyes and I answered the unasked question.

“She rides up front.”

“Are you sure? She can sit quietly back here.”

I shut the trunk to prove my point. Whatever faith I lack in humans I still have in their pets. We walked around the car to our respective sides and the dog greedily lapped up some very brackish water from a roadside ditch. The man yanked her into the car with him.

“I sure appreciate it man. We’ve been out here all day trying to get a ride.”

This is a stock line from every hitchhiker on earth.

Soon enough I learned that his name was James, the dog was Myra—a fourteen year old pitbull who was wheezing from all the walking—and they had started in Corpus Christi four days ago. It didn’t take much mental math for me to know their progress was abysmal. Four days to cover a four hour drive’s ground.

“Yeah, the cops tell us to keep walking through a lot of the cities. Can’t hitchhike inside the city limits. We walked all of San Antonio and all of Austin. She’s a trooper.”

I could feel my accent strengthen and my sentences shorten as we passed the time and the miles. Perhaps the best editor for my flowing soliloquies is a wizened audience that doesn’t care for bullshit. When the literate offer advice on concision it has the suspicious flavor of Hemingwayism. When the thoughtful and wordless offer their ears it is more credible.

“We spent some time in the Gulf, working on boats. She was actually a sea dog for six years.”

“When you say boats…”

“Supply chain. There’s the rigs, then there’s us. We bring the guys food, take back oil, repair lines, everything you can think of. That’s how we ended up in Corpus. After the hurricane I couldn’t do it anymore. We were trapped in the bayous for two weeks and I promised Myra we were done with that shit. Soon as we got to dry land I raised my middle finger and told ‘em I quit. ‘Course that was better than how my son did it.”

“You know, I actually put in some time down on the Gulf myself.”

“It’s the best place. Not like it used to be, but it’s the best place. Back in the day, when I was working rigs up here in Waco, I used to go down about once a month and blow all my money partying with the college kids. You’d get drunker than a dead mule, fall asleep on the warm sand, all the cops’d do is make sure nobody stole your shit from you in your sleep. Now they don’t let you drink on the beach or sleep there. But it’s still the best place.”

In debauchery, veritas. I have never resented the privatization of public spaces for partying purposes, but the inability to sleep on the sand has long been a concern of mine.

“I’ve been everywhere, man, but there’s something special about the Gulf.” James had found his beach. Among the budget spring breakers and weekend immigrant shoppers and the deep sea fishing oil men, he and Myra had a home. “This is the longest I think I’ve ever stayed in one place. There’s not as much work down there but it’s a good life.

‘Course I got me one of them good Mexican girls down there. She’s crazy as hell but she’s a cutie. We love to fight. Man, one time we were driving, I was on my way to cash my paycheck and she took it out of my hands and threw it out the window down there on Shoreline. Goddamn, lady! I got out the car to find it and a cop rolls by. I told him what I was doin’ and he asked me if I ever got her any professional help. I told him it wasn’t like that.”

It rarely is like that. My mind chewed on the particulars of James’ situation in Corpus Christi, on driving with an uncashed check and his Mexican mistress and who paid him in checks.

“So, you’ve lived a lot of places,” I asked, “anywhere outside of Texas?”

“Oh, hell yeah, Victorville, Florida, Kansas City, Oakland, Bakersfield, Connecticut. I loved Florida.”

“What was your favorite place?”

“Minnesota. They know how to live up there man. Even in the cold, they just have a good time. Great people in Minnesota.”

“Where were you up there?”

“Out in the woods near the lakes up at the top of the state.”

Ah, yes, of course.

He told me of bonfire parties, of a particular one where his boss—who was also his best friend—and his boss’ daughter—who he viewed as his surrogate daughter since he was not around his kids during their high school and college years—were present. Many Milwaukee’s Bests were drunk and at some point in the night the daughter asked him for “the weed”.

“I told her ‘Hell no’. She said her daddy wouldn’t care, which was true, but Lord Almighty her mom would’ve given me a lickin’ if she found out. Her mom was the damn strongest woman I ever met. I loved her.”

Myra made her presence known by ceasing the hellacious panting that had filled the pauses in conversation for the last half hour. I had switched the AC to blow on our feet and thusly her face.

“So anyway, that devilish girl told me ‘if you don’t get it for me someone else will and then I’ll be taking drugs from strangers.’ Goddamnit, she had a point. So I say, ‘Stay here, I’ll be back’ and I got her the weed and said ‘ You go smoke in that truck over there and don’t tell anyone you did it or who got it for you.’ ‘Course she got high as a fuckin’ kite and went gigglin’ all over the place and walked straight up to her daddy said ‘James gave me the weed’ and just laughed and laughed. Her daddy’d been smoking too so he laughed too but then he got real serious and said, ‘You talk like that to mama and we’re all done for. You hear me?’ then they laughed some more. ‘Course the next time I seen that woman she damn near strangled me with her own hair, but we exchanged looks and that was that. Say, I’d better call my daughter and tell her we’ll be there soon.”

He pulled out a flip phone and the cognitive dissonance of the situation struck me. Nowadays even men on the road can make calls and send texts from anywhere. Calling does you little good if there’s nobody to answer, but the ability means a lot. He poked at the phone before grumbling, “Ahh, must be outside of my pay zone. These damn go phones.”

“You can use mine.” I pulled out my generic smartphone and he looked at it with trepidation.

“Can you dial this number for me?”

I handed the phone to him but the ringing came clanging out of the car stereo. I thought I’d turned Bluetooth off but had obviously failed.

“Say, Sandra. It’s daddy. Yeah, I got me a ride outside of Georgetown. We’re almost to Temple now. Should be there in half an hour.”

“Well Jason and Bill are already on their way down looking for you. We couldn’t wait any longer.”

“Well, dammit, I’ll hop out soon. Tell them to look for me in Temple instead.”

“Just call them yourself.”

The call ended and we repeated the dialing process with a different number and a new area code. I got to hear Jason’s voicemail drawling in Dolby Surround Sound.

“He prob’ly ain’t gonna pick up a number he don’t know. Damn. Well just drop me somewhere obvious up in Temple and I’m sure he’ll find me. The other phone in my bag back there should still work.”

“Oh come on, I can get you to where you need to be.”

“Dial that other number again, then.”

Through a convoluted set of arrangements, Sandra was told to tell Jason to return home, James had a ride all the way. The idea of owning two cell phones and needing four days to get from Corpus to Waco was new to me. The idea of truckers living in a communal Sybaris in Tijuana was, too.

“That was the best arrangement I ever had. A week of seeing the sights and taking speed, two weeks of partyin’ in TJ, another week of work. We lived like kings. That was back in the Eighties, so it was about three hundred dollars a month for a four bedroom palace, fifty bucks for the two girls to stick around and spoil us, life was good. Usually it was only two, maybe three, of us home at any given time, so there was lots of space and usually enough girls. We’d party until an hour before our shift started, then the girls would bring us this little potion that could sober you up in a second. The bars wouldn’t sell it to the gringos but we’d give ‘em ten bucks and they’d bring back about two shots’ worth and walk with you to the border crossing. That was ten bucks of Eighties money so it wasn’t cheap, but it was always worth it. The trucks were right there in Chula Vista so we’d just walk across around seven AM and hit the road. That stuff was magic, man. It looked like water and barely tasted like anything but you drank it and it was like you’d slept for a week.”

I sat in silence and pondered the story. You didn’t have to say much. There wasn’t much to say.

“Wish I could get ahold of some of that stuff.”

“You know, I’m on my way up here to see my baby granddaughter. Still ain’t met her. That’s a goddamned shame. Tomorrow is her third birthday party.”

“Well, life gets in the way,” I offered, the way one might place a single dollar bill in a tithe basket.

“It does, but this is bad. I ain’t seen Waco in over three years. I’m the reason my kids grew up here.”

I looked at Myra wondering if she could tell me what to say. She had that particular look of someone who is happy because they know that they can kill you at any second. Perhaps living without fear is the secret to a sunny disposition. I was envious of all the things she didn’t know.

“She’s my girl,” James said, snapping me out of another channel-surfing thought exercise.

“You said she’s fifteen?”

“Thirteen. She’s a trooper. She’s sure good to me. My son had her for a while and I took care of her while he was out on a rig and when he came back and I left her with him she was heartbroken. She’d wait at the window for me and one day when she heard my truck pull up she got so damn excited she tore down the screen on his front porch. She’s been mine ever since.”

“That’s a hell of a story. She’s a sweetie.”

“Well, she behaves well when she’s with me. The guy that gave us our first ride was a mobile mechanic for Mac-Donald’s and he pulled off somewhere out there near Floresville and I let her out to get a drink and he tried to pet her—she damn near tore his hand off. He was a hell of a guy, said she was good at her job and actually meant it.”

Myra’s head poked up between James’ oil-stained work khakis. She could tell we were talking about her. Her tongue was dangling like damp linens on a line through the teeth of her characteristic pitbull smile. As long as she was with James, she was happy. Even on the floor of a stranger’s car, flying down the freeway at eighty miles an hour, she’d sit and smile.

“She just had her second litter about a year ago. Sold ‘em all. One pitbull is quite enough. It was a real joy to watch her raise those pups. Hell of a mom.”

“Say, James, what exit should we take? I’m getting you there, bud.”

“Oh, hell, any of the downtown ones. Maybe Eighteenth Street? Just a big one, my daughter’ll get me from there.”

“You sure? I don’t mind.”

“Yeahhhh, just somewhere that’s easy for her to find.”

The City Limit sign appeared and before long the downtown exits were approaching at ¼ mile intervals, the way they always do. I pulled off at 18th St. as instructed.

“Just right over there’d be great.”

“You sure? I can get you all the way.”

“This is perfect.”

I pulled into the gas station and walked to the trunk to grab James’ bag from the trunk. He and Myra were tromping around in the grass on the other side of the car. I joined them and set the bag in a patch of grass the mower had missed.

“Listen, I sure do appreciate it. Good travels to you, sir.”

“Same to you, James. The pleasure’s all mine.” I got back into the car and checked to the left before merging on the service road that led to the freeway. As I stopped at a red light I pulled up my smartphone notepad and jotted down something to look up—Baylor student murders two freshman girls—James had mentioned it and I had never heard about that mundane horror in the city famous for David Koresh’s Branch Davidians. I’d get the grim details later, if the story was true at all. At least I wasn’t going to Wikipedia-and-drive.

Slow Down Everyone

There are lots of good things to write about, so it is with despondent irony that I am writing about something very bad for anyone who reads or writes. The something in question is “Spritz”, a new app or computer program or something that force feeds written material to you at the frenetically nauseating pace of three-to-five hundred words-per-minute.  The average reading speed for a well-read adult is at most 220 w.p.m. so this is a staggering 30-100% increase in the speed that words are flying from the page—er—screen—to your brain.

The creators of Spritz claim that this technology will revolutionize the world, make you a better person, improve your love life, etc. It certainly will change things if it catches on. If the boundless exuberance on my social media feeds is any indicator, people plan to finally “read” all the books they’ve been lying about having read for all these years. I put “read” in scare quotes, because after watching a sample feed of words at three, four, and five hundred w.p.m. I simply cannot buy that anyone who chokes down Gatsby, Lolita, or Infinte Jest on Spritz will have learned a damn thing. They might be able to name characters, outline the plot, even talk about what they liked and didn’t like, but the sweeping impressionism of Fitzgerald’s prose or Wallce’s asinine footnotes and re-references will be entirely lost on these one-word-at-a-time phonies.

Based on my brief demo of the program, I was almost unable to worry about the societal implications because my brain was teetering dangerously close to epilepsy. The words whir by so quickly that, even though it does work better than I’d like to admit, it feels like some sort of unsustainable warp speed that will eventually catastrophically fail when the center ceases to hold. After reading about five sentences at 500 w.p.m. I felt like I needed a breather. Which led me to miss two more sentences and wonder what happens if you have to sneeze or write down a favorite line (not that you can pick favorites when you can’t see syntax, etc.).

By sterilizing the reading experience, we are dehumanizing ourselves. Humans are unique in the elaborateness of their written and spoken languages, their completely-unrelated-to-survival artistic endeavors, and their hellish bent toward self-destructive progress. From nuclear weapons to hyperconnectivity to reading sans fun, we are remarkably proficient at taking good ideas several steps too far. Harnessing atoms to make energy out of nothing seems wise, especially with our insatiable appetites for electricity and the finite amounts of coal and crude available to us. Connecting all corners of the world has obvious advantages. Helping people dig into the classics who wouldn’t otherwise read at all is a noble cause. And yet, somewhere along the way, these have all become perverted.

We make energy out of nothing to level nations or mutually assure one another that such destruction is imminent. We are so connected that walking peaceably down a quiet street and being wholly present seems as quaintly archaic as black and white video footage of a soda parlor. And now, we are bent on eradicating the frustrating, relaxing, challenging, rewarding endeavor that is reading a good book. I wonder when Beethoven’s complete canon will be compressed into a minute-long ultradensesupertechnowunder soundbyte or when every Picasso painting will be downloadable straight to your hippocampus via GoogleContacts.

This is not technophobic or dystopic radicalism. It is a not-so-far-fetched look at what might happen soon, and, more importantly, a sincere “why?” What do we gain by ‘knowing’ great works of art if we haven’t engaged with them? There might be a hint of democracy to downloading the Mona Lisa since traveling to Paris is not exactly free, but everyone knows what she looks like. The pilgrimage to Napoleon’s Great Pillage that is the Louvre is as beautiful an experience as sitting on a blanket on the beach for three hours and reading barely ninety pages of Steinbeck’s densest storytelling. If we crush these slow joys and miniature (or major) vacations out of our lives in favor of efficiency, what will we do with the time we ‘save’?

I might could answer “get in more training time for triathlons” or “spend more time with people I love,” but how long until those things are somehow condensed (see the gimmicky workouts and workout machines that promise incredible results in minimal time) too? Until we learn to (re)value the process, be it of creating or appreciating art, of building, repairing, maintaining, we are going to watch the uniquely human aspects of our lives get marginalized until A.I. is not so Hollywood anymore. This is not strictly about robots becoming convincingly human, but about us forgetting how to turn pages and wrenches. And things are only enjoyable because they are counterbalanced by other things (there is a mechanical analogy here, but it is likely lost on everybody because our cars are too complex to bother understanding anymore), moderation the key to savoring anything at all.

The complexity of all our gadgetry has created a unique problem that could fill volumes of books, were they still being printed and sold en masse. Technology has become so good and improvements come about so quickly (cheers, Gordon Moore) that rather than maintaining it or learning how it works, we use it until it becomes unbearably irrelevant (oftentimes less than two years).

I’m not arguing against inevitability or standing on a Luddite soapbox.  Some things we cannot change or resist. But as long as we create the demand for great literature, architectural triumphs filled with artistic masterpieces, and keep putting pockets in our pants and shelves in our homes to stash the smartphones for a few minutes, we will maintain a degree of resistance to the fierce force of homogeneity that is the invisible forces behind technological ‘advances’. Read something printed on paper, be it a newspaper article or even ten pages of a great book. Walk outside for twenty minutes without checking your phone. Go to an art museum. Dedicate ourselves daily anew. Something like that.