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


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.

and now for something completely different



Arranging a vinyl album, labor-intensive manual coffee brewing equipment, short story compilation, and bag of coffee beans for a photo is an intentional and somewhat laughable action. The items have little to do with each other except for that they are all favored by subscribers to a certain aesthetic affectation, or, at the very least, those who value affordable luxuries. And even though I will spend the first several hours of the day alone, not speaking a single word aloud, I can share a little slice of my life through the sweeping impressionism and ego-stroking that is Instagram. Though one can make plenty of compelling arguments for coffee, writing, and music as indispensable, in the basest sense of survival, none aid us in any way.

And yet, we spend money on hard-to-transport physical copies of music in the free and digital age, take ten minutes to make a single cup of coffee when a machine can do it faster and without our attention, sit down to read without anyone telling us to do so. Whether the alarm sounds at six AM on a weekday or a lazy nine thirty on a rainy Saturday morning, dropping the needle on some music, grinding some recently-roasted coffee beans, and spending a few minutes contemplating the process is a ritual I value immensely. My mind lazily wanders as it waits for caffeine, thinks about the musicians sitting in the studio and the sound technicians and the vinyl cutting factory, all the people and machines responsible for the soundtrack to my morning. I look at the coffee grinds blooming in their filter and envision Ethiopia or Columbia, misty mountain plantations where red berries burst from giant bushes, unrecognizable as predecessors to the black gold currently dripping into my mug. Who farmed it, who picked the berries and separated the best of the best from the Folgers, how did it get to the roaster?

There is a beautiful codependence in the world. Even on the collaborative album spinning in the other room, frontmen of two bands got together with filmmakers to score an artsy documentary on an aesthetic cult hero, Jack Kerouac. To get coffee into my cup, untold dozens of people did specialized jobs. Ditto to make the album that allows me to feel and to feel understood. In art, we express ourselves in terms other than the literal. And oftentimes we need that deflection to be honest or to get at something that speech alone simply cannot. Music in another language (or no language at all) is capable of moving us for a reason. Paintings, drawings, and sculptures cleverly circumvent the Babel Problem by foregoing language altogether.

So does art, then, serve a survival purpose by allowing us to communicate in some way with people who we cannot speak to for want of a common word? Lacking anthropological background, I can’t speak to this as a historically-backed truth, but isn’t that the point of true art? Unlike displaying Buddhist sculptures or tribal masks as “art” when their original intent was something decidedly more purpose-driven, true art doesn’t offer an explanation or a direct raison d’être. Instead, its creators have day jobs, patrons, or are fortunate enough to sell their work to people who want that daily distraction/inspiration/beauty in their own homes. They strive to express, whether to be understood or to tell others that they understand, or simply to compile the beauty or the ugliness in the world in a way that we can palate.

A Kenyan coffee gently scalds the roof of my mouth and I think about the flavors it reminds me of. This is no Proustian exercise in the time I had a Kenyan coffee at age seven and the thousands of pages worth of recollections it inspires, but rather a free associative exercise in the infinitely dissociated but connected world in which we live. I taste blackberries, some chocolate, a mild saltiness that allows the body of the coffee to last long after I’ve swallowed. It holds up beautifully as it cools, a cup of coffee for those of us who sip and ponder rather than slam and run. I could wax poetic endlessly on the terroir and how thankful I am that it rained in Kenya when it did and the farmers chose to dry the coffee cherries the way they did and how the roasters at Klatch in Upland really nailed it when they roasted on February 27th (a day that by purely perfect coincidence holds up as perhaps the best I’ve ever had). Coffee isn’t a science, there is too much chance involved. Like winemaking or whiskey distilling, it is an art in the truest sense, roasting until you hear the green beans ‘crack’ at the frequency that is most pleasing to your goals and personal preferences. It takes traveling to mountainous tropical regions and meeting farmers and understanding the varietals they work with and the way they dry their fruit to know what is expected of you as a roaster to maximize the beans’ potential. Even then, every roast is dependent on ambient conditions and the particular batch of beans inside.

Music is equally fickle and infinitesimally beautiful. Temperature and humidity affect the timbre of wooden instruments, what a person ate for breakfast can nuance their vocal chords or their mood when they decide whether to harmonize in a major or minor third on the second chorus of the third track of the day. There were infinite possibilities, but it all conspired to be the one that resulted. Jay Farrar and Benjamin Gibbard sing about a particular Amtrak line because moviemakers decided it was noteworthy after studying Kerouac’s life. That’s a lot of artistic co-dependence, and it makes a song whose plaintive displacédness resonates profoundly. Later on I’ll read the liner notes closely and realize that the subtle slide guitar in the background is being played by a famous virtuoso whose name only appears in the fine print if one bothers to look for it. I resist the temptation to think that I like the song more because I know this—avoiding the creator-creation issues that could spawn unabridged volumes of thoughtful consideration—but smile at the crafty humility behind it. It continues to rain outside as my hot coffee’s steam imitates the swirling clouds on the obscured mountains to my north. This is unduly pleasing, part of the cultural milieu we’ve created that says acoustic indie music deserves weather indigenous to its likely roots in the Pacific Northwest.

Whatever, the coffee I’m drinking was roasted just down the street in a sleepy industrial sub-suburb of Los Angeles, very near the area where Joan Didion set many of her most powerful essays from the anthology that lies before me. The sweeping impressionism may suggest bougie Portlandia aspirations, but the particulars are distinctly Californian. Didion roots rending personal honesty in a series of seemingly-unrelated arcana set in her surroundings. A master and founder of the ‘creative nonfiction’ movement, she puts so many brushstrokes over the factual snapshots she examines that the end result is recognizable but not familiar. I’d emphasize the creative more than the nonfiction, but the stories she uses to springboard into dizzying tales of drug use and depression are appallingly true. They are the sort of true that could never be believed if it were made up.

So when she makes an edict about the way we use all the information that flies at us, be it a tasty cup of coffee or the latest news story about something twisted and irrelevant, it is worth listening to. She has looked at it all with unprecedented access and an unblinking gaze that Nietzsche would call “true genius”.

We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience

Whether that means slowing down and appreciating the sensory nuances of your meal, music, book, or artwork or trying to make some sort of poetic sense out of the breakdown of the California dream in the late 1960’s, a few moments of thoughtfulness can turn your lazy weekend morning routine into a mental vacation in its own right. And that is a large part of what good food and art are all about.

* * *

drinking: Klatch Kenya Makwa (AB) 22g/300g at 203 degrees in Kalita Wave

reading: We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live – Joan Didion

listening: One Fast Move Or I’m Gone: Music from Kerouac’s Big Sur – Benjamin Gibbard and Jay Farrar


She Sells Seashells

She knew her seashells all by name or by place. After unfurling a carefully folded handkerchief to reveal an impressive, hectic array of crustacean remains, she set about studying them as if for the first time, seeking the perfect one to build bohemian jewelry around.

I had taken a seat strategically across the aisle and offset from her tantalizingly empty table. The overwhelming array of scenery and humanity constantly refreshing itself in the Observation Car is capable of camouflaging even the most conspicuous characters. Like the spread of shells, there are so many beautiful, fragile individuals scattered throughout the car, all half-awaiting the next opportunity to strike up a conversation with another train rider. I took my seat, fumbled for my camera, and flipped absent-mindedly through my journal, captivated by the scenery that had startlingly shifted from ocean views to over grazed agraria. Her meticulously untamed golden locks had seemingly directed me to choose my seat—their total obfuscation of her downturned face only heightened the captivation. Something about the flawless creation and consumption of her avocado-heavy snack had me distracted from the mottled cows and bucolic green hills to my left, instead wondering what kind of person this was across from me and where she was going and why.

Then the seashells came out and another passenger whom I had already befriended jumped on the opportunity to make conversation. This was when I learned that she could point to any shell and immediately recall, “Italy, Hawai’i, Huntington, Thailand.” Consider my interest piqued. While observing this tentative exchange, I suddenly felt a searing pain deep inside of me. It was caused by a smile so effervescent and innocent it seemed completely out-of-context. It made me self-conscious. Its unbridled joy over seemingly trivial things illuminated dark recesses inside of me that I didn’t care to see. The sorts of things that can’t scare you if you can’t see them. The light continued to seep in, and it made me smile on the outside. But it also made me shiver and shudder and long and desire.

A rapid succession of words were exchanged, but I was still caught surprised deep inside, trying to make out all of the rarely-seen shapes among the blackness. I was invited to join at her table, which I clumsily, heartily accepted. I peeled my eyes from the inward mysteries to the outward mystique that I was now face-to-face with. Through all of these exchanges, she had not stopped working the waxed twine and seashell, idly crafting a necklace that could sell for a serious sum in the right locales. It all whirred by—scenery, subjects, conversation contributors. She had shared a humbling story of overcoming near-death illness, level-headedly raved about God’s greatness, and talked candidly about a recently-ended relationship, all the while beaming that searing smile. She gracefully photographed complete strangers silhouetted by the setting sun, carefully wrapping the gorgeous film SLR’s lens in another handkerchief. Everything was in its place, yet she was open and gracious and carefree. I had never witnessed such a combination of character traits as was now unfolding before me.

The organic ebb-and-flow of people in the Observation Car, the comfortable pauses and guts-spilling-before-formal-introductions, and the understood character traits of train riders…the alchemy of this situation was life affirming. An uninvited addition to our table momentarily crushed me, but quickly proved to be perfect. A young man who I still cannot quite understand, undoubtedly affected by some slight birth defect, sat down and began conversing with an earnest sincerity that rivaled her own.

“Do you guys want to paint?” The question was so ridiculous that it did not surprise me in the least, and suddenly the seashells had been replaced by a spread of solid watercolors, acrylics, and high-quality paper. I wondered what else could be in that groovy floral-print briefcase. The man rambled about his painting experience, the smiling girl just listened and smiled and made him feel like the most important man in the world, and I sat and surrendered any concern about artistic impression-making, instead embracing the cosmic perfection of this moment. I smiled at the sky more than once and scribbled out a most impressionistic rendering of the sunset happening to our left. Across from me, she painted a guarded, painstakingly detailed picture of a girl. He turned an initial amalgamation of colors into a venerable work that shamed even my best efforts.

When at last it was too dark to make any real progress on the paintings, we sat and lingered over them like a well-eaten meal, talking and sharing in a way that is rare among even best friends and kin.

“Who is someone that has cracked your world open?”

In a conversation that had been anything but shallow, the gravity of this question still caught me off guard. He asked it disarmingly, spurring a series of cycling stories and reminiscing and serious pondering. I settled on Paul, the man in Audubon Park who cut the small talk and asked the most piercing questions about my cross-country jaunt. As I sit here scrawling this, I realize that it may have been the two seated across from me, names fuzzy but faces and mannerisms bright as ever. We all went around and took turns answering, spending ten, twenty minutes apiece. A neighbor-listener even chimed in, trying to ascribe serious meaning to her cat. I smiled and listened, finding some sort of value in the preposterous normalcy of this response. I tried to exchange a knowing glance across the table to share some silent laughter, but was met with two smiles, each exuberant in their own way.

Some six hours into a twenty-six hour trip north, I had already had my world cracked open multiple times. As we closed in on a central coast town, she grew nervous about missing her stop and began to hastily but perfectly collect her belongings. I was gifted granola bars, fresh fruit, and an avocado for the remainder of my journey. This brought me back to the bike, when a free forty cent cookie could elicit tears of joy. We all exchanged names and numbers, for a reason that is still not quite clear. After handing hers to me and the painter, she quickly grabbed them back. God Bless! she added underneath the last four digits of the telephone number, and she really meant it. I hopped off with her, hugged a long, appreciative hug, and jogged around the platform to stretch my already-anxious legs. I was driven back into the train by all of the nicotine addicts viciously crushing cigarettes at alarming rates, returning to my still-strewn belongings well before the All Aboard whistle.

There was nothing romantic about those hours. I was taken down several notches by folks who were simply living their lives. I had many other disproportionately profound conversations on that train ride, for that is the nature of the beast. I met so many people for even brief spans who put their own little cracks in my ever-expanding world. In having the dark recesses of my innards illuminated by such a radiant smile, I was shown areas that I didn’t even realize I had, let alone that I could improve. I was also shown personalities that I had never encountered or fathomed. Ebullient, flawless people who are as happy as one of my self-described “redneck Canadian” hosts in Florida. His motto was one of the few tangibles that helped me out of my hammock on those cold, sweaty mornings when little else seemed to. I woke up above da grass, today is gonna be a goud day.