curiosity and ragnar the cheesemaker

I have a morning routine, which rarely changes (because, you know, it’s in the morning and I’ve just awakened and and any activity that requires actual thought is probably beyond my capabilities). Greet the cat, check the perimeter (with the cat), feed the cat, ingest some form of caffeine, pet the damned cat, read the news, read more news, continue to pet and feed the fucking cat, consider reading email, decide against reading email, check Twitter, check Facebook.

By the time I reach the ‘read more news’ point, I’m moderately awake, properly caffeinated, and curiosity has kicked in. That generally results in me doing some level of research about what I’m reading. For example, this morning I saw something about ‘cult’ television shows. Not shows about cults; shows with cult audiences. No, wait…that sounds like the audience members are in a cult. Like everybody in the Order of the Solar Temple gathers around the television in the afternoon to watch Jeopardy. I’m talking about television shows that are obscure or generally unpopular with mainstream audiences, but still attract a devoted fan base. Somebody mentioned a British show called The Strange World of Gurney Slade. Which sounded weird and interesting, so I did some research and learned…well, that it was weird and interesting.

My point, if you can call it that, is that at some point in the morning, my need to read the news gets hijacked by my need to know and understand random stuff. This morning it was a few minutes of Gurney Slade. Then, on Twitter, I came across this simple question: Did Vikings make cheese? And my morning was gloriously ruined.

First, the question itself is wonderfully weird. You have to wonder what sparked the question. I assume it wasn’t just an idle thought; something caused this person to wonder if Vikings made cheese. Maybe they wanted to know what foods Vikings packed for a long voyage, maybe they were curious about Vikings and lactose intolerance–I don’t know. But it was an interesting question. But my immediate response was delight at the notion of a Viking cheesemaker. Some hirsute guy who, instead of setting off with the crew to raid the coast of Britain, decided, “Naw, I’m going to hang here and make a cheese.” Ragnar the Cheesemaker.

That led me to wonder how the process of making cheese was discovered, which eventually led me to read a sentence that not only took up much of my morning, but will likely haunt me for the rest of my life.

Cheese may have been discovered accidentally by the practice of storing milk in containers made from the stomachs of animals.

Okay, if you’re anything like me, you immediately started asking critically important questions. Who the fuck thought it was a good idea to store milk in the stomach of an animal? Who first said, “Dude, we got all this milk and we got no place to store it. Fetch me the stomach of an animal, please.” Who thought it was a good idea to store anything at all in the stomach of a dead animal? Who conceived of animal stomachs as prehistoric Tupperware containers? Somebody, while gutting an animal, must have had the idea, “Hey, let’s hang on to this stomach…we can clean it out and store stuff in it!”? Where would you keep the empty animal stomachs you plan to use later to store milk? And who, having left that first batch of milk in an animal stomach long enough for it to curdle and separate into curds and whey, thought, “Fuck it, I’m eating it anyway.”?

Medieval cheesemakers

My research also brought me to an article entitled Make Butter Viking Style, but I had to stop reading almost immediately, because of this:

Step One: Bring the crème fraîche up to room temperature and whisk it as if making whipped cream.

I am not convinced this is how Vikings made butter. I could go on (and believe me, I did), but you get my point. This has been my morning. Cat, Miami condo collapse, infrastructure agreement, some GOP bullshit about the military, cult television shows, Vikings, cheesemaking, animal stomachs, butter production. Every morning is like this for me. I’m completely fucking worthless from about 0700 to maybe 1000 hours, because of stuff like this.

And the worst thing about this? I have absolutely no use at all for what I’ve learned this morning. The odds of Gurney Slade or the history of cheesemaking (or, lawdy, the evolution of storage containers) ever coming up in conversation are astronomical. But this stuff will rattle around in my head for hours (or days or decades) and possibly spill out at some wildly inappropriate moment.

in which i make an awkward speech

Okay, I probably should have mentioned this when it was announced. But that was a month ago, back in the middle of April, at the beginning of morel season, so I was busy. And there was something else going on at the time, though I can’t recall what it was. My guess is it was probably bicycle-related.

Anyway, I forgot about it until last week when Ruth Greenberg emailed me. She wanted to let me know she’d received a royalty check for a book we sorta kinda wrote together. That was back in…I don’t know, the distant past. I was in graduate school at the time, so it must have at least twenty years ago. I could do the math and figure out the date, but it doesn’t much matter.

The check was for 94 cents.

I’ve moved at least half a dozen times since the book was published, and I’ve never bothered to let the publisher know my new address. In fact, I think that publisher has been swallowed whole by another publisher–and I’m not even sure who they are. This accounts for why I didn’t get my US$0.94 royalty check.

But that email last week reminded me of another writing thing…which is the thing I referred to in the first paragraph, the thing I probably should have mentioned back in April but obviously didn’t. So I’m going to mention it now.

A short story I wrote–and which was published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine last autumn–won an award. Every year various groups hand out various awards for mystery and detective fiction. Most of those are nominated by…well, okay, I admit I don’t know how the nomination process works. Doesn’t matter. I’ve only been nominated once, about a million years ago, for something called a Shamus award. I didn’t win, so I didn’t pay much attention to it (I’m beginning to sense a pattern here). Anyway, nominations are made, a panel of judges read the work, choose the winner, hand out an award. It’s sort of a big deal.

The award I won wasn’t that sort of award. What I won was a Reader’s Award. You know, where readers write in and name their favorite stories of the years. And actually, I didn’t win that award either; I came in third.

When I got the email telling me I’d come in third in a Reader’s Award, I thought, “Hey, that’s nice.” And that was basically it. I mean, I’d already been paid for the story; that was reward enough. But I was asked to submit a 1-2 minute video acceptance speech for the award (which was being held virtually because of the damned pandemic). My response was basically a casual “Sure, why not?” But thinking about an acceptance speech made me actually stop and think about the award itself, and about the readers who’d read the story and voted for it, and about writing.

Let me be clear about this whole writing gig. It’s just something I do. I enjoy the act of writing. I like the process of writing. It entertains me and gives me pleasure. I like the discipline involved. Most of what I write (this blog, for example) I write for an audience of one–me. Writing this blog forces me to put my thoughts in order, which forces me to support whatever crap I’m writing about. I usually spend a LOT more time thinking about stuff than writing about it. For this blog, I like to write quickly and casually, and edit almost nothing.

But sometimes I write short fiction for money. That means writing for other people. It also means writing more carefully. Because a writer’s job is to give a reader a good experience. Not necessarily a pleasant one, or a happy one, but an experience they find worth the investment of time it takes them to read the story.

But here’s the weird thing. Once I finish writing a piece of fiction, I seem to lose all emotional attachment to it. I’ve done what I wanted to do with it, I’ve written the story, and now it’s done. I submit the story to a magazine; they either accept it (and send me a check) or reject it (and send me a rejection letter), but that’s their job. My job is over. Time to do something else. The finished story is old news; it just doesn’t seem very important anymore.

But I had to give an acceptance speech, right? So I had to think about all that stuff. I mean, yes of course I was writing for an audience, but it was a theoretical audience. Not actual people, sitting at home, drinking coffee and letting the cat shed on their sweaters. Suddenly, they’d become very real to me. I mean, the notion that strangers would read something I wrote–that they’d read it and remember it–that they’d care enough about the story to vote for it in an annual contest? That’s just…weird. It made me oddly emotional.

So I made an acceptance video. Okay, that’s a lie. I made like six of them. First, I did a quick practice video just to see if I actually knew HOW to make a video. Set up my chromebook, turned it on, nattered off the top of my head for maybe 90 seconds, then watched it. It was…well, embarrassing.

So I wrote out a short script saying the things I wanted to say–and shot a second video. That taught me to pay attention to the background (as a photographer, you’d think I’d know that). So I started moving things around, re-arranging furniture, shifting stuff around so it wouldn’t appear I was sitting in the basement, where I write in the evenings. I shot a few more videos.

They were fucking painful to watch. I mean, I was trying to present myself as a writer, and I was semi-reading from a script. It all looked unnatural. So in the end, I sent them my practice video–me nattering on, sitting at my basement desk, unrehearsed and stupid, thanking strangers for voting me the third most popular story for this particular magazine last year. But at least it was honest and authentic. So there’s that.

Anyway, here it is, for your entertainment. The whole thing is about 18 minutes long, which is a LOT to watch. I get introduced at about the 5:30 point. My awkward basement practice acceptance video kicks in somewhere around the 7:30 point.

Oh, yeah…the story. Janet Hutchings, the editor, introduces it in a way that makes it sound significant, portentous. When I submitted it, I was at a loss for how to describe it. It’s a detective story, of course, about the rights of street photographers. But yeah, it’s also about racial profiling. And about a missing teen-aged girl. But it’s also about the movie Under the Tuscan Sun, which I happen to think is important to the story. And I don’t know, it’s maybe about some other stuff too. Who knows?

Anyway, I probably should have mentioned this back in April, when it was announced.

3 things that make me love the world

I’m not one of those “Let’s focus on happy news and forget how completely fucking awful the world is” guys. I lack the Pollyanna gene. When the world is completely fucking awful, I want to know about it. I want to understand it. Don’t try to distract me with bluebirds or other happy horseshit. Because despite how completely fucking awful the world is, I still manage to remain pretty chipper and stupidly happy. I still love this world.

I’m telling you that because the news this morning is jammed with the mass murder that took place in Georgia yesterday. Eight dead–six Asian women, two non-Asian men. Apparently murdered by some inadequate white incel asshole who, according to law enforcement officials, “had a really bad day…and this is what he did.” On any other morning, I’d be writing about both this hate crime against women (and the reality is that the most common hate crimes–and the least acknowledged hate crimes–are committed against women) and the casual way white law enforcement agents treat white mass murderers who commit hate crimes.

But not this morning. I’m NOT trying to distract you from the truly awful shit that’s taking place. But three things happened this morning that made me ridiculously happy. And I’m not going to let this Georgia asshole detract from that. Fuck him in the neck. These are three things that make me love this awful world.

First thing. The Pritzker Prize. If you’re not familiar with this, it’s the most prestigious award in architecture. It’s usually awarded to some arrogant asshole ‘starchitect’ who designs massive, expensive, flamboyant buildings. Not this year. This year it’s gone to Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, a pair of architects who have largely focused on transforming low-income housing complexes. Instead of tearing down old structures and building new ones, these two have found ways to transform old housing projects into attractive living environments. A lot of poor people may hate where they live, but aren’t confident they’ll be better off if they moved.

Turning grim public housing into bright living spaces.

A few years ago, Lacaton and Vassal were asked to work on “a particularly large and hideous” public housing project in Bordeaux. The people who lived in the projects didn’t want to leave; they just wanted more space and more light. Lacaton and Vassal gave them what they wanted. The basically encased the building in glass, turning what had been exterior apartment walls into sliding glass doors leading to an enclosed terrace. It cost less money, it required less disruption for the tenants, and it turned grim, drab apartments into bright sunny spaces. The Pritzker jury wrote:

Through their belief that architecture is more than just buildings, through the issues they address and the proposals they realize, through forging a responsible and sometimes solitary path illustrating that the best architecture can be humble and is always thoughtful, respectful, and responsible, they have shown that architecture can have a great impact on our communities and contribute to the awareness that we are not alone.

I like living in a world where French architects are honored for their work in support of poor folks living in public housing.

Second thing: I’ve written about the game Geoguessr before–both as a game and as source material for an appropriation art project. For a variety of reasons, I don’t play the game as often as I used to. But now and then, I’ll get the urge and I’ll immerse myself in virtually exploring a novel part of the world. Last night I played and found myself lost in the Polish countryside, where I saw an interesting bit of graffiti art.

I don’t speak Polish. But I help run a Facebook group called Geoguessr Oddities, with a global membership some of whom were likely to know Polish. So I posted the screengrab. And a short time later I learned Mysza Patrzy jak Jedzisz translates to “The Mouse watches you drive.” It wasn’t very helpful in finding out where I was in Poland, but the translation cracked me up, and the interaction itself made me happy. Then this morning another member of the group informed me that franekmysza is a Polish graffiti artist with an Instagram account. He’s painted that mouse all over Poland.

I like living in a world in which I can be introduced to a Polish graffiti artist by playing a game designed by a Swedish IT consultant to get you lost in new parts of the world.

Third thing. There was an article in the Washington Post about a kid, Darius Brown, who learned to sew bow ties for rescue animal–and I swear, this made me tear up and I came THIS close to crying like a little girl. Darius (and, again, he has an Instagram account you may want to follow) was taught to sew bow ties by his sister when he was eight years old. He got started in the rescue animal bow tie gig two years later, in 2017, when a couple dozen dogs left homeless in Florida and Puerto Rico by Hurricane Irma were transferred to a shelter in New York City. He thought the animals might get adopted quicker if they were wearing bow ties.

Let me just say that again. A ten-year-old kid in New Jersey sewed 25 bow ties for rescue dogs from Florida and Puerto Rico because he wanted them to get adopted. How perfectly wonderful is that? And hey, it worked.

Of course it worked. Look at that good boy wearing one of his bow ties in a Savannah shelter. Are you kidding me? Who wouldn’t want to adopt this tripod pooch? According to WaPo, Darius has now “donated more than 600 bow ties for dogs and cats in shelters.” He’s only 14-years-old. He says, “A well-dressed dog…that will make people smile.” And yeah, it does.

I suppose I should mention that Darius has both a speech disorder and a fine motor skills disorder–but since those things don’t define him, they’re less important than what he does. And what he does is make the lives of shelter animals better, which makes shelters better, which makes the lives of the people who adopt the shelter animals better, which makes the entire world a little bit better.

I like living in a world with Darius Brown in it.

Yes, the world is completely fucking awful. But it’s also completely fucking wonderful. We shouldn’t let the former diminish the latter. There are architects who transform awful buildings into livable spaces. There are graffiti artists painting snarky mice all over Poland. And there’s a kid in New Jersey putting bow ties on shelter animals. How can you not be in love with this world?

EDITORIAL NOTE: Another thing that makes me happy. A couple of folks have kindly and gently taken me to task for writing ‘crying like a little girl‘. It makes me happy because 1) it’s nice that folks call me when it looks like I’m being a dick, and 2) because originally I actually included a long, parenthetical tangent about that phrase, doing a riff sort of like Dickens in A Christman Carol when he natters on about the phrase ‘dead as a doornail’. But I write these posts in a rush, and I edit very little…so I deleted the tangent in the hope that people would interpret crying like a little girl to mean grown men and little girls cry in the same way and sometimes for the same reasons.

I’ve decided NOT to correct it. It’s better to let other folks learn from my misjudgments.

fuck this guy

This guy, I declare. This whiny, small-minded, pissy-pants guy. This privileged, lying, unworthy, lazy, ignorant guy. This vindictive, self-pitying, arrogant, despicable guy. This conceited, fuck-witted, always complaining, cowardly guy. This sour-souled, slack-eyed, gorbellied, muddle-headed guy. The fucking guy is still insisting he won the election.

I am SO sick of this guy. I’m sick of hearing his voice — his griping, carping, sneering voice. I’m sick of hearing his name and seeing it on everything from buildings to flags to signs. I’m sick of his hideous presence on television, which he haunts like some gross and malevolent spectre. I’m sick of his ridiculous hair. I’m sick of seeing his face — his slack-eyed, flaccid, pouty-mouthed, jaundiced face. I’m sick of knowing he even fucking exists. I’m SO goddamned sick of him.

I’m sick of his appallingly ignorant and loathsome adult children. I’m sick of his wife. I’m sick of ALL of his wives. I’m sick of his democracy-hating sycophants in the Senate. I’m sick of his ass-licking toadies in the House of Representatives. I’m sick of all his groveling and cringing ‘news personalities’ on television and in the newspapers. I’m sick of his apologists and enablers. I’m completely sick of his fawning, eyelash-batting, lickspittle Press Secretary. I’m sick of every single goddamned person in his easily-replaced, unprofessional, ill-equipped, odious, merry-go-round of a Cabinet.

Fuck this guy. Fuck everybody in his orbit. Fuck everybody who volunteered to work for him. Fuck everybody who campaigned for him. Fuck everybody who planted one of his yard signs in their yard. Fuck everybody who bought and flew one of his godawful flags. Fuck the people who made and sold the flags. Fuck everybody who voted for him. Seriously, just fuck this guy.

There. I needed that. I feel better now. Normally I read the news in the morning, then think about it for a while, calmly and objectively, before I say or write anything. But this morning that I WON THE ELECTION tweet just flat out pissed me off. It’s a bright sunny day and I didn’t want to let this fucking guy ruin it. So I decided to vent. Get the ugly shit out of my system. Now I can get on with my day and be happy and have fun.

Hope y’all have a good day.

empathy triage

I read the news every morning. It’s part of my routine. I do it almost without thinking. Get up, get dressed, check the perimeter, feed and pet the cat, start the coffee, read the news.

One of the first articles listed in my morning news feed was from The Atlantic magazine. It was titled Why People Who Hate Trump Stick With Him. I started to click on it, partly out of habit and partly because The Atlantic usually has solid reportage — but I didn’t. I read the title again and thought, ‘I really don’t care why people who hate Trump stick with him’. I moved on to the next stories — one about a white man in Wichita who threatened to assassinate the mayor for issuing a mask mandate, and one about a black man in Louisiana who was granted parole after serving 24 years of a life sentence for attempting to steal a pair of hedge clippers.

A million years ago I was a medic in the military. Basic military medical training tends to be focused on casualty and trauma care. In addition to the field fundamentals — stop the bleeding, tend the wound, prep the patient for evac, that sort of thing — we were also taught the essentials of triage. Triage is a system developed by Dominique Jean Larrey during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century. It’s a way of sorting mass casualties to determine who should be treated first. It’s a method of directing limited resources toward the best outcome for the majority of the wounded.

Dr. Dominique Jean Larrey, creator of the triage system, during the Napoleonic Wars.

Basically, what it means is that during a mass casualty event, some poor bastard greets the incoming wounded and sorts them into three groups: 1) victims who’ll probably live even without treatment, 2) victims who’ll likely die even with treatment, and 3) victims who have a chance of living if they’re given immediate treatment. Your arm is broken in three places? Yeah, it hurts…but it’s not going to kill you. Wait in the hall. Your arm has been blown off? Yeah, we can fix that, go right on in to surgery. You have two traumatic amputations and a head wound? Here are some M&Ms to tide you over until you bleed out. Sorry.

It’s an ugly job. Necessary, but ugly. But here’s the thing about triage: it focuses only on the wound and the treatment, not on any other characteristic of the victim. Dr. Larrey insisted treatment be based on the seriousness of the injury and the urgency of need for medical care, regardless of the wounded person’s rank or nationality. That meant French doctors would treat a seriously wounded British private before a lightly wounded French officer.

The Trump years have been a struggle for folks who care about other folks, who care about strangers as well as for friends and family. My capacity for empathy has been stretched. I’m now performing a warped sort of empathy triage. I’m most focused on folks who are suffering emotionally and spiritually and not coping very well. They get most of my empathy and support. Folks who are suffering but manage to retain their sense of humor and some degree of optimism, they’re the walking wounded; they’re in pain but they’ll recover. Folks who support Trump — those are self-inflicted wounds from which they probably won’t recover. Here are some M&Ms to tide you over until you bleed out.

Folks who hate Trump but stick with him? Dr. Larrey would be disappointed with me, but I’m out of M&Ms.

best purchase ever

Imagine a collection of ancient pottery shards and some twisted lumps of barbed wire jammed inside a bit of stiff, old fire hose. That’s my knees, after years of injury and abuse. They creak, they pop, they snap, they grind, they rasp. They hurt. At some point I’ll have to return them to the shelf and get some new ones.

But mostly, I’m used to them. I know how to deal with them. I can get them to do most of what I want to do. There’s only one aspect of my life that’s been buggered up by my wonky knees. Cycling. Riding a bike. I used to ride a lot; it was my favorite mode of transportation. I used my bike for fun and to run errands. But it hurt my knees. Seriously hurt them. So a couple of years ago, I put the bike away for the winter; hung it from some hooks in the garage ceiling. Never took it down.

Over the river

This summer I bought an electric bike, thinking I might be able to ride it with minimal knee pain. When I say I bought an ebike, I don’t mean I went to my local bike shop, examined a wide selection of bikes, and made an intelligent, informed purchase. I mean I bought a bike online. Which even now strikes me as a phenomenally loopy thing to do. Who buys a bike they’ve never actually seen except in a photograph? Who buys a bike you can’t test-ride, a bike that costs US$1500 (more than any two bikes I’d ever bought), a bike that has to be shipped from Seattle and would require some assembly on arrival? Who does that?

Me and, it turns out, lots of other folks. And I got to say, it’s the best purchase I ever made.

Through the woods

I bought a Rad Rover Step-thru. It’s an improbable bike. Massive. The damned thing weighs about 70 pounds. More than twice what my trusty old Trek mountain bike weighs. It’s a fat tire bike, and when they say ‘fat tire’ they’re serious. Four inches wide. It’s got disc brakes. It’s got a goddamn brake light in back. What sort of bike has a brake light? When I finished putting it together (with the overly enthusiastic help of my brother), I have to admit being a tad intimidated by the scale of the beast. It’s big.

But once I got on it and started riding, that massive beast of a bike became weirdly tame. It rides easily. It’s not what you’d call ‘nimble’ compared to my mountain bike. Because of its size, the turning radius is slightly larger than I’m used to. But it’s rock solid and steady. And surprisingly fun to ride.

They put chairs along the bike paths here.

Best of all? No knee pain. I’d been hoping for minimal knee pain–an amount of knee pain I could tolerate. The notion of pain-free cycling hadn’t even occurred to me. But I’ve had the bike for about three months and I’ve put just over 500 miles on it–and dude, no knee pain at all. That’s because of the pedal assist function. Everything I’d read about ebikes (before committing to the insane act of buying one) talked about this weird techno-magical whatsit called pedal assist. I never quite understood it what it was or how it worked; they just said it made pedaling easier. Pedal assist was the reason I gambled on the bike.

It works. It really does make pedaling easier. Or it can if you want it to. It turns out pedal assist is exactly what it says it is. It provides a measured boost to the energy with which you pedal, which makes pedaling more efficient and effective. You can ride this bike without any pedal assist, but it wouldn’t be easy; we’re talking about a 70+ pound bike with four inch tires, so you’d have to be desperate or masochistic to do so. At PAS 1 — the lowest level of pedal assist — it makes riding a 70 pound bike feel pretty much like riding a normal bike (except even then it’s easier on the knees). I spend most of my riding time in PAS 1 or 2. I’ve used PAS 3 for a few steep or long hills; I’ve had no reason to use PAS level 5 yet.

Shortly before the first tornado siren.

I did use PAS 4 once, but it was an emergency. I’d stopped to visit with a county worker who was doing some obscure chore in what will eventually be a new suburban neighborhood. As we were chatting, the tornado siren went off. He checked his phone and told me it looked like it wasn’t a drill. I’m fairly casual about bad weather, and since I was only 3-4 miles from home and didn’t see any of the usual signs of a tornado, I wasn’t too concerned. I headed homeward, but I didn’t rush. Until a second tornado siren went off. Two tornado sirens is serious. So I began to hurry a bit. The sky got really dark. A third tornado siren sounded. I’d never heard a third siren before. I put the bike in PAS 4 and was easily doing over 20mph through neighborhoods.

I made it home about three minutes before the storm hit. It wasn’t a tornado. It was a derecho — a fast-moving straight-line storm with hurricane-force winds. And I made it home without knee pain. Totally winded, but no knee pain. I’m a big fan of pedal assist.

In the river valley.

Something I hadn’t expected: the bike gets attention. People are curious about it. At stop lights, people will roll down their car windows and ask me questions. People on sidewalks and bike paths often shout out questions as I’m riding by them. Sometimes I’ll stop and chat with them. “How does it work? How fast will it go? Does it have a throttle? Can you ride it without pedaling? What’s the battery range? Can you get a good workout with an ebike? Isn’t it cheating if the bike does all the work?”

Here are the answers. I’ve had it up to about 25 mph on flat ground; it can go faster, but I’ve never had the need to do it. Yes, it has a throttle, which is handy at stop lights and stop signs; even with pedal assist, it can be a struggle to get a 70 pound bike in motion from a dead stop. The throttle makes it easy to get started, and that’s all I’ve ever used it for. But yes, you can ride it without pedaling, using just the throttle like a moped. The advertised battery range is 25-45 miles, but I’ve ridden 53 miles through hilly terrain on a single charge and the battery wasn’t quite dead. And finally, you sure as hell can get a good workout on an ebike. The pedal assist allows you to make riding as easy or as strenuous as you want. By the way, if you bike for exercise, folks tend to ride farther and longer on an ebike, which increases the amount of exercise you get.

Me, I don’t ride for exercise. I ride for the joy in it.

Out in the country.

The ‘cheating’ question always throws me. I’m not even sure what it means. How can you cheat at recreational cycling? It’s not like you’re competing with anybody. Using electric pedal assist isn’t really any different than using 21 mechanical gears to make pedaling easier. If riding an ebike is cheating, then so is riding a bike with multiple gears. You’re still using the energy of your body to propel the machine.

That said, I do feel a wee bit awkward about overtaking a cyclist in spandex riding up a hill on a 20 pound road bike. Awkward, but not guilty.

Every so often I’ll go on a ride that takes me by a two-story fitness center. The parking lot, even during this pandemic, is usually full of cars. I know that some of the people who drove those cars to the fitness center are inside on stationary bikes, pedaling in a frenzy. They’re undoubtedly getting a more efficient workout than I am. They’re using their time a lot more effectively than I am. But I suspect I’m happier in the saddle than they are, and having more fun.

In the fog.

I’ve nothing against exercise, but I ride just for the pleasure in it. With this bike, I get to go places. I get to see stuff and talk to strangers. I get to turn down streets and pathways with no real sense of where they’ll take me; sometimes I get to be lost and have the tiny adventure of finding my way back. I get to be harassed by Canada geese and chased by storms.

I did a 30 mile ride a couple of days ago, the last half of it into a stiff 18-23 mph headwind. When I got home, my legs were wobbly from exhaustion. But my knees? My knees were laughing their ass off. I love this bike.

mawkish memorial day metaphor

Did my bit yesterday. You know…the ritual of tending the graves for Memorial Day. It’s supposed to be a holiday created by a grateful nation to honor the men and women who died while in military service. Some folks are grateful enough to visit cemeteries, large and small in every corner of the nation, to plant a flag on the grave of every veteran. It’s a pretty idea, isn’t it.

But let’s face it, the nation really isn’t all that grateful, and it’s been years since the holiday was about dead veterans. Modern Memorial Day is more a celebration of consumerism than anything else — like most American holidays. But it’s also expanded beyond its original purpose. There’s still a lot of tending to graves, but it’s no longer limited to veterans.

I’m fine with that. It’s nice to have a day set aside for remembering the dead, whoever they are, however they died. That’s especially true now, when the butcher’s bill for Covid-19 will almost certainly top 100,000 in the next week. Maybe next year somebody will plant a flag on the grave of every Covid-19 victim. I think we, as a nation, will need to find some way to express both our horror and our collective grief at the loss of so many lives. Right now it seems we’re either in shock or denial of the enormity of what’s happening. The fact that it’s still happening — that the pandemic is ongoing — makes it difficult to process. Some events are too catastrophic to comprehend until after they’ve finished, until we know how they end.

Yesterday I visited half a dozen different cemeteries — some in the city, some in the burbs, some in the middle of farmland. Some were nicer than others, some better tended, some busy with other Memorial Day caretakers, some weren’t. I helped tend to graves of family and friends, even those of a few strangers, only about half of whom were veterans.

As usual, I shot a few photographs. I generally delete most of the photos I shoot, especially on Memorial Day.  How many photos do you need of gravestones and flags?

This morning I looked at the photos I shot yesterday. I deleted all but a few. Two of them struck me. One, shot in an urban cemetery, was of the rows and rows of flags — a reminder that there was a time when it was common for American men to do a few years of military service, that it was seen as an honorable thing to do. The other photo was of the farmland just outside a rural cemetery, rows and rows of seedlings growing.

Rows of flags, rows of crops. There are metaphors in those two photos. They’re mostly trite, mawkish metaphors, almost embarrassingly sincere, but they’re also honest. Which is more than I can say for a lot of what we see on Memorial Day. 

still standing

I do like an early morning thunderstorm. It’s nine o’clock in the morning and it’s so dark I have the kitchen light on while I drink my morning coffee and read the news. The rain is falling with a sort of steady insistence, like it’s telling us we can stay inside and act like nothing is happening, but it is not going to stop. The cat is looking resentfully out the window at the rain, unfazed by the sporadic thunder. It’s a pretty solid thunderstorm in terms of rain and thunder, but it’s skimping on the lightning. Maybe it’s storing it up and will give us a show later.

The news tells me that on Friday the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives issued guidelines to allow federally licensed firearm dealers to provide drive-up or walk-up gun sales during this period of isolation. Why? To reduce the health risks posed by the coronavirus. The BATF has a dead solid lock on graveyard humor.

On Facebook one of my Christian senator is wishing me a happy Easter and assuring me ‘He has risen’. I hope she’s not referring to that dark, malignant force haunting the White House, ghoulishly presiding over the drown-in-the-fluid-that-fills-your-own-lungs pandemic. Speaking of which, the butcher’s bill in the U.S. will exceed 21,000 deaths at some point today.

This morning the Twitterverse is, as usual, like Jabberwocky written by the illegitimate child of Oscar Wilde and Charlie Manson (just go with me on this; I don’t need a lesson in biology). It’s clever and hateful and funny and malicious and witty and snarky and so incredibly stupid and full of fascinating information and confusing as hell. Twitter is probably like a lot of family gatherings.

~ ~ ~

I’ve forgotten what point I’d intended to make when I started writing this morning. I got distracted by this photograph. I saw it on Twitter. If Twitter can be believed — and I want to believe this is true — this is a photograph of an ICU nurse who has worked 65 hours in the last week. I’ve been looking at and thinking about this photo for about an hour.

I don’t know this woman’s name, or where she works, or who shot the photo. I don’t really know anything at all about her. But I recognize her. I recognize that look. I know she’s on the ragged edge of exhaustion, discouraged, worn down by grief and duty. I don’t know who she is, and I know she can’t save us. But I also know she’ll try. And I know that after a few hours of sleep, she’ll be back at it. So will all of her colleagues.

Today I’ll stay inside, dry and warm. I’ll read my book, I’ll cook some food, I’ll do a little housework, I’ll do a bit of writing, I’ll feed and pet the cat, I’ll continue to check in on social media. At some point tonight I’ll watch an episode of Breaking Bad and maybe an episode of some other show. I’ll fill up every hour of the day, but I’ll never be busy and I’ll never be uncomfortable and I’ll never have to make a decision more difficult than what to cook for supper.

But I know I’ll return, over and over, to this photograph. It’s that powerful; it’s that compelling. Right there — everything that can be said about the power of photography is right there. Everything that’s good and noble about humankind, right there. Everything that can be said about sacrifice and dignity and dedication and love and compassion, right there. Everything that is heart-crushing, that is hopeful, that is beautiful, that is desperately sad and deeply caring and incredibly tough and still tender, it’s all right there.

I hope my Christian senator sees this photograph. I’m glad she finds some comfort and strength in her belief that ‘He has risen’. Me, I’m drawing my strength and comfort from knowing that this woman, whoever she is and wherever she is, is still standing.