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The raving thoughts of a misanthropic academic

November 11, 2011

Book Review: Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me

Jesus My Father The CIA and ME

On the shelves of our office library are a number of biographies. From Winston Churchill to Johnny Cash, we have no shortage of books about the lives of other, much more interesting, people. The number of memoirs, or autobiographies on our shelves is relatively paltry by comparison. This is not an accident. I tend not to buy memoirs because they are uniformly terrible. Given my reluctance to even read such a dust jacket, I was pleasantly surprised when I read Ian Morgan Cron's Jesus, My Father, The CIA And Me: A Memoir…of Sorts (Thomas Nelson, 978-0-8499-4610-3, $15.99, June 2011).

From the outset, it's important to recognize that writing an engaging memoir is difficult. Most attempts at autobiography try to paint life in its best light (think Sarah Palin's Going Rogue). But it's the rare, brave author who communicates the essence of a life as it was actually lived, as opposed to producing a censored version of how one would like life to have been. This sense of honesty is what really sets apart Cron's book. Taking the back drop of an interesting, and complex childhood, Cron communicates in 252 pages the simple idea that life is messy.

As I noted, giving life a sincere rifling isn't an easy undertaking. Ours is a veritable age of depression. Whether it's feeling inadequate for being stuck in the 99%, or latent concerns about the future of humanity, we homo sapiens tend to have more skeletons in our closet than Conrad Murray after a fresh supply of Propofol.

But somehow, Cron's memoir reassures readers that this is ok - that wading through the bullshit of life isn't a journey taken alone, but something we all do to cope with the complexity or our own existence. Somewhere between page one and the end, readers come to understand that they are reading Cron's piece, but the themes explored could well be their own.

The most important theme of Cron's memoir is how he copes with the chronic feeling of being unloved. I realize that at first this theme can sound a bit like a cliché. It's fair to say that no one gets through life without developing some sort of "daddy" issue. But in Cron's case, the daddy issue wasn't a simple matter of Father threatening to pull the car over after roughhousing in the backseat finally got unbearable - say, hypothetically, on a trip to Taos, NM, circa 1989. Cron's issues with his father involved the profoundly more complicated reality of having an abusive father who was not only an alcoholic, but also an agent for the CIA. As one would expect of a good Company Man, Cron describes his Father as being a bit "like Darth Vader, only less empathetic."

Detailing the life of a true Darksider, Cron painfully recounts numerous instances of abuse meted out by his father over drunken nights of scotch. While this is tragic in itself, the author suggests that the greater tribulation of his relationship with the elder Cron was the complete lack of interest he took in his son. The result is that the author was left to "begin life without a center of gravity," foreshadowing the many ways in which the author would mirror the actions of his father.

The second major theme of the memoir is something I've already alluded to. As a recovering law student, I've long taken it for granted that the majority of law students and attorneys are functioning alcoholics. And perhaps in Arizona more than most, we tend to revel in our reputation for debauchery. In fact, my alma mater the University of Arizona, James E. Rogers College of Law was recently dubbed "the top party law school" in the Nation. Work hard, play hard as the adage goes.

While alcohol may be all fun and games here in Tucson, the hooch played a far more harrowing role in Cron's memoir. In fact, some of the book's most disturbing, and heartrending scenes come when the author describes the drunken physical abuse he endured at the hand of his Scotch-swigging father. What makes these moments even more poignant is that they serve as a dark segue into Cron's descriptions of his own drunken nights and his painful mornings after. Even Darth Vader himself would mourn for the son who is controlled by the same ghosts that haunted his father.

Finally, all of these stories, in some way reflect the final major theme of the book, the author's journey as a person of faith. This shouldn't be confused with dogmatic moralizing. The book is far from an exercise in Christian apologetics. Instead, Cron uses his life to illustrate how complicated it is to maintain faith in the Divine when so many aspects of life are unknown, unknowable, and often contrary, to the teachings of theologians and the various sects of Christendom. Rather than avoid doctrinal crises and moments of doubt, Cron honestly, and openly questions where exactly God was during his childhood, while admitting that he still "sees through a glass darkly," lo these many years later. (1 Cor. 13.12).

This is what makes the book so easy to appreciate. Unlike many Christian authors, Cron recognizes that grace isn't cheap. Accordingly, he does not attempt to cheapen grace with empty platitudes of a "loving God," or with talk of "damnation" for the sinner. Rather, Cron seems to recognize that in our own way we're all damned -- if not spiritually, then perhaps emotionally, as we struggle to confront the demons of our own past; or perhaps physically, as we yearn to strike a balance between work and life; or maybe even intellectually, as we attempt to maintain a sense of what is right, while also keeping our minds open to new ideas and change.

Whatever the challenge, Cron never shies away from the truth. The events are never understated. The stories are simply told. This makes the entire account read less like an exposition of morality, and much more like a beautiful meditation on life. Cron reminds readers that life cannot honestly be separated into good and bad because both coexist on a continuum. There is good. There is evil. In the book, a father drunkenly beats his son. And later, a father overcomes his alcoholism, as he lovingly tries to shield his children from harm. And so the light rises from darkness.

In the end, Ian Morgan Cron uses his life to demonstrate that mere existence can be tough. But it is only through this dose of realism that Cron can use his own life to demonstrate how one can also endure, and thrive.

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November 8, 2011

Book Reviews for November and December

Book Reviews Nov and Dec

Late last week, I was pleased to receive the opportunity to review two more books in the near future. The titles released earlier this year, but newly minted paperbacks are just hitting the shelves.

The first review will be of author Ian Morgan Cron's newly released memoir titled Jesus, My Father, The CIA and Me: A Memoir…of Sorts. Cron's book chronicles the early years of his life, and explores the complexity of growing up with an alcoholic father who was also a spook for the CIA.

N.B. Cron is also an Episcopal priest, so the memoir traffics into some weighty topics including depression, alcoholism, and the concept of grace. For those who avoid such books, consider yourself warned. And for those curious, Cron's memoir has received excellent reviews from Publishers Weekly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams.

The second review comes from a similar genre, although it's more historical in tenor than spiritual. Author Eric Metaxas is most widely known for having written the biography of William Wilberforce that inspired the hit movie Amazing Grace. (A personal favorite of yours truly). His latest biography titled Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy is poised to become a similarly big hit. Released in April 2010, the book cracked number four on the New York Times Bestseller List only this September, and received glowing endorsements from such sundry quarters as the Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, Christianity Today, and even former President George W. Bush.

The lengthy biography, of course, details the paradoxical life of pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian cum spy who was intimately involved in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler during World War II. Bonhoeffer was summarily executed for his heroics by the Third Reich, leaving the pastor/spy's legacy shrouded in myth, and reverence among modern Christians.

Check out the Thomas Nelson Trailer here:

As always I would be remiss if I did not thank the appropriate parties for providing me the opportunity to review their works. Special thanks to Ms. Meryl Zegarek and her team at Meryl Zegarek Public Relations, Inc.

More to come...

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October 24, 2011

Book Review: The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt - a novel in pictures

Book Review  Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt

I think each of us has an inner packrat. Whatever the object - say, hypothetically, it's an empty lighter from a Vegas casino where you celebrated your first wedding anniversary (I digress) - whatever the object, we tend to invest items with emotional significance because of the memories associated with the object. Just by looking at the item, we can go back in time. And we remember.

It's this feeling of reminiscence that Caroline Preston captures superbly in her latest novel, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt: a Novel in Pictures (ECCO/HarperCollins Publishers; ISBN 13: 9780061966903; $25.99; Hardcover; 240 pages; Release: October 25, 2011). The novel tells the story of its eponymous heroine Frankie Pratt, tracking her life from a modest, New Hampshire farmhouse to the City of Light and the Left Bank. Along the way, readers encounter Frankie's various romantic interests, a host of literary luminaries, and Frankie's witty impressions of the "whiz-bang" years of the 1920s.

The story is interesting in its own right with plenty of twists. But what makes Ms. Preston's novel really standout is the telling. Rather than following a conventional novel form, one void of pictures and so often void of talent, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt is an actual scrapbook built "item by item" from vintage 1920s memorabilia.

The effort was obviously painstaking. Preston notes spending "countless hours" to amass the 600-item collection of 1920s ephemera required to tell Frankie's story. This lends the tale an appreciable degree of authenticity, with every detail of Frankie's life requiring a genuine period piece. The range of items is impressive, from a first-edition dust jacket of The Sun Also Rises, to the 1915 Corona typewriter used for the captions of the book. The end result is a 240-page novel comprised of full-color photographs of the scrapbook built by Caroline Preston. For bibliophiles, this means a new type of novel that readers can not only read, but experience in a concrete, visceral way.

One criticism I expect the book will receive is that scrapbooking itself is an anachronism, a hobby lost in the digital age not unlike stamp collecting and the U.S. Postal Service itself. But even while the story is told in a very specific way, and set in a very famous moment in time, the larger theme driving Preston's novel is one that every sentient person can relate to: memories.

At its core, scrapbooking is about preserving memories by compiling a personal history derived from objects that people ascribe significance to. While Preston communicates this preservation in the form of a novel, the concept of memory has a lengthy scholarly history. One quick example can be found in the unlikely source of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. In his 1874 essay, On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life, Nietzsche muses about the the role of history, and its implications for those sad souls doomed to live in the present. His conclusion of the matter is that "the unhistorical and the historical are necessary in equal measure for the health of an individual, of a people and of a culture." The implication is that dwelling too much in the past, can inhibit human proclivities for progress, while living hedonistically in the present without regard to the lessons of history can lead to a vacuous existence full of narrow-mindedness and selfishness.

Nietzsche's observation is something we tend to internalize intuitively as a species. We give objects significance because they remind us of a special moment, or because they mark an important occasion. In this way, we tend to balance our 'living in the now' with memories and lessons from the past. What Caroline Preston does in The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt is explore this tendency to preserve memories on a personal level through the lost art of scrapbooking.

In truth, scrapbooking itself isn't all the foreign a concept either. When I was a young child, my sister and I took a trip across the American west with our grandparents. From the backseat of a late-80s, Ford Crown Victoria, the four of us visited nearly every American landmark that mattered. We made stops at Petrified Forrest National Park, an honest-to-God forrest of petrified wood; a massive meteor crater that would easily swallow our hometown; the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings; and Grand Canyon National Park. On the way home, we stopped at Toys 'R Us in Amarillo, TX, before hopping the highway for a stake at the Big Texan Steakhouse.

From each stop, we gathered a small library of brochures, park guides, ticket stubs, and receipts.  And when we weren't pestering our grandparents with questions, my sister and I managed to take enough cheesy photographs to make the other tourists blush. Tucked away in the Fodder family annals is a photo of my sister getting in trouble for trying to swipe a large stump of petrified wood, and a snapshot of me awkwardly lying down in four states at once.

Five years later, Grandma would pass away. Though we had resolved to take another trip west, the stars didn't align for us to make the trek again. But even after all of these years, that three-week trip was one of my best memories of growing up. Whenever I look at the old shoe box of memorabilia from the trip, I'm instantly taken back to the long hours spent in the backseat of my grandparents Crown Vic, staring at the rolling desert as we made our way west.

My items rest in a dusty shoe box, but the transition from storage to scrapbook is fairly easy to envision after having read The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt. And quite literally every person could do something similar.

In this way, far from being an anachronism, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt captures something we can all relate to. We all have our own coming of age memories. We can all recall having taken a trip to some place special. And we can all think of objects that we have imbued with significance, either because they remind us of our youth, or because they remind us of a unique event.

Memory is simply the collective human experience. Caroline Preston understands this, and manages to bring memory to life in The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt.

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October 22, 2011

A Dispatch from Taos

It's a drop past 11AM here in Taos Pueblo. The temperature has languidly paced it's way into the 50s. A cool breeze makes its way beneath the carport here at my Grandmother's house.

It's mid-October, but wood stoves burn in the distance, and the smells of piñon waft through the air as it has done for centuries in this ancient, mysterious place.

There's a shed across the dirt driveway. It is filled to the top of its 9-ft tall ceiling with enough wood to last two winters. I suppose the excess is important during the cold winter to come. But I've never seen the wood shed at less than capacity during any season.

Maybe that's the point. The cares and concerns here are about history and routine. Irrigating. Agriculture. Fishing. Hunting. Home repair. Tradition. Custom.

In most respects, Taos is a full-throttled embrace of the historical. This disposition allows for language and tradition to coexist alongside the western/anglicized City of Taos less than a mile away.

Naturally, this makes a balance with the unhistorical nearly impossible, as Nietzsche would say. Living in the moment, living for self, and the now are supreme challenges for Taos Pueblo and its denizens. Western arts, culture, and technology (aside from the ubiquitous Chevy trucks) are scarce on the reservation.

Yet, as the leaves rustle, marking the passage of time, it's a comfort to know that places like Taos still exist. Off the grid. A shrine to history.

A place where time stands still.

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September 14, 2011

September in the Rain

The leaves of brown came tumbling down,
Remember, in September in the rain.
The sun went out just like a dying ember,
That September in the rain.

-Rod Stewart, September in the Rain

It's been a wet few days here in Tucson. But not even our Indian summer monsoons could compare to the tears that rained down from Congressional Democrats last night. At the end of an undoubtedly Bourbon-soaked evening, Democrats lost disgraced Rep. Anthony Weiner's solidly blue Congressional seat to Republican Robert Turner, 47% to 53%. The White House made an effort to put its spin on the results, but the point remains the same: if Brooklyn and Queens aren't safe for the Dems, what districts are?

Unlike the unreasonable folks over at HotAir, I won't read the results as anything other than what they are - an epic repudiation of President Obama's failed policies that all but portends a historic GOP victory in 2012 and beyond. Objectivity aside, it strikes me that when there is a Republican Congressman from New York City (New York City!?), it's either a sign of the apocalypse, or the sign of a burgeoning political tsunami. I'm hoping for the latter, but I think there's some evidence that it may be the former.

First, the New York Times, ran a reflective piece musing about the travails of living the authentic life. Alas, given that no one at the New York Times is actually authentic about anything, the article does little more than state the obvious. For the curious, the essay sagely observes that the image we project to others is little more than our perspective of how we want others to see us. Startling, I know. According to the NYT, this indicates that no matter how much we change our looks, or how ardently we attempt to conform to social mores, at the end of the day, we're all about as authentic as a James Frey autobiography. Somewhere in Hell, Michael Jackson is rolling over in his grave singing "Black or White."

I suppose matters could be worse. At least many of us have, or will have, the comfort of a stable relationship/marriage to fall back on when times get tough. Unless, of course, you reside in the 2/3s of the country typified by the American South and the American West. These decidedly red states, where God's faithful foot soldiers defend the citadel of marriage from the onslaughts of gay barbarians - these red states boast the highest divorce rates in the country. The hypocritical-evangelical-Christian meme is tired at this point, so I won't go there. But I recognize that, with the exception of Kim Kardashian, people aren't perfect. Still, maybe it's time to give the gays a chance at being miserable too? Fair is fair.

With New York turning red, marriages yielding to divorce, and weeks passing without a post, one might think your humble blogger has become more jaded than ever. This simply isn't true. I start my day with a cup of Joe (that's coffee, not Biden), and look for the good in the world.

One source of inspiration for me is the performance of the Oklahoma Sooners football team. OU was recently ranked the No. 1 team in the land for a record-setting 100th time, besting Notre Dame, Ohio State, and USC, coming in lightyears ahead of Texas. Second, returning to the topic of marriage marriage, I was also encouraged to see that roughly 86% of all Americans now approve of interracial marriage, or as they say in Tennessee, miscegenation. Should my wife and I ever decide to have spawn, they'll grow up in a much more tolerant society than the one Gary Coleman did, and that's a good thing.

But then I learn about products for children such as the Thudguard Infant Safety Helmet, and my hope for humanity languishes once again.

The aim of the Thudguard is to soften the blow, so to speak, while children are learning to walk. This, of course, begs the question, how in 7 million years of human evolution did we ever get by without the Thudguard? God only knows what the poor kids will do once they've out-grown their helmet. Walk without one? I realize if you're Rick Perry, the question may be a little different since the Earth is only slightly older than 5 thousand years. But even a creationist must consider how inexorably different history would have been. Imagine if Goliath was wearing a Thudguard when he fought lowly David? I'm not just saying, I'm just saying.

After reading about the Thudguard, I immediately recalled the poetics of former hip-hop sensation Aaliyah (RIP), and wondered how the lyrics of her song Try It Again might change given the advent of so ingenious a device. Perhaps we wouldn't encourage folks to try it again, so much as we would encourage them to be extremely careful while trying it the first time. Naturally, I promptly horrified myself by wondering whether Thudguard made an adult version of the helmet, and how much it might cost. If there's a moral to any of the above, it's probably that less is more.

For all my hemming and hawing, I don't think the apocalypse will be here any time soon. My Dallas Cowboys still haven't won a football game, meaning that Hell hasn't frozen over - unfortunately for the King of Pop. To celebrate the non-event, tonight, I will enjoy a quiet glass of wine with the wife who really is as close to perfect as anyone I actually know. I will be thankful that my marriage is well on the positive side of 50% of marriages in our great and blessed land. And I'll probably block http://babysfirstheadgear.com/ in my bank account's security settings.

But assuming my own happiness isn't enough to chase away your blues, as always, let not your heat be troubled. Things could always be worse. We could be living in Beijing.

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September 2, 2011

Book Review: Irma Voth

Irma Voth

The desert of Northern Mexico seems an unlikely place for religious dissidents to settle. Yet, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Mennonite families exited Canada in droves, en route to Chihuahua, Mexico in hopes of finding freedom, cheap land, and the opportunity to maintain their religious and cultural practices - the most important of which included the right to speak the Low German language. Miriam Toews' latest novel, IRMA VOTH, (Harper; Sept. 6, 2011; $23.99), draws on the Mennonites' history to present a concept of language that is at times both humorous and haunting.

First, Toews uses language to fundamentally distinguish the Mennonite wayfarers of Chihuahua from the broader Mexican population. Early on, readers learn that the novel's eponymous, main character, Irma Voth has married a Mexican man named Jorge. The union creates a host of problems for Irma, not the least of which includes a strained relationship with her mercurial father - who would very much prefer that the Voths live "in" the world while doing all they can to avoid becoming "of" the world.

The clash between father and daughter results in Irma's painful exile from her immediate family to a second house on the Voth family property. It's unclear whether Irma's father reacts to her marriage angrily because of racial, cultural, or religious differences. All three justifications make an appearance, yet, all three are united by Toews' use of language as a differentiator. Race and cultural differences between Mexicans and Mennonites are typified in the novel by each group's embrace of its particular language - obviously, Spanish in the case of the former, and Low German for the latter. The same divisions are present when analyzed from the perspective of religion. Low German is venerated by Irma's father as the principle method of maintaining religious purity and social homogeneity among the Mennonite campos.

Second, shortly after Irma's banishment, Toews uses language in a markedly different way. Rather than using language as a tool for division, Toews uses language as a source of unity to develop the relationship between Irma and her sister Aggie. The entire Voth family has been instructed to avoid Irma. But Aggie is a fiery pre-teen and has absolutely no intention of avoiding her older sister. She mischievously begins a routine of making her way over to Irma's house. Although somewhat precarious, the clandestine visits restore a sense of family, and love missing from Irma's otherwise isolated existence. Irma and Aggie communicate in the hushed whispers of Low German to share news from home, and to share hopes for a brighter day.

In this way, Aggie's entry into the story presents language as a stark foil of the earlier scenes. Rather than using language to drive Irma away, Toews uses language to draw Irma and Aggie closer together. Language is used in a similar way when the novel's other gaggle of characters arrive. A ragtag group of Mexico City film makers have designs to shoot a movie about life in the rural campo. The bulk of the novel develops as a result of Irma's ability to communicate trilingually, landing her a gig as a translator for the film crew. This sets Irma up for exposure to a number of foreign, and secular ideas about life, culminating in a formative decision, that shakes the very foundations of existence as she knows it. But the point about language as it relates both to Aggie and the filmmakers is really the same: language is redemptive, wielding the ability recast a mechanism for dividing into a mechanism for uniting.

And this manipulation of language is the point of the novel in a macro sense. Toews uses language not only to advance her plot, but also to communicate ideas, thoughts, and emotions. This is true of any story, but what makes Toews' novel unique is its ability to immerse readers in the exercise of language manipulation from page one. Her prose has been called minimalist, but this is an understatement. The writing style is absolutely Spartan. This has the odd effect of causing readers to dive into her works not only for the sake of understanding the story, but also for the sake of carefully exploring each word for meaning.

This is largely how the novel reads in its entirety. Each page is a potential hiding place for beauty - whether it's a thought, a feeling, or an insight. And all the while, a reader's search for these gems inexplicably unveils the novel's plot.

I suppose in this way Toews' work mirrors life. In Irma Voth, she demonstrates life's complexity through language, underscoring that life is not often lived in the world of black and white envisioned by Irma's father. Rather, it is lived in the shades of gray where our ethical, moral, and religious suppositions are challenged by life itself - a world trafficked by Irma and Aggie, and all of the wonderful characters they meet.

Miriam Toews' Irma Voth is set for public release on September 6, 2011. It is available for pre-order here.

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September 1, 2011

Just a Typical, Tucson Bike Ride

Tucson had its first signs of fall today. Rather than topping out at 106 degrees, it was a balmy 103.

The weather seemed ripe for a bike ride since my trusty steed had sat dormant due to the extreme heat. I also needed to mail in the rent check, so a stop by the post office was on my to do list as well. As Uncle Dave Ramsey says, in a pinch, one can skimp on some payments, but rent should never be among them. I think his rationale is that it's a lot harder to do without shelter than it is to do without an iPhone. I'm not sure that he's entirely right. But it seems wise to pay rent all the same.

As I etched my name to the corner of the check, and sealed up the envelope, it occurred to me how antiquated the notion of check writing is. My landlord and I could easily set up a balance transfer, and she would have the money as soon as I authorized it. Yet, we opt to play the game of formalities once a month, and I write the check for her to cash.

I made my way out the door and realized that 103 degrees isn't terribly different from 106, so I rode my bike a little slower. The post office is located conveniently along the River Bike Path so I took my usual route through the foothills. As the sun beat down on my back, and the cacti and lizards greeted me along the way, I wondered whether my experience was similar to the pony express riders who carried mail through the desert west almost two centuries ago. It probably wasn't much similar at all, but it was a fun thought. After all, we have roads. And ponies smell.

In short order, I made my way out of the foothills, and headed toward the River Bike Path's entrance. Access to the path isn't direct for me, so I dutifully walk my bike along a twenty-yards stretch of sidewalk. It's quite illegal to ride a bike on the sidewalk, and nothing annoys me more than cyclists who break the law. While walking my bike, I noticed an oddly clad young man who was himself walking in the middle of River Road. He was asking cars that had pulled up to the stop light for a ride to Campbell Avenue. The request seemed a bit odd, seeing as Campbell Ave. is less than a mile away from this particular intersection. I don't think he was mentally stable. Still, I felt sorry for the man, until I re-remembered that it was a balmy 103 degrees. Of course, I then re-realized that 103 degrees isn't much different from 106, and I silently re-hoped that someone would give him a lift - even if it was less than a mile away. Much to my surprise, someone did. The good samaritan was a surly looking man, driving a mini-van in such a way that he he told the world how depressing his life was. Still, I was glad the somewhat unstable young man had found a ride, even if his benefactor did reminded me a bit of John Wayne Gacy.

After reaching the post office, I noticed a postal worker schlepping mail from the curb-side mailboxes. I quickly rode up to her, gave her a bright and friendly greeting, before asking her to include my envelope with the other items in her cart. After making this utterly reasonable request, one of Jane Austen's famous lines came to mind. "It is a truth universally acknowledged that an employee of the U.S. Postal Service is among the most miserable of human beings to walk this planet." Jane Austen didn't write that. But it's a universally acknowledge truth all the same. True to form, rather than addressing me, or otherwise acknowledging my existence she pushed her cart past me, grunting in a way that only female postal workers can, and indicated that I should put my envelope where the sun doesn't shine - presumably she meant in the mailbox, which as luck would have it had yet another pick up time at 5:00PM.

After dropping the check into the mail, I immediately felt lighter - around $850 lighter, in fact, and I quickly made my way to Gwyn. I rode quickly because I had a slight, nagging fear that Helga might come back with her Norsemen chums from the Post Office break room, and I didn't want to be anywhere near the vicinity when they returned.

In all, I made fairly decent time getting to my wife, arriving five minutes early. This earned me only about a ten minute wait in the sun, and a quarter-mile walk to the truck, but I still call that a win. At least I wasn't standing in the middle of the road asking errant motorists for rides.

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August 28, 2011

My Trip to Costco

Alexas Loves Costco.

I took my first trip to Costco earlier this afternoon to purchase a membership. On the advice of a couple of friends, my wife was persuaded that the amount of groceries we purchase would easily make up for the price of joining over time. I'm not sure that it ever will, but that probably won't keep us from trying to milk every bit of savings that we can out of our membership. In addition to an obscenely large bottle of Scotch, we also bought a doggy bed for Alexas that is certifiably many times larger than she is, selling for roughly half the cost on Amazon.

Walking around the massive warehouse, I had several mixed reactions.

My initial thought was "this is exactly why Al Qaeda hates us," and while the conclusion is dramatic, it's also quite true. If Costco isn't the poster child for American opulence, then I'm really not sure what is. By every objective measure, that store is huge. Huge. It's shelves, which span the entire height and length of the building, are stocked full of every conceivable product one could ever want or need. (Although, there was a notable absence of products from Apple). From discounted computer software to relatively inexpensive and presumably, relatively fresh salmon, the store was a treasure trove of American consumerism. Given economic disparities between countries like America and, say, countries like Afghanistan, it's easy to see how the seeds of envy, jealousy, and hate could grow. Any 'reasonable militant' could simply look at places like Costco (or Sam's Club, BJ's, Walmart, Target, etc.), realize that such stores will never exist in her home country, and blame every economic woe on the 'greedy Americans' hogging all the goods.

On the other hand, I realize that I've used a loaded term, consumerism. In fact, somewhat frightening, and almost certainly annoying protests were held this weekend warning of the coming 'class war,' demanding to know 'which side are you on.' I fancy myself as more of a Switzerland whenever the class wars are waged, but as an unabashed proponent of the free-market, the libertarian in me responds to the sentimentalist above by noting, "That's just how markets work. Someone had the idea to form a company based on the concept of selling bulk products to consumers rather than selling to retailers only, and I'll be damned if the idea wasn't a smashing success. I will drink my ridiculously inexpensive alcohol tonight, and, accordingly, sleep like a baby - albeit a very drunk one." The simple point being that if local supermarkets can't compete, then shouldn't they go out of business? Why should the market reward inefficiencies?

But again the sentimentalist in me considers that the ground isn't exactly level at the foot of the economic cross. Companies like Costco can leverage billions of dollars in annual revenue to sell products at deeply discounted prices thanks to their incredibly low product mark-ups. Mom and Pop supermarkets could never compete because they lack billions of dollars to leverage and offer competitive pricing.

And on, and on the conversation goes. I don't claim to have a solution. If I did have a solution, you could (and should) contact the folks at the Nobel Headquarters, and tell them this year's Nobel Prizes for peace and economics have all but been picked up. I'd certainly be a more worthy recipient than our hapless President who somehow won the Nobel Peace Prize while orchestrating three wars around the world. Of course, he was only a warmonger twice-over at the time.

Still, the interesting thing about shopping at Costco was the simple fact that no one seemed to be having the internal dialogue above in their heads - except for me. That's when I realized that I am weird. So, rather than revel in my eccentricity, I happily walked up to the checkout to pay for the doggy bed and scotch, knowing that I would drink the scotch, and knowing that Alexas would still sleep in our bed rather than the doggy bed I had just purchased. In fact, after posing for the photo above, Alexas promptly got up, and lay down on our king-sized bed. And maybe that's the lesson of consumerism.

The point of consumerism isn't really to be satisfied. That would make the world markets tank for sure. The point of consumerism is to feel you need something, pretend you enjoy it, and then lumber back to the bed you're used to sleeping on.

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August 25, 2011

Thoughts on Blogging, and Time

Wasted Time

Earlier this week my wife was twenty minutes late getting out of work. I took my typical 11 mile bike ride to reach her office by 4:30PM, only to swelter for twenty minutes in 106 degree heat. By the time she emerged from the cavernous enclave better known as Tucson Medical Center, the water in my water bottle tasted like a hot cup of tea, minus the tea.

To understate matters, I was upset. But not with my wife. The lone thought that came to mind over and over while I baked on my favorite bench was how much I hate wasting time. The situation was a bit like Dostoyevsky's white bears, no matter how hard I tried not to think about wasting time, I ended up thinking about wasting time. This may seem a bit compulsive, and it really is, but I realized from a young age that time is the only thing in life that you can't get more of. You can get more money. You can acquire more possessions. If you are lonely, you can fill your life with with more relationships. The super lonely, like former NY Gov. Spitzer, can even pay to fill their lives with more relationships.

But as ex- Apple CEO Steve Jobs demonstrated yesterday, you can't get more time, and that's why time is life's most important commodity.

It's a bit dramatic to say that a few minutes in the sun profoundly shifted how I think about blogging. But in some ways it did. Over the past week I started thinking seriously about this blog, the time I've devoted to it, and most importantly what I hope to see from it - not only in the coming days and weeks, but in the months, and hopefully years still to come. While I have changed templates, and layouts many, many, many times, I have never tried to make the blog anything more than it is: a place where I can opine, and hold court on whatever topic strikes my fancy. And I've done this for nearly seven years, come December 24th.

In that time span, I've made just under 2600 posts. My traffic has gone from an anonymous voice crying in the wilderness (NH) to a voice with a slightly bigger bullhorn, crying in a different wilderness (AZ). Our readership is still fairly modest, averaging only about 2500 hits per month. But that's still much better than when I averaged only about 40.

Given that our blog isn't very topical, it's probably a small miracle that anyone reads Pax Plena at all. The bulk of my posts concern politics, music, faith, book reviews, cycling, and the occasional Lolcat of the Week. But Pax Plena isn't devoted to any one of these topics in particular. Still, in the greater blogosphere, the actual range of blogs and their topics is as wide and as varied as the internet itself. Some blogs are very narrow in scope, covering niche areas like the intersection of life and career building, and the affairs of a specific technology company (guess which company). Stiil, other bloggers cover broad topics like Indian Lawpoliticstechnology, cycling, faith, minimalism, sports, sport teams, etc.

I guess my conclusion is that that after seven years of blogging, it's time to start narrowing down the focus here at Pax Plena. To be clear, I'm not worried about missing out on traffic. That's not the point. But I am interested in developing the blog into something that is more engaging, more interesting, and more useful to readers. I want Pax Plena to maximize the effort and time I put into it. And I think I can do this with a couple of adjustments.

Let me add, I don't feel these seven years have been wasted. (Although, I have, at times, been wasted during these past seven years.) I sincerely appreciate each and every hit that comes my way. You readers make the whole exercise worthwhile. My itch for change stems primarily from the fact that I don't want to waste the next seven years of blogging because I didn't create a vision for Pax Plena when I had the chance.

My task over the next few weeks will be to figure out what exactly this means in terms of content, and quality. I suspect it will mean higher quality pieces (e.g., no more short posts containing only snarky links for your perusal). And, in terms of content, I suspect that the blog will cover a narrower range of topics, in effort to become more topic-specific. Or at least more topic-specific. But for you the reader, this simply means what it always means. Stay tuned.

And, regardless of which direction the blog takes, let not your hearts be troubled. Lolcats of the Week are here to stay. Your blogger loves you.

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August 21, 2011

Tucson's Newest Cyclist

Gwyn s Bike

Years ago my wife Gwyn lived in an Amish commune where all forms of modern transportation were shunned. Alas, she never learned to ride a bicycle.

I kid, I kid. Gwyn isn't Amish.

But it is true that for various reasons (viz. reasons I do not know) my Dear Wife never learned how to ride a bike as a kid.

After making a post on Twitter about our bike lessons last week, I was surprised to hear from various friends and readers that first-time, adult cycling is not an isolated phenomenon. Turns out, there are quite a few folks who have never learned to ride two-wheelers as kids. Growing up in Oklahoma, I just took it for granted that every child knew how to ride a bike. It was the quickest way to get to the mailbox from Grandma's. It was the quickest way to get to school from Mom's. And bikes were much easier for a ten year-old to drive than the Gator, although the Gator was driven plenty when it came for fishing. Suffice it to say, life on the farm was markedly different than life in metro-area, Tucson, and times have changed mightily.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, I tried to help Gwyn learn to ride a bike, using my trusty steed. But the tires on my road bike were way too narrow for a new rider to learn on. She did a fine job of balancing, but when it came time to peddle, she ended up losing control, getting frustrated with a bike she simply wasn't prepared to ride. To her credit, she never wrecked the bike, which is more than I can say for myself, and in fact, she didn't even take a tumble. But after a few hours in the drive way, it was clear that a road bike was not a good way to begin learning how to ride.

Over the weekend, we decided that the best way for her to learn to ride would be to buy her a bike that was better suited to her comfort level. We considered three criteria in shopping for a new bike: 1) A bike with wide tires to make for easier balancing, 2) One that allowed for the rider to ride upright rather than bent over, and 3) A bike that was not so expensive that she would be afraid to wreck it in the event of a fall. For the record, the last point was made more out of practicality than a sense of fatalism of Gwyn's biking ability. One's wallet cries a lot less when wrecking a cheap Schwinn, than when one wrecks a Novara Verita Bike - at least my wallet does.

Given that our main concern was cost, our bike shopping took us to Wal-Mart where we happened upon the ladies' Schwinn Admiral above. The bike boasts seven speeds, front and rear breaks, SRAM grip shifters, Shimano rear derailleurs, a bike rack, and a solid, steel frame. The bike seemed like a smart purchase, but what really sold her on this bike was its aesthetics - as you can see in the photo, it has a certifiably cool, retro look, coupled with extreme comfort while riding. Add to this a $149 price tag, and it was an easy purchase decision to make.

Gwyn will still need a lot of practice before she takes to the bike lanes along Skyline and Sunrise. But the change between a bike that was appropriate for her experience level, as opposed to my road bike, was remarkable. The last time we practiced riding, we spent at least two hours just learning how to balance on my road bike.  But within 15 minutes of getting the new bike adjusted, Gwyn had already mastered balancing on the bike, pushing off with her dominant foot, and pedaling unaided down the driveway. Before we called it an evening, she even felt comfortable making slow, 360 degrees turns!

Needless to say, I was quite proud of her.

I think there were probably two lessons that we took from the two bike-learning experiences.

First, a little patience goes a long way. This is an obvious lesson, but people have innately different senses of balance and caution. What works for one may not work for another, and this was difficult for me to remember. I just assumed that since it was easy for me to take up road biking, my wife would take to it as well. Really, what she needed was a bike that was better suited to her experience level.

Walk before you run, as they say.

Second, for adults learning to ride a bike, do yourself a favor and find a bike that you feel comfortable riding. Don't ride a bike simply because it's available. In terms of fit, Gwyn fell in love with her Schwinn hybrid because it allowed her to put both feet on the ground with ease. She also liked the comfy seat, and wide handle bars. At the end of the day, she loves her bike because it makes her feel comfortable to ride. And that's the point really: if it isn't fun, and it isn't comfortable, don't ride it. There are plenty of bikes available that can meet your needs.

Today we conquered the driveway. Tomorrow we might very well try the bike path. After that, who knows? Maybe one day we'll conquer the world.

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August 17, 2011

My Beta Fish Died Today

Empty Fish Tank

Our beta fish, Maestro, died this afternoon.

He fell ill early last weekend. He started acting strangely, floating on his side during the day, lying down on his side during the night. Soon his behavior became much more erratic. Without warning, he would sprint to the top of his tank for air, and allow himself to sink slowly back down to the bottom. After these fits of swimming, Maestro invariably came to rest on the smooth river rocks that lined the base of his tank. I like to think the cold stones gave him comfort.

When his illness began, my first instinct was to change his water, and this seemed to help. He showed a little sign of improvement, swimming around the tank, rather than swimming on his side. All seemed well for a day or two.

But last night the same symptoms came back. This morning I found him resting on the cool rocks again, his gills weakly breathing. Food held no interest to him. I can't imagine fish having overly complex minds. But it seemed like our little friend had simply lost the will to live.

This afternoon, I checked on him knowing the end was near. I found him in his favorite corner of the tank. He was already gone. But he looked at peace.

Maestro's tank sits empty now, beneath the windows in our living room. It's strange that a fish so small, could bring our lives such joy.

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August 11, 2011

Little Pricks

Little Pricks

The piece I wrote earlier in the week about Ben Stein and the economic meltdown has weighed on my mind lately. It isn't a newsflash, but today's headlines abundantly suggest that we live in an era of unprecedented economic uncertainty, and global unrest.

Rioters in London burned their own homes in protest of UK budget cuts.

Wall Street twists in the economic winds - soaring on the smallest glimmer of economic hope, crashing with the least bit of turbulence.

Earlier in the week, naysayers warned of a Post-American planet, drearily musing whether we had already spent ourselves into oblivion.

Meanwhile, others have taken a fancy to questioning the value of higher education, as if society would be helped by the masses remaining uneducated, helpfully observing that most Americans are wasting money on anything more than a high school diploma (special reference made to law students).

In fact, people have become so fed up with bad news that nearly 200,000 people cancelled their cable TV subscriptions in the last quarter alone.

Not even President Obama gets a break. The latest poll numbers, bless his heart, show Generic Republican besting President Obama 47% to 42%. And just a couple of days ago his vacation home on Martha's Vineyard burned down (not really, but it did catch fire).

Make of the above what you will, but it seems fair to say that times are tough.

As the adage goes, desperate times call for desperate measures, so it seemed only appropriate to draw some words of wisdom from the Bible - just in case. Serendipitously, the writings of an old friend from high school (published on Facebook, no less), turned my weary eye to the fifth chapter of St. Paul's letter to the Romans.

Paul writes:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Romans 5.1

I won't say the winds instantly calmed when I read the verse above. But something like that happened. I looked outside of the kitchen window, and saw our cactus sitting on the porch, warming in the sun, its tiny pricks of yellow gingerly reaching toward skies of blue. It occurred to me, that the world economy could crash this afternoon, and my cactus couldn't care any less. So long as my wife provides it the occasional drink of water, it will thrive regardless of the calamities besetting the kingdoms of men.

I can't help but think the cactus has it right. The little prick. At risk of being over broad, the verse above strikes me as the simplest statement of Christianity ever written. At its core, the message is a compact one of assurance, written to all those twisting in the winds of the stock market, written to all those questioning whether their education is worth the price, and written to all those forced to watch Netflix Streaming because they cancelled their Cable TV package.

The message is that faith in Christ yields peace with God. Nothing more. Nothing less.

The other stirring aspect of the short verse is that it is without qualification. It does not assure peace only to stockbrokers. It does not assure peace if only we make the appropriate spending cuts accompanied by corresponding 'revenue increases.' The point is plain. Those justified by faith have peace with God. Period.

Now, Stein's article questions the premise of our calamitous world entirely. "Meltdown? What meltdown?" he would say. While it's fair to question the origins of the situation, it's also disingenuous to deny the phenomenon altogether. As my wife and I wait for student loans to come in, the reality of hard times is clear to us. We see similar concern among our circle of friends - mostly young professionals, and students, or some combination of the two.

By contrast, Paul more or less takes the same approach to reality as my cactus Paul says, embrace reality. Sometimes life sucks, but come what may, those justified by faith have peace with God. It will be ok.

And if that conclusion is good enough for my cactus, well, it's good enough for me.

 

 

PS: I realize the many jokes I could have made when I titled this post 'little pricks.' Most lawyers, Tiger Woods, and Ron Paul all come to mind. But gentle readers, I can only hope that my effort at more reflective commentary will compensate for lone cheap laugh I tried to get.

UPDATE: Ben Stein adds some more thoughts in today's (8/12/2011) essay on the 'meltdown,' and reaches somewhat similar conclusions to those I reached yesterday:

6. The speculators do not have all power. There is only One who has all power and I live by His rules, not by the rules of fear and panic peddled by some cable TV systems.

So, I can keep some perspective and go on with my life after all.

And I can look out on this magnificent mountain lake and think how it must laugh at stock markets and the affairs of men.

[Link]

Stein's lake laughs at the affairs of men, much like my little cactus laughed when I picked it up.

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August 3, 2011

My First Bike Wreck

Lesson Learned

It was inevitable. My coordination and dexterity levels are somewhere around those of the African Bush Elephant.

Today, while riding down Tucson's Ft. Lowell Road, near the intersection of Ft. Lowell and Dodge, I hit a rough patch of pavement that sent me head over handlbars, off my bike. Fortunately for me, the asphalt broke my fall.

When I got up, the first thing I did was look around to see if anyone saw me. I'm not sure why I do this every time I fall. It's not as if I have any more dignity to preserve at that point. Alas, this spill must have been particularly nasty since a local businessman came out of his shop to check on me. Fortunately, only my pride was seriously hurt at the time. I'd give the man's business a plug, but I was too dazed to notice where he came from except that it was out of one of the shops.

Once I had gathered my bearings, and feebly called my wife for a lift and first aid, I took a quick look at the scourge that caused my spill. Turns out, there's a 15 yard stretch of bike lane, eastbound along Ft. Lowell Road that makes the infrastructure of entire third-world countries seem desirable. Unfortunately, while I was humming along about 20mph, I didn't see the massive hole until it was too late.

Photo Aug 03 12 15 42 PM  HDR

In truth, the fall could have been much worse than it was. The bike lane at that point isn't very wide, so a speeding car in the outside lane would have been a real problem for me. But the reality is that I escaped with only a swollen wrist, and a couple of gashes from the fall.

My bike came out of the incident relatively unscathed as well. The only battle wounds that resulted were scrapes on my left Shimano Shifter.

I suppose if there's a moral to this story, it's that the City of Tucson still has work to do to make its cycling infrastructure both convenient and safe. I suppose if I had broken my wrist I would be less forgiving, but as they say in basketball, "no harm, no foul." The problem with this view, of course, is that the next bike rider who comes along and wrecks in the same spot may not be so lucky.

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July 28, 2011

Before and After Workout Exhibit

The website My Modern Met showcased an interesting art exhibit earlier this week by French photog Sacha Goldberger.

One half of the layout shows pictures of joggers that have just completed a brisk workout. The second half of the layout shows the same joggers in professional attire, posing in the same light, and manner as they had the week before.

According to Goldberger, the photos are intended:

"To show the difference between our natural and brute side versus how we represent ourselves to society," Goldberger tells us. "The difference was very surprising."

[Link]

Here's an example of Goldberger's work, courtesy of My Modern Met.

Joggingseries3

Goldberger's premise isn't terribly insightful. Everyone presents an image of self to the world around us. But the exhibit is dramatic in that it underscores just how highly constructed the image we present to society actually is. Think about how much of our day is spent maintaining the image we wish to present.

Your morning shower. A, hopefully, daily ritual to evince good hygiene, and keep one's bodily odors at bay. Why? So that you and your co-workers can co-exist in relative, cubical harmony.

The clothes you wear. As one fashion blog put it, the entire fashion industry exists for the sole purpose of producing 'wearable art.' I kid you not. They really said that. By this logic, you choose to wear clothes that make an artistic statement about you to the rest of the world. My t-shirt and jeans, for example, probably say to the rest of the world, "I hate you."

The car you drive. Chevy struck advertising gold in the early 2000s in its effort to persuade Americans that you are what you drive. While trying to hawk its massive, and over-priced Silverado pick-up trucks, Chevy cleverly implemented the tagline "Like a rock." Alas, this would be the last clever thing Chevy ever did.

The point of the "like a rock" campaign was that "you may be a bit soft about the gut, but by God if you drive a Chevy you're just like a rock all the same." According to the Wall Street Journal, the "like a rock" campaign was so successful among middle-age men, Chevy just might bring it back. The point, of course, is that the vehicle you drive says something about you to society.

For example, one good friend, who shall remain nameless, drives a Kia Spectra circa. 2004. His choice of car says to society, "Please, don't hit me. But if you must hit me, I have lots of insurance." Yes, my good friend is an attorney. My own, battered Chevy Colorado says, "I decided to start law school in the desert west before the economy tanked, and moved here from a major city where I didn't need a car. This is all I could afford."

The accessories you carry to work. Being but a lowly student, I don't have a real job per se. But since I am a student, I've given considerable thought to the kind of backpack I carry. I think my Timbuk 2 bag tells society, "I could be a hipster, in a real city." And once society believes what the bag tells them, it says, "I kid, I kid! The limeade racing stripe was supposed to let you in on the joke."

Etc.

I suppose I've quite belabored the point by now. But the exhibit really is interesting in that it underscores how nearly the entirety of our waking existence is spent shrouding the image on the left in the trappings of the image on the right. Naturally, this doesn't address the real question.

Exactly why do we care so much about what other people think of us?

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July 27, 2011

Best Political Use of a Country Music Song

The typically all-business, conservative website Hot Air threw me a bit of a curveball as I perused yesterday's headlines.

In a nondescript article, mulling the Presidential aspirations of Gov. Rick Perry and his, admittedly impressive, record of job creation in Texas, Hot Air titled its piece:

Why All Your Exes May Live in Texas

[Link]

The urbane and sophisticated among us would probably miss the reference - as might anyone who did not feverishly listen to country music during the middle 1980s. Being neither urbane, nor sophisticated, it just so happens that yours truly did in fact grow up during the middle 1980s, feverishly listening to country music - or as I like to call it, the music of angels.

Purely for your edification, I can say with conviction that the headline above is a riff on the Billboard No. 1 Country Music song from 1987, All My Ex's Live in Texas, performed by none other than country music legend, George Strait.

Given Hot Air's readership, I might very well be the only person in these United States to recognize the schtick. Regardless, well played Ed Morrissey. Well played.

Of course, it's not nearly as clever as the UPN sitcom Eve, which ran a 2004 episode in season two titled, All My Exes Havin Sexes. We all have our betters, I suppose.

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July 13, 2011

Bike Ride Along the Rillito River

I suppose in a perfect world, a river bike path, would run along side an actual river with water in it. But this is Tucson, and things are seldom perfect in the desert. Truth is, calling our Rillito River a "river" is a bit misleading. In reality, it's a dry sandbar where a perennial river once flowed.

By way of introduction, history, and hydrological erudition, centuries of groundwater pumping, coupled with a population explosion in the last decade, all but drained the water table of Tucson's alluvial plain, leaving the rivers in the area dry.

Oops.

Even though the river long ago ran dry, the City of Tucson nonetheless opted to invest heavily in the river's infrastructure, creating a bike path that has expanded to more or less to run the entire length of the Rillito River within the Tucson City Limits - making lemonade out of lemons if you will.

To state matters simply, Tucson's basic approach is that if you can't have a bike path along a real river, well, why not have a nice bike path all the same? And that's more or less what the City has accomplished with the Rillito River Park.

My route along the path begins where I would normally take Mountain Avenue to head south toward the U of A campus. But instead of heading south, I continue eastward toward Craycroft Road. You can see the entire route here - I'll spare you the embedded video as an act of good faith.

I've posted pictures of where I catch the River Path before. But the photo below shows an unexpected problem I've had in bike riding the past few weeks. We are entering the rainy season here in the Sonoran Desert, and the annual monsoon rains usually arrive in the late afternoon, and early evenings. This makes riding to my wife, who gets off work at 4:30pm, a bit tricky.

Photo Jul 12 4 03 38 PM  HDR

Anyway, after catching the River path, rather than taking the bike and pedestrian bridge toward Mountain Ave., my journey yesterday went eastward for about six miles.

Photo Jul 12 4 05 25 PM  HDR

On balance, the path is made of extremely high-quality, rubberized asphalt. This makes the ride remarkably smooth, and allows riders to enjoy the quite of the desert. And, in truth, this is how the path runs for the vast majority of its length.

Photo Jul 12 4 13 05 PM  HDR

If there is one portion of the River Path that deserves a word of criticism, it's where the path swings away from the river, as it nears Dodge Boulevard. You'll notice in the photo below, the only marker for two-wheelers is a faded, green bike box, and a minuscule sign alerting motorists to a bike crossing. It's not exactly an encouraging investment in bicycle safety.

I'm sure money is an issue in developing this portion of the path. When is money ever not an issue? But it would make a lot of sense, both in terms of liability lawsuits and infrastructure costs, just to continue the path eastward, underneath Dodge Boulevard. The City does this at Campbell Ave, Alvernon Way, and Swan Ave. Taking the path underneath Dodge too, would insulate it from city traffic entirely, allowing the route to be even more family/bicycle/pedestrian friendly.

On the off chance a City of Tucson acolyte stumbles across this post, consider this paragraph a formal Planning and Development request. You can name it the "Pax Plena, Rillito River Family/Bike/Pedestrian Underpass." No royalties necesary.

Photo Jul 12 4 20 51 PM  HDR

Shortly after Dodge, but before Swan, the path descends into the riverbed itself. Most of the path runs along the erstwhile bank of the river, so riding in the actual riverbed is an interesting experience. It's a bit like taking a trek through the wilderness, armed with knowledge that the wilderness has a fixed end point in less than a mile. Photo Jul 12 4 22 50 PM  HDR

Once the path descends, portions of the route, roughly 75 yards or so, look like this.

Photo Jul 12 4 27 21 PM  HDR

To state the obvious, the road is almost entirely covered with silt, carried along by the annual monsoons rains that create a sporadic water flow in the river during the summer months. Even this section of the route really isn't that bad. My road bike navigated this part of the path just fine, but it can look deceptively treacherous on the first bike ride or two.

Soon, the path climbs out of the riverbed, as you approach Craycroft. I was excited to see some storm clouds in the distance.

Photo Jul 12 4 28 28 PM  HDR

Shortly, my excitement waned, as the clouds darkened, making me regret that I had both left my rain slicker at home, and that I didn't spring for tire fenders on my trusty steed. Naturally, I didn't like my odds in a race against the weather. Photo Jul 12 4 32 10 PM My fears were unfounded though. My wife works at Tucson Medical Center, and by the time I pulled up from the River Path at Craycroft, there was an inexplicable break in the clouds. Photo Jul 12 4 39 36 PM I sidled up to my favorite bench, just as the wife got off of work, and picked me up. Photo Jul 12 4 40 24 PM  HDR

In all, the River Bike Path struck me as an excellent way for new riders to get used to riding in the city. It's not a very taxing route spare a couple of steep, paved inclines.

Lest anyone be fooled, not all of Tucson's streets, are as accommodating as the River Path. But what makes it good for new riders is that it's a nice, mostly safe way to get used to biking in general without having to worry about the odd motorist and their temperament on any given day. It also boasts some great views of the city.

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July 4, 2011

Why I Love America

American flagA prominent Native American law blog I follow posted a tongue-in-cheek message to Americans celebrating the Fourth of July. The headline declared:

Happy Fourth from the Merciless Indian Savages

[Link]

For the confused, the headlined referenced a brief passage from the Declaration of Independence, listing the offenses of King George III. The excerpt appears in full below:

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

It's true that the United States has had a violent relationship with American Indians. From an abject policy of destruction and relocation hailing from the early years of the Jackson Administration, to a policy of systemic termination of tribal governments, I suppose if any group in America has a grievance against the government we celebrate today, it would be my people, the Native Americans.

The point is not to measure effronteries, but I can understand the purpose in the making the statement. The simple fact is that America is neither a perfect angel, nor an evil villain as the social extremes would suggest.

The best description we can give America is that we are a wonderful, complicated, dysfunctional family.

Think about our family tree. We have Bible-beating aunts from the midwest. We have uncles that drink too much from the south. We have mothers and fathers who don't speak to each other anymore (but refuse to divorce for tax reasons) in the northeast. And we have lazy cousins who would rather be professional students than get a real job from the west.

But even the most dysfunctional of families has to come together every now and again.

So, we have an annual probate meeting to discuss the estate of our late Uncle Sam. Each family sends its delegates to the meeting down in Washington, D.C. where they take in the sights, and pretend to be very busy. Being a family meeting, however, you can imagine how little they actually get done. In fact, they spend most of their time yelling at each other, drinking, and having the odd sex scandal. The end result is the occasional bastard child, and the need for years of therapy.

But sometimes we really do come together, and get important, things, done. This doesn't happen often, but it does happen on occasion. And when it does happen, we're a stronger family for it. That is until the next time Uncle John gets drunk watching Nascar, and mocks Cousin James for his vegan lifestyle in San Francisco. Then we have a family World War III and Grandma and Grandpa have to step in and settle things down.

And that's why I love America really. We behave just like a family, only on a bigger scale. And even while we may loathe our cousins for being self-righteous, at the end of the day, we would miss them if they weren't around anymore.

America's greatness isn't the moral high-ground we sometimes claim. And our weakness isn't that we drive trucks instead of hybrids. America's greatness is that we manage, somehow, to get along. Mostly.

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July 2, 2011

Remembering Hemingway: Fifty Years Later

ErnestHemingwayFifty years ago today, legendary author Ernest Hemingway committed suicide in a quiet, central-Idaho hamlet. The incident marked an all but perfunctory end to a most remarkable life.

Hemingway's memoirs from Paris, for example, published posthumously in 1964, present tales of a poor, American ex-pat living in the City of Light, calling upon historical luminaries such as Gertrude Stein (p.11), Sylvia Beach (p.35), and F. Scott Fitzgerald (p.179).

Assuming elbow rubbing with people of consequence is not enough to actually make one interesting, Hemingway also fought in both world wars, fished for Marlin in the Caribbean, and hunted grizzly bear in Wyoming. He famously survived one plane crash, three divorces, and still managed to produce seven novels during his lifetime.

Suffice it to say, Hemingway's life was enough to make the Dos Equis man look passé. Stay thirsty my friends.

But the most compelling thing about Hemingway's memories of Paris, and indeed of his writing generally, was his ability to recount the mundane. At the end of A Movable Feast, Hemingway paid a final tribute to his favorite city. What follows is the final paragraph of the book in full:

There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it. But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy. (p.211)

To observe the anniversary of Hemingway's death, Wired.com ran a piece by author Marty Beckerman, exploring what Hemingway would think of our digital age.

Unsurprisingly, Beckerman's take is that Hemingway would not think much of the world we've created.

Today, many of us have become rich in the currency of cowardice. We have so many things and so few experiences. We are desperate to live as long as possible, not as large as possible. We are so afraid to say goodbye to the world that we never say hello.

We are numbed in our high-def, Wi-Fi cocoons, eager for materialistic possessions — the newest, fastest, shiniest gadgets — instead of a fitting end to a life well-lived. If Papa hadn’t killed himself out of despair in 1961, he would kill himself out of disgust today.

[Link]

The article is intentionally jarring, and outlandishly funny. But it's also true.

Whether due to our technological prowess, or our penchant for comfort, mankind as a lot really isn't as interesting as our forbearers. Beckerman mocks our affinity for Twitter, and Facebook, but it's a sad fact that much of my day is spent checking both sites and wondering who is doing the same of mine.

Beckerman's solution is to power down the gadgets and get back to the serious business of life - such as stalking prey across the Serengeti, and having real affairs as opposed to digital ones (here's looking at you Anthony Weiner).

Aside from the affairs, I'm not sure Beckerman is all that off in his prescription. Life is worth living because of the experiences we create. Given its brevity, there really isn't anything to be gained by playing it safe at every turn.

And so, in honor of a man who truly lived, here's a broad bit of encouragement: do it your way.

Ask your crush to coffee. Go for the job with the corner office. Finish the novel. Go back to school. Take the vacation you've been planning. Email your long-lost friend. Adopt a Pit Bull. Spring for the nice bottle of Scotch.

And, above all, never, ever drink cheap wine.

Hemingway wouldn't have it any other way.

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June 29, 2011

Song of the Week: Free the Toronto Nine

This latest song of the week is an unusual one, brought to you courtesy of the Sylvan Street jazz band, titled Free the Toronto Nine.

The song is unusual in that I really don't know much about the Sylvan Street jazz band, and I honestly have no idea who the Toronto Nine are much less any idea as to why they need to be freed. I suppose the title could be a vague reference to the nine people who attended the Toronto Blue Jays' last home game, in which case all nine need to be set free, indeed.

Obscure titles aside (is there really any other kind of title for the songs found in jazz albums), I'll be damned if the music video of the song doesn't make Tucson seem like a pretty hip place to live. The vid was shot in a number of locations around town, and does a striking job of making Tucson seem like, well, a real city.

Enjoy!

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May 25, 2011

Song of the Week: Bella Notte

I'm only a bit embarrassed to select the following as my song of the week. Taken from Disney's Lady and the Tramp, and reincarnated this week by the mighty Fox Network's Glee, our song of the week underscores the inner sappiness of yours truly.

Bella Notte first graced audiences ears in the 1955 animated classic Lady and the Tramp. The nostalgic among us may recall the music and the scene where Lady and the Tramp share their first kiss over spaghetti.

Immediately, the music and the image became iconic, setting unrealistic romantic expectations for generations.

Despite, it's rather famous provenance, the song has not enjoyed great commercial success. A part of the song's history is a protracted legal battle in which recording artist Peggy Lee sued Disney over the rights to the song when it began marketing VHS cassettes in the late 80s. It's really a shame. A cover of the song by Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra would have been amazing.

As if to make up for is scant performance history, the song made an appearance recently on the hit show Glee as a part of the series season finale set in New York, New York. The scene in the program tries to capture a similar romantic vignette between the punctilious Rachel Berry and former star quarterback, now glee club member Finn Hudson. For those who care, Rollingstone has a summary of the episode here.

I've only seen two episodes of Glee, but the cast's performance of the song was just terrific. The music is romantic just as a New York evening should be, while the lyrics typify a forthright ode to enchantment itself. Sung by a men's quartet, everything from the harmony to the tempo is perfect about this song. When the performance concluded, I had cold chills. It's just that stunning.

I've embedded the Glee performance of the song below. A music only version can be found here, and here. Lyrics follow after the jump. Enjoy!

Bella Notte
As performed by the Cast of Glee

Oh, this is the night
It's a beautiful night
And we call it bella notte

Look at the skies
They have stars in their eyes 
On this lovely bella notte

Side by side with your loved one
You'll find enchantment here

The night will weave it's magic spell
When the one you love is near

Oh this is the night and heavens are right 
On this lovely bella notte

This is the night
It's a beautiful night
And they call it bella notte

Look at the skies
They have stars in their eyes 
On this lovely belle notte

Side by side with your loved one
You'll find enchantment here

The night will weave it's magic spell
When the one you love is near

Oh this is the night and heavens are right 
On this lovely bella notte

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May 23, 2011

First Bike Ride in Tucson

I just completed my first spin around Tucson on the new bike. Seeing as it's a balmy 93 degrees today with a chance of rain, one might rightly question the wisdom of such a trip.

Most of my morning was spent fighting with the u-lock mount on the Kryptonite lock I bought. Once this was completed, I did battle with the bike computer I picked up to track my stats. The remainder of my morning was spent selecting a route and praying I didn't have a flat.

Interestingly, the challenging part of the route was the straightaway a long Mountain Avenue. For those not from Tucson, the street is a fairly wide boulevard with a huge bike lane on either side. It's also incredibly flat so there was a lot of opportunity for me to build my calf and hamstring muscles, pedaling for some 3.5 miles.

Seeing as the most active thing I've done in months is play Call of Duty, I was naturally pretty exhausted by the time I reached the Student Union.

Tory s Bike Route

I didn't have the courage to snap photos along the route, but I did capture a few stills of my stats once I sat down here in the Student Union.They'll be laughable to anyone who is an experienced rider. But given that it was my first ride in Tucson, and given that I had no idea where I was going, it didn't turn out too bad.

I'm alive at any rate. All's well that ends well.The trip took only about twice as long as it would have by car. Door to door, the whole it took me 53 minutes, this presumably includes having to stop twice along the way to consult Google Maps.

Photo May 23 1 21 48 PM My top speed was 19.4 miles per hours. I achieved this feat as I descended a one of the many scary hills in between Skyline and River Road. Only a couple of hills were scary. Mostly, the foothill neighborhoods were just confusing. I may need to rethink this leg of the trip.

Photo May 23 1 25 27 PM The route covered some 8.9 miles from my front door to the bike racks outside the Union. Photo May 23 1 22 13 PM In all, not a bad afternoon. I plan to get some research done now, before making the trek north. I enjoyed the bike's simple functionality, and the fact that I can take a very purposefully trip on it within the time frame it would normally take me otherwise.

The hard part, of course, will be the trip home, which is basically all up hill...

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May 18, 2011

Why I Chose to Cycle

After many weeks of hemming and hawing, I finally decided to take the plunge and give commuting by bicycle a shot.

The move is purely pragmatic, so let not your hearts be troubled. I won't be buying organic or driving a hybrid anytime soon. Neither action will save the planet anyway.

Photo May 18 2 36 33 PM

So Why Cycle?

With gasoline, nigh, $4 per gallon, and but a lone pick up truck between me and the wife, cycling seemed like a reasonably inexpensive alternative form of transportation. Whether this proves true is a separate matter. More on this later.

I realize that I'm not alone in this regard. According to USA Today, bike sales are booming across the country, while even the fattest, and laziest among us succumb to the evil that is big oil.

Interestingly, this sales spike translates into only a modest increase in actual cycling. But at least we haven't gone the way of the Brits. One in six of their poor, little prats can't ride a bicycle at all. God bless America.

A second reason I wanted to give cycling the old college try is a matter of simple exercise. After spending the past few weeks on exams, and traveling, it's safe to say I could stand to "get back in shape" - which is really just a polite way of saying that I need to lose some weight.

The problem is that I'm generally not fond of exercise. While I am a thumb warrior on Call of Duty (5th prestige!), my L.A. Fitness membership has gone unused since about November. Being the reasonable chap that I am, I figured if I can incorporate exercise/fitness into my routine, then I might be less inclined to hate it. Enter cycling, and my seven mile commute.

UA Bike Path

Last, I am curious to see what all the fuss is about. Tucson has dropped a considerable chunk of change on its bicycle infrastructure. But, as Andy Clarke, President of the League of American Bicyclists noted, much of this is used by lycra-clad cyclists, sporting $3,000 bikes. And poor students. Given that my own foray is somewhat by choice (like my lycra-clad friends), and somewhat of necessity (like my colleagues at the U of A), I'm curious to see how friendly Tucson, and its drivers are to cyclists who ride for commuting purposes rather than recreation.

To be sure, I realize the severe weaknesses of this plan.

For starters, this is the hottest time of the year to begin two-wheeling around town. In fact, I have it on good authority that there are coals in hell next to the Devil himself (or herself) that are cooler than Tucson is during July.

Second, I've never done this before. Given that local cyclists have annual "Rides of Silence" for cyclists who have been killed by cars, maybe Tucson isn't the safest place to learn how to commute by bicycle.

Last, I'm not sure that cycling is actually a less expensive way to get around town. At least not so far.

But life is what happens while you're doing something else, and the benefits seem to out weight the costs, so away we go.

My Bike

Readers may recall that I had a lengthy dilemma in deciding whether to bike at all (see here, and here), and ultimately a separate dilemma regarding what bike to buy (see here).

I wanted something that looked vintage and minimalist, that could navigate the hilly terrain near my house, that could handle a 7+ mile commute - all on the budget of a poor graduate student.

After visits to local bike shops, and BICAS, I discovered that the nice bikes were out of my price range, while the rebuilt bikes did not meet my terrain and distance needs.

Brief aside, this is really quite a good argument for some entrepreneur to open up a used bike shop, selling refurbished, reasonably priced bikes. I'm not sure I'm that person. But for those looking to make money, the idea is yours, gratis.

Super Pawn

In the end, I'm a bit embarrassed to say that my journey took me to Cash America's Super Pawn Shop where a source from BICAS told me that they had road bikes for sale at half-off.

The pawn shop seemed a bit sketchy. But, being the cheap bastard that I am, even this did not subsume my desire to find a bargain.

And, sure enough, I found my bike nestled among a throng of bicycles outside the shop, all marked at half-off. For the curious, they also sell gold!

My steed ended up being a 2009 Schwinn Fastback with Shimano derailleurs and brakes, and a super light, aluminum frame. It cost me all of $67 thanks to the good folks at Super Pawn. The bike normally retails for $432.08 on Amazon, and $499.99 on Ebay, meaning I saved either $365.08 or $432.99 - but who's counting.

Schwinn Fastback 2009

What makes me question the cost effectiveness of cycling, however, is the money I spent getting my bike road-ready.

I should say from the outset, that I am not complaining about the actual prices. I took my bike immediately from the pawn shop to There and Back Bicycles to let owner Steve Vihel take a shot at fixing it up. Steve did a great job, and charged eminently reasonable prices for all of his services. But the bike just needed lots of fixing up.

The biggest cost was an Velo Orange Saddle, made of Australian cowhide, with a chrome-plated rail finish. The saddle, its attendant care products, seat cover, seat leash, and the brown bar wrap I bought for the handlebars to match the saddle ran $125.96.

Saddle model 1 1This was, absolutely, not a necessity. While I settled for a newer road bike, I still wanted something that looked somewhat like a classic, vintage bike. As you can see from the living room photo at the top, I think it turned out quite well.

The total cost for a mechanical tune-up, and bike maintenance, ended up being less than $200 - and this included the cost of a new tire, tune-up, new cables, new tubes, housing, installation, and labor. I also had two, additional final expenses for a Kryptonite Kryptolok Mini U Lock, and a 7ft Sunlite Cable. After all, it would be a shame to have my bike stolen after all of Steve's effort.

My complaint about the cost effectiveness is really about the upfront cost that I had to spend on the bike. The initial purchase was $67, but with the saddle and maintenance factored in, the entire bike ended up costing some $366.99. In sum, my quibble is that the maintenance costs, and upgrades I made were 5x's the price that I originally paid for the bike.

But, even this expenditure was less than what I would have paid retail for a brand new Schwinn on Amazon, and a new bike wouldn't be nearly so cool. Although, I still need to buy a helmet, a mini air pump, extra tubes in case of a flat, and lights.

Summary

I'm still pressed to finish my exams, having left in the middle of them to return to Oklahoma and be with my sister last week. So, I hope to take the bike for a proper spin over the weekend - once I acquire a helmet, lights, etc.

Right now, I'm a little disappointed in the upfront costs associated with cycling. I was elated to spend $67 on the bike. I was less than elated at spending five times that amount to get it road-ready. Maybe I will earn back my investment over time?

Mostly, I am excited to see what it's like to commute around Tucson. I've spent the past few years mocking cyclists, and the past few weeks trying to learn basic traffic rules for bikes. It's been quite the turn around.

I guess I see this going two ways. I'll either love it - for all of the reasons people love bikes. Or I'll hate it - for all the reasons people hate bikes. I understand this isn't terribly insightful. But it does reflect that commuters are rarely ambivalent about sharing the road bicycles.

I assume this will be a running category of posts, so stay tuned for updates!

 

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Organic, free-range thought courtesy of your average, coffee-addicted, American Indian, academic. Program Manager @IGPatUA.


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