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Monday, January 31, 2005

Life Plan

I’ll be the first to admit that in a lot of what I write I come off as a sanctimonious prick. When I write about lifestyle issues like public transportation, population density, urban sprawl, and city versus suburbs I say some things that a lot of people don’t want to hear. I don’t write to offend people—at least not on any sort of personal level. I write about these issues for a number of reasons.

First of all I feel that there is almost no criticism in our society for the suburban city model that has been adopted almost exclusively across the entire country. I write about these issues because I don’t see anyone else addressing the concerns of urban planning. From what I see of suburban America, planning has been entirely ceded to the big franchise businesses that span the continent and have turned our country into one large, homogenous strip mall. We are supposed to find this homogeneity comforting but for me it has the exact opposite effect. I find the sameness of suburbia extremely disorienting. I have a hard time finding my bearings and I can’t tell if I’m in Seattle or Miami when I am standing in a strip mall.

I write about these lifestyle issues because I think they are the most important issues we face as humans. Love, and hope, and sex, and dreams are all surviving on the street as the song goes, but we often don’t have a lot of control over those variables. We can control how we build our cities. Where and how we live is one of the single biggest influences on our pursuit of happiness or whatever you want to call it.

When I write about my simple urban style of living, a lifestyle barely influenced by the automobile, a model based on population density where walking is actually easier than driving a car, I do it not because I am trying to be smug or superior, I do it because I think that many Americans don’t even know that this sort of living arrangement is possible. This lifestyle certainly isn’t for everyone but it could be a better way to live for a lot more Americans if they only considered it. It is important to me as a writer to get people to consider city living with all of its advantages.

City planning is much too important an issue simply to be left up to those who are only interested in how to best facilitate commerce. There are many other factors in deciding optimal living quarters than square footage. I think that a lot of people would make the sacrifice of living in a small apartment if they realized that they are in close proximity to scores of shared public spaces. A lot of people would reconsider owning an automobile if they absolutely didn’t need one to make it through their day.

So many Americans adhere to the belief that suburban life is calmer and more tranquil than city living. That may or may not be true at times but certainly not when you are driving in suburbia. Driving in downtown Seattle you can’t even go fast enough to get into a serious accident. With suburban sprawl you have much greater distances to travel and so speed becomes a necessity. With increased speed there is increased danger.

One of the many concepts that I have learned from the brilliant Canadian political philosopher, John Ralston Saul, is the importance of common sense in relating to the problems of the modern world. A ten year old child could look at a city plan of suburban sprawl, of countless mini-malls that are almost completely devoid of public spaces and determine that it has huge flaws, yet we continue to construct American cities using this model almost exclusively. At the same time we completely ignore existing city models that are efficient and provide a vastly superior quality of life than suburbia.

I repeat that I am not trying to be smug about a mode of living that I have adopted. I feel that a dense urban environment is much more sustainable for the future. Can the American dream still be represented by a huge house miles away from businesses? What is wrong with a city model in which there are several hundred apartments above a host of businesses? I will use as an example a building on 1rst Avenue in Seattle a few blocks from where I live. On this one square city block there are two pizza parlors, an Italian restaurant, a fine-dining restaurant, a Thai place, a coffee shop, a sushi joint, a dress shop, a grocery store, a sandwich shop, and a great bakery and breakfast place. I may be missing a couple of businesses. The few hundred people who live in the building could have a great weekend of going out without walking off their block let alone getting in their cars. Where is the down side to that model?

On the other hand, is the suburban lifestyle plan sustainable? We haven’t even been making the obvious choice of demanding more fuel-efficient cars that would make the suburban model a little more viable. In Jared Diamond’s recent book, Collapse, he tells the story of how the Norse settlement in Greenland met its demise after four hundred years because they failed to learn how to survive in their harsh environment, how they refused to learn from their Inuit neighbors. I am not a scientist but common sense tells me that 18 lane highways and 10 cylinder trucks are not wise lifestyle choices for a shrinking planet. We need to learn from the successful urban models that surround us and abandon those plans that are destined for failure. Common sese tells us that the sooner the better.

Friday, January 28, 2005

More on Bikes

There really are just two kinds of people in the world. There are bike people and people who aren’t bike people. If you don’t already know I am among the former. I just can’t figure out how you non-bike people do it. How do you get around? Do you walk? Do you drive everywhere? Tell me how you do it. I really want to know.

Outside of this particular coffee shop there are only three bikes roped up to the hitching post but I can see well over 30 people inside. I suppose everyone could have walked here from their offices; there are dozens within one or two blocks. Everyone could have walked but I doubt if they would have bothered to make the two block detour to go past the inner-city dog park of 3rd and Battery—or the dog zoo as I call it. Today a huge Saint Bernard was horsing around with a Jack Russell Terrier. I never pass up a chance to go look at the dogs.

Driving downtown is all but unthinkable as parking is always a problem. The buses are a good way to get around and they are free in the downtown area of Seattle—inside the free-ride zone as it is called. Walking is a good way to get around but I’m not much of a walker. Walking is a little too slow for me. I can get more exercise on my bike by riding fast. I’m definitely not much of a runner and running as transportation gets you too worked up. I can ride 30 mph and then coast for a block to cool down and barely break a sweat.

I wouldn’t give you $100 for all three bikes leaning against the bike rack outside. Mine is about a ten year old Canondale I bought for $150 a couple years ago. I purposely bought a crappy bike to lower the theft threat. I would never dream of riding my racing bike around town for transportation. That would be like using a thoroughbred to plow a field.

The best thing about bikes is that they are a fucking blast. I never get on my bike without having some fun. I think it is one aspect of childhood play that I have never relinquished as I grew into adulthood. Besides the great fitness benefits of cycling I think that the recreation aspect of riding has kept me youthful in outlook. I rarely get hassled by cops no matter how lawlessly I pedal around Seattle, and the meter maids have no jurisdiction over my life. And did I mention that it’s fun?

Monday, January 24, 2005

Music Recital

As badly as I play the piano I’m pretty sure that it’s a lot better than not playing at all. I have been trying to get back into music after months of having a living arrangement with my piano like a bad marriage. I would barely acknowledge the massive carcass taking up the middle of my apartment.
“Would it kill you lose some weight? You’re always in the way.”
“Shut up. You don’t own me.”
Which is true because I rent my piano.

I decide finally to bridge the gap so I sit down at the piano and make my way through a familiar piece. It doesn’t sound too bad so I keep playing. It doesn’t take me too long to sound bad but I keep plowing through my old repertoire. It kills me that I once spent so much time learning a Mozart sonata only to lose it through laziness and neglect. It doesn’t take much time to bring a particular piece back into the fold. I would imagine that good musicians make their way through their entire song book every chance they get.

The biggest challenge for me in learning the piano is keeping it fun and interesting. I easily get bored if I hammer away at the same pieces over and over. It also helps to play with other people which I do only occasionally. I love having people over and taking turns plinking out tunes on the piano. This was the reason I began playing piano; I was looking to have a direct relationship with music instead of settling for a passive role as simply a listener. I wanted something more than the virtual nature of recorded music.

Ever since I began playing the piano some years ago I developed an immediate appreciation for musicians. When I hear someone play a song about all I can think about is how much time and effort they must have spent to master their instrument to such a degree that they can play through a piece faultlessly.

I played a bit of a song I am working on over the phone for a friend of mine the other day and she thought that it was lovely. Imagine that, something I played was enjoyed by another person. I vow to polish enough of the things that I play so that I can play them in front of other people without completely embarrassing myself.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Cars as Litter

One aspect of automobile use that we never consider is their negative impact on the aesthetics of our downtown streets. By allowing parking on both sides of city streets you have effectively eliminated 12-16 feet of the street that could be used for bike lanes, bigger sidewalks, or perhaps a row of trees. Instead of these pedestrian-friendly measures we simply have a place to rest the dormant carcasses of our personal transportation devices.

Look at a city street and try to imagine how it would be improved by the removal of the parked cars lining both sides. Safety would be improved by allowing drivers to better view how they must interact with pedestrians on the street. Without parked cars you can see how the street was meant to look. In this day and age of bigger and bigger vehicles, quite often the street is completely obscured by the barrier wall of idle SUV’s, some of which are almost seven feet high.

Of course I realize that it isn’t feasible to eliminate all parking from city streets; I just think that it is about time we start thinking more about the full costs involved with our almost total reliance on cars. By allowing parking on every street we are encouraging citizens to drive over other forms of transport like mass transit.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Design Flaws

If you are interested in learning about urban design I would suggest that you drive out to the suburbs. I had to run an errand somewhere north of Seattle and the experience has left me practically traumatized. Once outside of the city center, population density lowers dramatically, and with this there is a corresponding increase in the distances between destinations. With the increase in distance there is a greater need for speed to cover those extra miles. Businesses and homes rarely interconnect and most people cannot perform any practical matters on foot or bicycle. For that they need their cars. Mass transit is practically nonexistent.

Standing in a parking lot overlooking a sea of franchise establishments it is impossible to tell if you are in a suburb of Seattle or one belonging to any other moderately-sized American city. Strip mall design is concerned only with the exigencies of the automobile. Even the thousands of acres of free parking in the suburbs do not promote a very inviting pedestrian landscape. Rather than walk from one side of a strip mall to the other, your best and safest bet is to get in you car and drive there.

You certainly couldn’t walk from one strip mall to another; there are no sidewalks. The areas of landscaped trees and grass that separate the shopping centers—put there to promote a false bucolic veneer to the congested four-lane roadways--only serve to create even more distance and thus more driving.

As someone who doesn’t drive often I immediately sense the hostility of the motorists. Because I drive so little I don’t take this intense driving environment for granted. I am keenly aware of the dangers. While driving around a huge cloverleaf interchange I was calculating the number of accidents that must occur in this short section of highway.

What I thought about the most in my brief foray into suburbia was this: How do people who live in this automobile-dominated environment connect with one another? People spend an awful lot of time locked inside their vehicles going from store to store. There don’t seem to be any public areas that aren’t completely dedicated to commerce. The food court at the mall is about the only response to this basic human desire for community. You cannot hope to create a drive-thru community no matter how convenient that may seem.

The most popular areas of Seattle have become popular because the influence of the automobile has been eliminated or minimalized. Pedestrians will gravitate to areas where they don’t have to compete with cars. The main attractions to areas like the Seattle Center, Pike Place Market, Westlake, and Green Lake Park is the absence, or limited nature of automobile traffic.

Cars crowd out much of our lives. For the past fifty years we have accepted this as inevitable, as progress, as the price we must pay for individual mobility. A short drive through suburbia shows that we no longer have any regard for the needs of pedestrians when designing new commercial areas. We have relinquished the planning of our suburban landscape to fast food emporiums and discount retailers.

In the wake of a recent motorcycle fatality on the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle there have been renewed protests to lower the speed limit along that urban thoroughfare. This fetish for speed is what is driving the architecture of suburbia. The exclusive use of automobiles for transportation is costing us dearly in many ways.

What I have written today will undoubtedly come across as superior or condescending to some offended parties. This is not my intention. I feel that most of America trapped in harsh suburban landscapes ruled by cars simply don’t know that there is a better way to build cities. If you have never experienced the joys of wide open public areas relatively safe from automobile traffic you won’t be inclined to demand it in your own city.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

My First Song on the Piano


In the fall of 1977 the U.S. government sent two ships, Voyager 1 & 2, into space where they’re eventually destined to reach the edge of our galaxy. In the hope that someone, somewhere would intercept these craft, a variety of messages were placed on board that would be capable of communicating the existence of an intelligent creature living on a planet called earth. Among these was included a short prelude by Johann Sebastian Bach as performed by Glenn Gould.

Voyagers 1 & 2 left our solar system in 1987 and 1989.

--from 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Rich and Famous? Here's Your Prize

I was at the gym today for the a.m. sweat-fest. The aerobics machines face two TV's, right and left. TV left was blaring some show concerning tonight's Grammy Awards gala and had the attention of quite a few of the gym rats. I went over to TV right, turned it to the Spanish network, and turned the volume way up. To my joy, and I'm not making this up--I couldn't make this up, you can look it up--there was a talk show in progress about Mexican midget wrestlers.

I had a magazine to read, so I wasn't going to watch the tube, but I like to fight fire with fire--and then some. "Somebody comes at you with a knife; you come at them with a gun. Somebody comes at you with N’SYNC; you come at them with a guy in a mask and cape who's three and a half feet tall." I defy anyone in the aerobics room to low-ball me on this bit of pop culture. This show makes today's Jerry Springer episode--which I passed on the way up the dial--So You Want to Be a Porn Star, look like public television.

I have never understood the idea of award celebrations, the most obnoxious being the Academy and the Grammy awards. These people are already more famous and have more money than the average wage-slave could even dream about, yet we insist on paying attention while they give each other prizes. Someone also needs to explain to me the whole concept of best this or best that. What are we talking about here, a 4-H livestock show? I understand sales figures. If you want to give Titanic an award for making the most money, that's cool with me, but why does anyone have to say it's the best movie?

Don't get me wrong, I understand why they give out these awards: it's about sales. These awards help sell more CD's and movie tickets. The thing is, we don't need to pay attention to their self-satisfying glorification. Instead of the awards show you could watch Mexican midget wrestling. You could read a book. I am freaked out to be part of a culture in which DVD rentals are booming and libraries are closing. Is there such a thing as a post-literate culture? I fucking hope not.

Celebrities have taken the place of the gods in the classical Greek era. They are exempt from decay (at least as much as modern plastic surgery affords), they have more power, and they are just plain better than non-famous mortals. We are practically overwhelmed with gratitude for what they have done for us.

The status that celebrities hold in our culture would have turned the pre-revolutionary monarchs green with envy. They have wealth that would have made Louis XIV blush, they are above any sort of criticism, and they have been excused from any sort of responsibility--monarchs at least had to run their countries and occasionally got called out on their bad behavior.

People worship celebrities for the same reason they eat at McDonald's. They don't go to McDonalds because the food is good; they go because it is easy. Everything about it is easy. People can sleepwalk through fast food. They don't have to leave their cars, if they so choose. They can order entire meals that have been reduced to a number. You don't even need a knife or fork. What could be simpler? Why is the fact of simply being easy such an appealing concept for the TV audience? Because they are lazy. Once in a while fast food is not such a bad thing; I think most people would agree that a steady diet is suicide.

People also worship celebrities because it is easy. Like a happy meal, corporate America has marketed their product of celebrities in very convenient and easy-to-understand packages. These packages are remarkably free of ideas and completely devoid of real controversy. They may dress up the rock-star-du-jour in a tawdry get-up but that's about it. I challenge anyone to name anything in our pop culture for the masses that in any way questions the status quo. Hypnotize them with tits as you rob them blind.

It is right at about this time in the discussion when someone says to me, "I just want to be entertained." I have always thought that was an odd statement when put in this context. As if everyone spends their entire waking lives in deep thought from which they need respite. As if anything that would prompt them to think couldn't possibly be entertaining and anything entertaining is, by definition, mindless. 'I just want to be entertained' should replace E Pluribus Unum as our national motto.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Canons and Fastballs

I have taken the past week off from my life while my 12 year old nephew visits me from Chicago. He comes every summer and it is wonderful to see how he is growing up. He will always tell me something that absolutely cracks me up--although he is being completely earnest. When I first asked him at the airport how he was doing he answered, “Being 12 years old isn’t half-bad.” Having a 12 year old kid around isn’t half-bad either.

Having a kid around is a good excuse for a pseudo-intellectual like me to catch the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Had I seen the film with another adult I’m sure I wouldn’t have been the least bit amused. Watching the film with my nephew helped me to see the humor for the audience it was intended to reach. We both laughed uproariously at the juvenile sight gags.

I live across the street from the Seattle Center which is a sort of a low-rent Disneyland. As the Eiffel Tower has its Ferris wheel, so does the Space Needle. Along with the carousel and the Ferris wheel, there is a video game house. This place looks and sounds exactly like a casino for kids and my nephew has a video game addiction worse than any Las Vegas burn-out. He can stretch out a couple of bucks longer than the most frugal grandmother playing nickel slots.

Like all good parents do, I left him to his devices as I sat outside finishing my book, A Piano Shop on the Left Bank, by Thad Carhart. Piano Shop is the story of a guy who discovers an old piano store in his Paris neighborhood and then rediscovers his love of the instrument. Some people are self-taught on the piano but most of us mere mortals need teachers. Being a parent and being a teacher seem to be similar vocations.

I have a piano in the middle of my apartment so naturally my nephew has taken to it. He plays the viola but has never really been introduced to the keyboard. I have been teaching him to play Pachelbel’s Canon in D major. This piece wasn’t originally written for the keyboard so you are able to play it at any level of difficulty as long as you remain in D major. This piece can also be played by two people, which is pretty fun. I had never played piano for four hands.

I am surprised that he hasn’t been taught this piece; it is a staple of music education. Perhaps his music instructor is simply sick of teaching it year after year. One of my piano instructors told me that if she had to teach Für Elise one more time she would quit. I’m not much of a pianist myself so it was nice that I was able to teach him something new.

From the rudiments of Pachelbel’s Canon my nephew has learned to improvise in that key. Pretty simple stuff but something I never knew at his age. A little bit of instruction goes a long way on the piano. He takes to the piano instantly. He will sit and pluck away at the keyboard until I find some other means to occupy his time.

As I was at his age, my nephew is fairly obsessed with baseball. He gave me a stack of Seattle Mariners baseball cards as a gift the last time he visited. I use them for book markers. I rarely play baseball myself but I remain fairly obsessed with the game. I got him an instructional baseball that has markings to help you throw a fastball, a curve, and a slider. I haven’t thrown a ball around much lately and I was afraid my arm would fall off, but it felt pretty good. It felt really good. I felt like a kid.

We threw the ball back and forth for at least two hours, trying out our fastballs and curves. These days I doubt if my fastball would strike out many 12 year olds. I would probably have a harder time hitting my nephew’s pitches than the other way around. I would never tell him that because I wouldn’t want to diminish his unrealistically high opinion of his uncle.

I never played organized baseball growing up. We had enough kids in our neighborhood so that we could always get a pick-up game going in no time flat. No adults needed, none welcomed. We never really learned how to play the game very well, although I think we gained a lot by simply improvising in the right key. It certainly doesn’t hurt kids to learn things from their elders. In this case I think that we both learned more from an instructional baseball.

I’m not used to having a child in the house. I’m not used to providing a constant source of entertainment to a child. I probably had more fun throwing the ball around and playing piano four hands than my nephew. Tonight I’m taking him to see the Seattle Mariners play the Detroit Tigers. I hope the Mariners win. It will make the kid happy.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Cyclist's Diary

Looking at Queen Anne hill from the bottom while riding a bike you realize you are about to get a review of the harsh laws of gravity. After you reach the summit—and I chose that word very carefully—you get some idea of what it may feel like to have a heart attack. I ride up this hill all the time. It is included in every one of my training rides, so I am very familiar with every inch of this hill. When I make it to the top and ride along the mercifully flat Highland Avenue I am gasping for air—every time. Not once have I made it to the top and said to myself, “That wasn’t so bad today.” It’s always bad.

I coast two blocks down Highland Avenue until I come upon Kerry Park. It isn’t much of a park; it is more like a little shelf built into the hillside. If you have ever seen a photograph of the Seattle skyline, it was probably taken from Kerry Park. As a matter of fact, if you have ever been to Kerry Park I’m sure that you have seen at least three photographers taking more pictures of the city.

I hit the drinking fountain in the park, as I don’t carry nearly enough water on my bike. I look over my shoulder at the skyscrapers and Mount Rainier and continue along Highland. A few blocks west of Kerry Park is another small park, this one looks out across the marina at Elliot Bay to the Olympic Mountains. My bike rides are an embarrassment of riches as far as scenic views go. Automobiles drive slowly along this street and are outnumbered by dogs and their walkers by a ratio of about five to one.

I fly down the back side of Queen Anne hill practically burning my brakes before racing across to the next big hill on my ride. There are two ways to climb Magnolia hill: the direct approach is to ride up the ridiculously steep Dravus Avenue. Just when you think you have reached the top there is a cruel dog-leg in the road hiding an even steeper section. Instead of Dravus I choose the scenic route along Magnolia Boulevard. It is sort of a rollercoaster ride but none of the sections are nearly as steep as pedaling straight up Dravus.

There is a small park along Magnolia Boulevard which almost always contains a tour bus or two. I wonder how many tourists have taken pictures of me riding up the final the hill in front of the park. They probably look at their photos and wonder why I look so miserable. I know why. It's gravity. Gravity can really suck some times.

From here I corkscrew up through a residential neighborhood that leads me to the gate of Discovery Park. The bucolic setting of historic military housing and an abandoned chapel give Discovery Park the look of a rural village in the middle of the city. Discovery Park also seems to be the biggest secret in Seattle because there are never more than a handful of people wandering around the miles of trails and abandoned roads inside the park.

From here my route will change depending on how much time I have or the mood I’m in (my mood is often dictated by how much time I have). Sometimes I will cross the boat locks over to Ballard. Bike riding isn’t permitted on the locks which means I have to take off my cleated shoes and walk barefoot for a few hundred yards, dodging the scores of tourists lined up to watch as small boats and tall ships are raised and lowered to move them from Lake Union into the Puget Sound, or vice versa.

I end my rides around Seattle by toiling up the back of Queen Anne hill next to Seattle Pacific University. 3rd Avenue West isn’t the steepest hill in town but it always seems extremely long. Although only a mile long, I guess that it seems longer to me because it comes at the end of my ride. I eventually make it to the top and accelerate through the little village at the top of Queen Anne and race across to the other side where I find myself again at Kerry Park.

I love to sit in the park at dusk on a summer evening at the end of my ride when all I have to do is coast down the hill to my apartment. The light is best at this time of day and the park fills up like a movie theater before a grand opening. My heart rate begins to lower to a non life-threatening level as the sun falls between the peaks of the Olympics covered in snow. No matter how many times I have ridden this exact route I feel lucky, like someone seeing it all for the first time. If I’m lucky I’ll get to ride it again tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Running Out the Clock

The grand metaphor of staring blankly into a computer screen desperately waiting for inspiration while the battery slowly dies is not lost on me. A little less clear to me is any metaphor related to simply deleting everything that I began to write earlier because it was complete crap. Then there are things that simply are what they are, like maybe I need something to eat and more coffee. Getting a bagel definitely beats contemplating my fleeting existence and death, the stark metaphor of the battery. The less time I spend thinking about that subject the better, and if I had just brought along a power cord I wouldn’t have thought of it at all.

I still have 40% of my battery left, plenty of time to write a really good essay. At 40% battery life I’m still a young man, a spring chicken, strong like bull. I still can piss away some time looking through the newspaper or bullshitting with the employees here at the coffee shop. At this stage of the game I still feel like I’m going to live forever. I’m king of the world!

Where does the time go? I just lost 5% more of my battery just in that last paragraph which I freely admit was pretty weak, but I wrote that in my youth and we are all allowed a few youthful transgressions. There comes a point in life when it’s time to put the nose to the grindstone and get to work. I’ve always been a slow starter, ask anyone who knows me. Most people who know me will say that they are still waiting for me to start. To my critics I must point out the parable of the tortoise and the hare…or was it the ant and the grasshopper? Anyway, there was some story or other by Aesop that spelled out in fairly clear terms that it is perfectly acceptable—perhaps even preferable—to fuck off pretty much right up to the end of your battery’s life and then finish in a grand flourish, making all of those who have plodded along assiduously from the start look like total idiots.

I’m down to 29% and I just ordered a bagel. Not eating will kill me faster than old age but I do have to choke it down fast and get back to work. No problem, I work better on a deadline anyway. There is no need to panic at this stage. Kurt Vonnegut is still writing novels and he has a lot less than 29% of his battery remaining. No one has ever written anything worth reading while they were panicking as anyone who has studied the literature of distress signals can tell you. About all you get out of panic victims is a lot of pleading and requests to tell their loved ones how much they will miss them—not exactly page-turners. No, it takes a calm, cool head to write great literature. Try to have a little dignity.

That reminds me of a funny thing a friend of mine once said about dignity which went on to be our entire philosophy of military service. My friend said that after he got out of the military he needed a job that would help him to regain his dignity. He figured that giving out free blow jobs to bums at the bus station would be a good start and a vast improvement over the lack of dignity inherent in military life.

Holy shit! I got a light flashing on the panel of my laptop. This could be the end, people. There is so much I wanted to do but I fucked around staring out the window watching a crow eat a cigarette butt instead of buckling down and writing something that will give me a little bit of immortality. Speaking of immortality, I haven’t even saved this yet. What the hell was I thinking back when I had 40% of my battery? Isn’t there anything anyone can do? I would give my left arm to have another 20% of my battery back. 6% remaining, it’s all over, folks.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Talking Myself Out of Time Travel

I have always been fascinated with the age of the great sailing ships. Everyone probably fantasizes about time travel to one historic destination or another. Combining these two ideas I have decided that I would like to go back in time to be a pirate. I have ordered the time machine from the movie Napoleon Dynamite so expect a report from me on that trip sometime soon.

Perhaps I haven’t thought about this enough. Perhaps I shouldn’t just slap on the time machine apparatus and take off to pirate days. Perhaps I haven’t thought of the downside of being a buccaneer. Until now all I have considered was the upside, and it’s a pretty good upside. I’ll list the pros and cons of the life of a pirate and then maybe I can come to a more informed decision.

On the up side you have rape, pillage, and plunder—or the big three as they say in pirate circles. Rape, pillage, and plunder are what get pirates out of bed in the morning. First of all, it isn’t rape. That’s just what the port wives tell their British Naval officer husbands. To the pirates they just scream out “Please…don’t…stop” with extremely ambiguous connotations. Most non-pirates don’t even know the difference between pillage and plunder. What idiots! Pillage is stealing anything that isn’t nailed down, and plunder is the rest.

Pirates rarely bother themselves with plunder—too much like work. Plunder requires tools, but with pillage all you need is a wheel barrow to haul it away. Being a pirate is pretty much a cash industry so who needs anything nailed down? What is a pirate going to do, steal a gazebo? I would personally forgo the plunder and just burn anything I don’t pillage.

To a lot of people, getting to talk like a pirate would be a big incentive, but I personally can’t stand their vernacular. I mean, “avast,” what the hell is that? That’s not even a word. Talk normal! On my ship we’d speak proper English, and so help me, if I heard one fucking “Arrrh” I’d toss the offender over the side. They wouldn’t even get the dignity of walking the plank, just “one, two, three…heave.” I may even shoot them before they hit the water. My father taught English, so work with me on this one people.

There are some drawbacks to the life. Scurvy is a big one. I won’t kid you about scurvy, scurvy sucks. If you are looking to find a bright side to scurvy you’re in for a long wait. There is also a lot of talk about hanging pirates from a yardarm. I don’t know what the fuck a yardarm is but I can only imagine that hanging from one isn’t pleasant. I’m starting to talk myself out of this little fantasy.

One the other hand, pirates got to wear cool clothes. I’m super-conservative in the way I dress now so it probably won’t suit me to dress in pirate garb. For one thing, I don’t accessorize, I don’t even like to wear a watch, so earrings and gold medallions are out of the question. At 5’ 9’ I feel that I am too short to get away with wearing a hat and I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a bandana on my head. I suppose that it is all about confidence and the way you carry yourself but I don’t think I could pull off dressing like a pirate. I would just feel like one of the Village People if the Village People had a pirate.

So unless there is a pirate ship without syphilis or scurvy, where everyone talks like English graduate students and dresses in dorky Kenneth Cole department store clothes, I’m probably better off with the boring life I have now.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Walking, Biking, and Driving: Part 1

I have 128,827 miles on my car as of today. It’s been about a week since I drove last which means I haven’t driven this year. I plan to document every trip I take in my car this year, every one. That isn’t likely to be a lot of trips. I once drove an entire year without exceeding the miles necessary to go over the recommended mileage for a single oil change. I’m sure that over the course of a year a lot of people use their jet skis more than I use my car. I find driving tedious and stressful.

For the most part I see our roads as rivers of death and destruction that pedestrians must cross at their peril. Even the sidewalks of our cities are cluttered with the requirements of the automobile. Parking notices, traffic signs, and parking meters crowd the already crowded walkways. Bike paths are few or nonexistent. We have one bike path in down town Seattle on 2nd Avenue which is a one way going south. To get back up north you’re on your own.

Since the advent of the automobile our cities have been built to cater to the needs of that particular inanimate object. All you ever here about is traffic flow. People flow, that’s something that is rarely discussed. We just left the century of the automobile and if we learned one thing it should be that we need another solution to personal transportation.

In 2003, the last year for which statistics were available, 38,252 Americans died in automobile related accidents and 1,925,000 people were injured. That’s like a September 11th tragedy every month of the year yet we rarely hear a public outcry against the tens of thousands of deaths caused by automobiles. We seem to think that 38,252 deaths is simply part of the transportation model we have created and that is that.

Not only do I not drive very often, when I do drive it is not in a very intense driving environment. I either drive around town where speeds rarely go above 40 mph or I drive on uncongested highways. When I do find myself driving on a crowded freeway all I can do is wonder about how people are able to do it every day. On some stretches of highway drivers are probably in graver peril than our soldiers in Iraq.

Although I must admit that I have a morbid fear of dying in an automobile accident, my main concern is the advantages of a pedestrian lifestyle. Cars take us out of contact with other humans. The other day I was in my car waiting for a family to vacate a parking spot near my apartment. The husband and wife seemed self-conscious of how slowly they were strapping down their two kids in the car seats before they could allow me my spot. I wanted to assure them that I was in no hurry, but trapped inside my steel box all I could do was smile and nod my head like an idiot.

Drivers don’t have many options for interacting with anyone else outside of their vehicle. Their communication with others is limited to honking the horn or giving someone the finger. On foot or on my bike I have the freedom to talk to other pedestrians. I can compliment the ugly pug the old woman in my neighborhood takes for a walk every evening. I can give directions to a lost tourist. In my neighborhood I often find myself explaining the intricacies of the parking situation to visitors to the Seattle Center.

There are alternatives to the way we now build cities. I came across a Dutch concept the other day that I would like to introduce to anyone who hasn’t heard of it. Woonerf translates as “living street” and refers to an urban design in which cars and pedestrians cohabit the same streets. There are no traffic signs or posted speed limits, drivers simply understand that they must share the road with pedestrians, and even children playing in the streets. Drivers voluntarily lower their speeds to around 15 kph.

These are in strictly residential areas but I have also written about the Parisian “quartiers tranquilles” which are entire neighborhoods that have excluded all but essential automobile traffic. These tranquil zones are now bustling shopping districts that have become major attractions for local residents, other Parisians, and tourists like me.

In the coming year I will think a lot more about personal transportation and how this relates to lifestyle. Most Americans don’t think much about transportation beyond what kind of car they will buy. For most Americans the automobile is their sole source of transportation. I think it’s time we all start, at the very least, to think of alternatives.


How about walking? Talk about a cheap solution. There are about a million ways to encourage people to walk more. Something as simple as a crosswalk may sound like a stupid thing to write about, unless you live in an urban environment and a crosswalk serves to calm drivers and reassure pedestrians. At an intersection in my neighborhood planters filled with flowers choke the traffic lanes slightly, make the crosswalk more visible over parked cars, as well as make the street look more like a place where pedestrians are welcomed—not a bad return on a couple hundred dollar investment.

Only on the internet can you get from here, to here, to this article in Wired.

How to Build a Better Intersection:
Chaos = Cooperation

1. Remove signs: The architecture of the road - not signs and signals - dictates traffic flow.
2. Install art: The height of the fountain indicates how congested the intersection is.
3. Share the spotlight: Lights illuminate not only the roadbed, but also the pedestrian areas.
4. Do it in the road: Cafés extend to the edge of the street, further emphasizing the idea of shared space.
5. See eye to eye: Right-of-way is negotiated by human interaction, rather than commonly ignored signs.
6. Eliminate curbs: Instead of a raised curb, sidewalks are denoted by texture and color.

Difficulties with Girls

Mohammed Bouyeri, the 26 year old assassin of Dutch filmmaker, Theo van Gough, was a supposedly integrated, Dutch-born son of Moroccan parents. He had done fairly well in school and appeared to be on his way to living a life like any other citizen of the Netherlands, one of the world’s most liberal and progressive countries. Instead Bouyeri chose a life of religious fanaticism, hatred, and murder.

It is interesting to me that he chose as the target of his hatred a man who had focused on the hatred of women in Islamic culture. Theo van Gough was gunned down and had his throat slashed by this lunatic because of a film van Gough had recently aired on Dutch TV called Submission, an 11 minute short describing the violence directed at Muslim women by their culture, and often their own families.

If I had to take a guess as to why Mohammed Bouyeri snapped and went from an up-and-coming member of Dutch society to a murderous religious fanatic, I would have to say that he did it because he wasn’t getting laid. I’d bet the farm that somewhere in Bouyeri’s recent past he was jilted by a young Dutch girl because of his medieval attitudes about the role of women in society.

Dutch women are about the most beautiful women I have ever seen. Instead of revising his primitive thoughts about women and making a go at courting another Dutch beauty, Bouyeri chose the opposite path. He chose the route of the Islamic extremist; he chose to accelerate his misogynistic views which he posted on militant websites. If Mohammed Bouyeri had enough charm to get laid, perhaps Theo van Gough would still be living, and Bouyeri would be a lot happier himself instead of being the murderous shit bag that he is.

The September 11th terrorists were reported to have spent time in strip clubs in the U.S. before they carried out their horrible deed--a deed they felt to have religious connotations. I’m an atheist but I fail to see how going to a strip club prepares you for a religious act.

When some people say that the Islamic extremists hate our freedom they are partially correct. I think what they hate is our freedom to have sex when we choose, with whomever we choose. I doubt that any of the September 11th terrorists ever had sex with an American woman without perhaps paying for it. Men who can only have interaction with prostitutes must surely hate women. If any of the terrorists had an American girlfriend he would have surely called in sick the day he was supposed to fly an airliner into a building. Women will do crazy shit like that to a guy.

Lack of pussy makes dudes crazy--Muslim or otherwise. If you have ever been to Israel you know that Israeli women are gorgeous. I’ve heard that they are fairly promiscuous. I didn’t get lucky when I visited Israel but I certainly tried. I only spent a week there and I moved around a lot. I don’t blame myself and I certainly don’t blame Israeli women. Palestinian men, on the other hand, are in close proximity to scantily-clad Israeli women all the time and they never get lucky. That would drive me nuts except I wouldn’t get violent about it. I would buy some new clothes or start up a boy band in an effort to make myself more attractive to Israeli beauties.

Look closely at any picture of Palestinian demonstrations and all you see are dudes. The same goes for Iranian, Iraqi, or any other political demonstrations in the region—no girls allowed (and none welcome).

I’m not one to give out answers; I’m more interested in asking the right questions first. The question in the Theo van Gough case is why would a native-born Dutch child of Muslim heritage commit a murderous act of religious hatred? Could it have had something to do with difficulties with girls?