Old boot, re-boot

December 25, 2021 Comments Off on Old boot, re-boot

Today I turned 58. It was cold when I awoke, and the mountaintops were dipped in a frosting of fog. I breathed in the sharp air, feeling alive and alert and old. Very old. I thought about all the things that were, which now are not.

On this birthday, our birthday, I’m going to take my old life back to Target and return it for one that’s a cuter color in the right size. I’ve been working up the courage to approach the returns counter since July 9, 2020, when I pedaled my bike out of LA in search of the life that we all have inside if only we can suppress the fear long enough to take the first terrifying step.

Because you can’t start anything until you quit.

When I was a kid I quit smoking dope and started trying to look at what really was instead of Dr. Seuss.

I quit being a slave to alcohol when I was fifty, and started unraveling, started seeing that booze was just another fake Instagram filter to pretty up the gray skin and erase the coffee stains.

I quit guitar, piano, flute, harmonica, chorus, baseball, basketball, academic excellence, following orders, reading the instructions, believing in a higher power, shaving, bathing (mostly), haircuts, shopping, and marriage. I quit trying to pass algebra with Mrs. Morcom. I quit Amazon, hustling for blog subscriptions, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, LinkedIn, Strava, and reading the news. I started to understand that there is no news, nothing new under the sun, cf. Ecclesiastes 1:9, all is vanity. This means me. This means you.

I quit believing in my dad. And when he died I started seeing my own end and my own beginning plainly, without drama or sadness or regret.

I quit Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, the Violet Crown Sports Association, Peloton Racing, Cynergy, Big Orange, Ironfly, and would have quit SPY if they hadn’t quit me first. I quit road racing, cyclocross racing, track racing, group rides, bib shorts, cycling shoes, helmets, Garmins, turbo-trainers, tubulars, e-Tap, racing frames, cycling “nutrition,” mass start events, and following the Tour. I quit embro and would have quit chamois cream if I’d ever used it. I quit people whose lives are their social media accounts. I quit Belgian waffles. I quit buying clown suits. I quit cycling and started riding a bicycle.

I quit every job I ever had except my current one. I quit naughty underwear sales at Sharpstown Mall, door-to-door greeting card sales, Grit, Christmas candles, selling newspapers with Michael Dell at the Houston Post, lawn mowing, phone interviewing, sacking, oyster shucking, driving a bread delivery truck, dishwashing, working at a ski resort, moving pianos, Internet marketing, English teaching, business consulting, web designing, nature trail developing, designing sustainable tourism projects in small communities, interning in Germany and Japan, clerking, flipping burgers, simultaneous interpreting, publishing a journal on Japanese law, managing a losing political campaign, and writing stories for a mesothelioma web site. I started seeing that capitalism is the problem, and that I’m a capitalist.

I quit driving and owning cars, I quit asking forgiveness, trying to make things right, stirring the pot, throwing parties, abusing other people, being a bully, trying to make the world a better place, putting my money towards social justice, giving a voice to the silenced, fighting for justice, working for free, calling bullshit, ridiculing the ridiculous, and shining a light up the rear end of bad behavior. I quit publicly praising the crappy work of people I know and started privately praising what nature has already written in trees, rivers, animal tracks, boulders, and birdsong.

I quit grandstanding. Championing causes. Owning more than three pairs of underwear and four pairs of socks. I quit wearing sunscreen and bug repellent. I quit trying to be cool, quit hitting on women, quit misogyny, quit lying to others, quit lying to myself. Okay, maybe I didn’t quit lying to others. No one does. But I started believing what I have always known: The universe is random and uncaring, period.

I quit believing in karma and the innate goodness of people, quit hoping that love would win out, quit trying to talk to people about how each of us has a carbon footprint and unless we make it tiny our posterity will be left with nothing. I quit trying to not only make a difference, but to be the difference. I quit trying to be part of lives that don’t want anything to do with mine. I started walking by myself in all things and enjoying the company, and I started to cry from the heart.

I quit fake friendships and real ones. Quit giving to receive and then being sad when all I got was a bad case of raw ass. Quit inviting people to come visit a place they don’t want to see. I quit reaching out and started reaching in.

I quit Russian, Slovak, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, French, German, Indonesian, Greek, Korean, and Italian. I quit trying to talk to strange people in strange tongues and started talking to myself in my own vernacular, like every other crazy guy living under a bridge.

I quit angering. I quit birdwatching, college chemistry, high school chemistry, college zoology, logic, symbolic logic, and hard work. I quit conforming to them and started conforming to me.

I quit gossiping and listening to it, and started listening to sunrises, sunsets, and starry, starry nights.

I quit surfing, snow skiing, water skiing, snowshoeing, car enthusiasm-ing, debating, caring about politics, believing that you could be rich and somehow pass through the eye of a needle, photography, baking, vague acquaintanceships, unhappy relationships and as importantly, being the toxin in the relationships of others. And in a profound sense with regard to most people and things, though not all, I quit loving. When I relinquished that, I started to grasp the significance of all the things I’d given up or that had given up on me.

And that meant grasping the importance of the one thing I’ve never quit, one-and-a-half things if you include memorizing Chaucer. I never quit writing, which brings this pretty verse to mind:

They would not listen, they’re not listening still

Perhaps they never will.

“Vincent” by Don McLean

The fakery of the tortured artist trope

It has always seemed to me that artistic greatness is tied to great personal struggle at a minimum, and madness at its zenith. Zigzagging along as a writer I’ve always found my idiosyncrasies, mental struggles, penchant for drink, and my rich palette of other problems as a validation of artistic self-worth: You may not be great yet, Seth, but you are crazy as a shithouse rat, so there’s hope! And speaking of crazy …

I don’t know very much about Vincent Van Gogh, but I do know the song about him by Don McLean. My parents used to play it when I was a kid; I thought the title was “Starry, Starry Night” and had no idea that it was about a tortured artist and a singer’s homage to him.

Painting was not a big thing in my childhood for which the art world owes my parents thanks. My grandmother had a portrait of some family relative on the wall, one of those bad paintings that your cousin did of Auntie Melba and gave it to you, so you hung it in the living room. I looked at that painting a lot, a haggard old woman with a fur cap and a goofy earflap, reminding me that ancestors are rarely pretty. But her odd face and the odd background always made me gaze at it. Granny never said who the woman was and I was too embarrassed to ask. What if it was her mom or grandmom?

After listening to “American Pie” the other day I did a search for “Starry, Starry Night” and came up with “Vincent,” the actual name of the song. It was far more beautiful and sad and melodic than I’d ever remembered it, and 15M YouTube viewers seemed to agree; Mclean performed it at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, even. If you don’t know the song you should give it a listen. It speaks to the tortured artist trying to be heard, to be understood, and the dark hopelessness of being crazy. I actually cried when I listened to it. Poor Vincent. Poor world. Poor me.

Then I buried myself in a couple of hours’ worth of Internet reading about Van Gogh. Wow. Talk about rough sledding. Talk about being inspired by mental illness. Talk about being misunderstood, or better yet, not being understood at all. Talk about dying young and in obscurity. Talk about … talk.

A few days later I came across an extremely famous pop music critic I’d never heard of, Robert Christgau. He has been writing nastily about pop music since the 70’s, first for the Village Voice, then mostly for himself. He’s considered the Dean of Rock and has reviewed virtually every record that ever came out. “Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash” by the Pogues? Yep. And countless others.

For the most part his reviews are withering. Like all good critics, he loathes his subject matter first, and the artists second. Even in praise he manages to revile. But as he points out, he knows what he likes, he listens to music 16-18 hours a day, and many people use him as a guide for what to buy as all critics should be used, not because they agree with him but because his ghastly taste teaches through opposition. I checked out his reviews of Hendrix and Peter Frampton and was shocked that anyone could detest such obviously bad music. Christgau really does hate pretty much everything that the rest of the world likes, but inconsistently. A rock connoisseur who hates “Frampton Comes Alive” and loves “Rumours” has issues.

Then I checked his review for “American Pie.” It was scathing. And at the end it made a snide remark about that most beautiful of songs, “Vincent.” Per Christgau, buy the album if “you’re in the market for a song about how nobody understood Van Gogh.” That was it. Dismissive and dismissed.

At first I got mad, like someone whose dog has been called ugly. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered. Was this anthem to the tortured artist simply junk? Did this nasty critic have some insight that I and the rest of the Internet had missed?

So I began reading about the tortured artist, the person possessed by the muse to the point of madness. I thought about my brother, a fine poet, who was not only tortured by mental illness but who was also dead due to a self-inflicted gunshot to the heart.

Turns out that the whole “inspired by madness” thing is a trope. Lots of artists have mental illness, and poster children like Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace, Ernest Hemingway, Jimi, Janis, Jerry, Kurt, and lesser known stars like Gerry Rafferty have all died young as a result of suicide or terrible drug and alcohol addictions. The list is long and frightening and almost encouraging, especially when you consider that suicides like Hunter S. Thompson, Virginia Woolf, and Yukio Mishima are only a tiny number compared to artists like Beethoven, Nietzsche, and Kafka, who were “simply” racked by mental illness.

Still, the idea that you have to be mad to be great is, sadly, preposterous because the vast majority of creative geniuses aren’t mentally ill, or at least they are no crazier than the general public. Kenzaburo Oe, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Goethe, Plato, Freud, Marx, Thoreau, Jefferson, Bach, Picasso, Jane Austen, Toni Morrison, Jack Nicholson, Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keefe, Marie Curie, George Washington Carver, Thomas Edison, and of course Don McLean either created up until their natural deaths or, in the case of McLean, Oe, and Nicholson, are creating still. And then there are the millions of people who have composed music, painted, sculpted, written poetry or fiction, played music, or, in the age of the Internet, designed in Photoshop, Illustrator, and countless other creative apps. Those people are creative and many are genius, but hardly tortured, at least in the way that popular culture says you have to be in order to be a “true artist.”

Most artists do their thing, brush their teeth, turn out the lights, go to bed, and miraculously wake up the next day without having put their head in a gas oven or invited a gun barrel into the roof of their mouth.

In my readings about Van Gogh and the tortured artist, I did manage to solve a little personal mystery, though. That painting of the relative hanging on Granny’s wall? It was a cheap print of Van Gogh’s self-portrait with his bandaged ear. No wonder I thought old Aunt Melba was ugly.

So what is art, really?

For ten-and-a-half years I plugged away at this web log project and never once did I ask, “What is art? Am I really an artist? And if so, why?” I suppose I never really had to ask. When you’re on a daily publication schedule the time to ponder is always later.

But after taking a six-month break, I’ve spent the time trying to figure out why I write and whether it’s worth picking back up, which ultimately leads to the question, “What is art?” In sum, Wikipedia. And to summarize the summary, art is either what a few people say it is, what everyone says it is, or what no one says it is. It’s easy to understand how such a simple question is so flummoxing. Basically, like asking “What’s the meaning of life?” it’s a fake question.

“What is art?” presumes there is such a thing, just like “What’s the meaning of life?” presumes there’s a meaning. When you try to follow the reasoning behind the various philosophies of art, you see how confused everyone is. Art, even as an oddly incoherent concept, didn’t even exist until the 16th Century. Before that, art meant “what you do,” and it’s the root word for “artisan.” For a cooper, making barrels was his art. For a lute player, it was playing music. It took the confluence of empire, nascent capitalism, and rigid class structure to create the idea of “fine” arts. Whatever they were, they didn’t include barrel making.

So I concluded that it’s folly to define art or even to talk about it unless you are going to be specific. In my case, I’m no artist. I’m a writer. And same as for a painter, composer, dancer, computer programmer, or writer of HR manuals, it’s a lot easier to talk about the specifics of writing than the generalities of The Great Blob of Art. And it was pointed out to me that I write because I am exceedingly vain.

At first glance it’s a blow to recognize that your Precious is simply an expression of your vanity, until, at least, you reflect on that most atheistic section of the Bible, a/k/a Ecclesiastes, which unambiguously states, “all is vanity.” Not “some is vanity.” Not even “some is more vain than others.” Just the pointed statement that all is vanity. This means me. This means you.

If we admit that writing is vanity (cf. self-published books a/k/a “vanity publishing”), it’s helpful to ask what the vanity satisfies. Because regardless of the artistic endeavor, all are based on a desire for recognition. From writers of great novels to writers of pithy Tweets to nervous virgin bloggers posting “Hello, world,” the act of publishing your work is an act of braggadocio, an unbridled ploy for attention. What better example than “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” by James Joyce? You can read it from cover to cover but there’s no portrait anywhere, not even a sketch. Did he have jowls? Was he thin? Chubby? Balding? Stoop-shouldered? Broad-chested? Bow-legged?

You’ll never know because the main point of the book, like every book, is to stroke the vanity of the author. Joyce, an unpublished, unknown Irish expatriate titled his book not simply “an artist” but monstrously, “the artist.” All really is vanity, and vanity, when done right, sells. What if the title had been honest? “A Story of an Unknown Writer as a Young Man Who Still Happens to be Young and Unknown”? Still vain–who wants to read about an unknown writer–but perhaps not monstrously so. Ecclesiastes would shrug at the distinction between being vain and extremely vain. All is vanity.

Fortunately, Facebook has done lots of research and has mined the science of addiction to help us understand what we hope to obtain with our vanity publishing. It is called dopamine. When you write something and it is liked, either facebookishly, instagrammatically, by fan mail, on Strava, or by selling ten million copies and having it made into a Major (or minor) Motion Picture, your brain releases dopamine. Back in the Paleolithic day, dopamine came in drips and you had to work hard for it. The killing of a mastodon didn’t come easily.

Nor, for that matter, did becoming a high priest of the modern novel. Joyce suffered from syphilis and a host of other mental issues, not least of which was the battering that his, and any author’s ego, takes when it is continually rejected for publication. But social media figured out that the old joke “Every journalist has a novel inside, which is a good place for it,” is partially true. Every person has the kernel of delusional greatness inside, but the best place for it is on the Internet, in a captive digital ecosystem, where Chaucer = Joyce = Some Yahoo Still Pissed About Obama. In fact, the Yahoo Still Pissed About Obama is a greater writer for Facebook’s purposes than Chaucer, Joyce, and Shakespeare put together because Facebook gives not a shit about the art, and cares instead about the personal data of the artist.

Social media closes the loop that began with Homo erectus, when what you did, whatever it was, was your art. Every person who writes, no matter how well or crippled, is an artist, from “Hello, world!” to those beautiful harangues with 10,000 likes whose subtitles should be, “Keep the fuggin’ gummint outta my Social Scurrity and Medicare!” I’m an artist. You’re an artist. He’s an artist. And as long as you’re playing in the social media sandbox, where your data can be scraped and resold, what you say and how you say it is meaningless to the Lords. Give us your data and we will let you troll for your dopamine fix, a/k/a “likes,” by writing whatever you want.

Of course you don’t have to publish on #socmed. You can get your own domain and plug away at your pet project for decades, just be ready to get the tiniest drizzle of dopamine instead of the hormone shower you’d get with 5,000 friends on Facebook. And what addict wants less heroin when he can get more?

For the first time since people began wondering, then arguing about art, we have an answer, at least as far as it concerns writing: A “writer” is any person who writes anything, at any time, in any language, that is read by another person … or machine. For the first time since writing was invented, content and quality mean nothing. The only salient feature that separates one writer from another is the number of likes, from zero to Don McLean’s 15M. In other words, your writing is no more or less than your algorithm. And what’s key here is that unlike times past, today’s writers are tortured not by schizophrenia or manic depression, but by how many likes their post generated. It’s that anxiety that causes them to log back in, toss up another blob, and hope for more approval.

In other words, the 4.5 billion artists on social media are working and creating compulsively, without rest, for free, donating their creations to the Lords in exchange for more work and the relinquishment of their most private, defining, and meaningful personal data. No wonder everybody wants to be the next Zuckerberg: Money for nothin’ / Chicks for free.

The clerks of nostalgia

Aristotle said artists were touched by madness, but he should have added that they were regulated by the Lords. In times past, the folks who assessed what was good and what wasn’t were the clerks of nostalgia, appointed wiser-than-thou owners of advanced art degrees, experts in the provenance of some moldy old Dutch painting that was ugly then and is ugly now, or in the literary field the publishers, editors, and critics who manned the bridge with mile-high stacks of pre-printed rejection letters that said, “Thou shalt not pass!”

The clerks were themselves men and women, mostly men, who had in their time been denied passage across the bridge and so in revenge had trudged, toiled, cursed, and struggled their way through the labyrinth of accreditation to become guardians of the bridge. It was crucial that the clerks be numerous, withering, and merciless because capitalism and its antecedents had discovered that art had value, but because all art is trash and since any fool with a pen or a brush is an artist, that value could only be created and inflated if “good art” and “great art,” and by extension the people who produced it, were rare.

So the concept of genius was invented. Instead of every person being born capable of great art, only the luckiest and rarest of genetic-environmental circumstances could produce it, and those geniuses and their works were exalted, coveted, and traded for great sums of money. The only thing that made you more valuable than genius was genius+suicide or genius+batshit crazy. But once Leonardo da Vinci was crowned a genius and his work enshrined behind bulletproof glass, someone had to come up with a rationale as to why a portrait mill in China that produced exact and better copies was inferior to the original, otherwise the market for Leonardo’s art, and all similarly situated genius works, would collapse. The clerks developed philosophies and explanations about how a copy was inferior to an original, how a print was inferior to a painting, how pixels were inferior to colored goop that gave you lead poisoning on cracked canvas. Otherwise, all beautiful things would be equal and prices would collapse.

More disastrously for the Lords, ugly things would be no worse than beautiful things, and the clerks, who slaved for the Lords to uphold the market value of their art, would no longer be the arbiters of beauty.

Worst of all, aesthetics would implode completely and the individual man or woman would be the measure of all things. An original Van Gogh would be as valueless as a cheap print bought on the Internet or the fingerpainted smears of a three-year-old.

The Internet in general and social media in particular have massacred the clerks. Failed writers who at least made a living judging the writing of others have been mowed down by the scythe of Facebook and Amazon, Facebook by admitting everyone’s silliness to the hallowed hall of “publication,” and Amazon by creating a platform where the only thing standing between you and publishing a hundred books is absolutely nothing. WordPress, Blogger, Twitter, and html have made the extinction of the clerks complete. None shall pass? All shall pass.

You would think that opening the passage to the proletariat is a good and democratizing thing, especially when you consider how cruel and nasty the clerks have been over the centuries to those trying to turn a buck as artists. You’d be wrong because the new clerk isn’t a person at all. It’s something much more cruel, merciless, vindictive, remorseless, and invincible than any clerk ever was. The new boss looks a lot like the old boss, only bigger, meaner, nastier, and way more efficient. His name is algorithm.

The siren song, so silly

Why have 15M people listened to a mournful, campy song about Vincent Van Gogh that isn’t even true? Well, why do people listen to songs at all? On the surface, we listen to them, especially favorite songs, because the singer’s lyrics “speak to us.” The singer “gets us.” We can “relate” to the words. It’s “exactly” how we feel. When you’re feeling down, chances are great that you’ll turn to an old favorite because it really “captures your mood.” On the surface, that explains it.

But underneath, chemistry is at work in the form of dopamine. The common misperception is that dopamine has an opioid effect which makes you feel good and want more. That not exactly how it works. Dopamine is a chemical that triggers the desire to seek, and it is this sensation, otherwise known as anticipation, that is one of the most sharply honed evolutionary adaptations in the animal kingdom. Seeking with the anticipation of reward drives life. At one time or another every piece of human knowledge has been summed up in a Texas whorehouse, and dopamine’s effect is no exception, to wit: “It ain’t the flop on the bed, it’s the walk up the stairs.”

Before we ever hit “play,” we’re anticipating the feeling of “relating to,” “being spoken to,” “having our mood captured,” and the minute the song starts, its first note triggers a release of dopamine, which in turn triggers other, opioid-like hormones, which result in the flow of good feelings. But the dopamine immediately fades and is replaced by its ugly cousin cortisol, the chemical that tells you no anticipatory goodies are on the horizon. So in order to get the little dopamine reward that comes from the anticipation of knowing something good might happen, better get crackin’, I mean check your feed.

On YouTube this is known as hitting the replay button. Problem is, there is a diminishing return until eventually the song generates nothing at all. Time to move on down the playlist.

But the song “Vincent” gives its fans a lot more than dopamine. Its message actually gives them validation of something completely untrue: That Van Gogh was “too beautiful for this world,” that no one was paying attention to him, and that they still aren’t. The outrageousness of these falsehoods doesn’t matter. It’s irrelevant that there is so such thing as being “too beautiful for this world.” It’s nonsense, English twisted into the moron-taffy of a Grateful Dead drug mumble. And the idea that Van Gogh was ignored is belied by the outpouring of condolences from the greatest artists of his day, some of whom are regarded as among the greatest of all time. When your work earns a tribute from Paul Gaugin, you may be unhappy, but ignored you are not.

Most laughable is the suggestion that people weren’t listening to Van Gogh and “perhaps they never will.” Hey, folks. Van Gogh is the most studied artist in history, and his paintings are consistently the most expensive ones on earth. Perhaps they never will? McLean must be laughing all the way to the bank.

Online, though, facts matter not so much. What matters is that this song speaks to people who think their true value is unrecognized, in other words, every human being everywhere. Even people who have reached the pinnacle, like Van Gogh, think that the world has only scratched the surface of their amazingness. And every hacker on every weekend group ride will tell you about how extraordinary they almost were that time they came close to doing that thing with those people. Humanity, all of it, believes its own bullshit. Cf., again, Ecclesiastes 1:9: “All is vanity.”

To state that everyone thinks they are worth more (money/recognition/emoluments/titles/historical accolades/etc.) than they in fact have is so obvious as to barely need stating, yet an instance here and there to prove the point won’t hurt.

I went to high school with a guy named David Biespiel. He was very short and very muscular. He was a diver. We weren’t friends but we knew each other; he was a friendly guy who seemed very caught up in the Jewish social life of B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, which was a big deal at my high school. I knew little about Judaism and nothing about BBYO, only that the people who gravitated towards it seemed pretty vacuous. David never took any hard classes as far as I knew and was certainly not part of the brainy group, a motley collection of Jewish, Indian, Chinese, Black, Hispanic, Vietnamese, Anglo, and other nerds whose parents had taught them at an early age that “Your paycheck will be signed by a nerd.”

Several years ago I saw David’s name on a high school reunion notification, and I looked him up. He’s a poet and an editor at a poetry magazine. His work is easy to find and I’ll let you be the judge of whether it’s anything better than white bread. What’s interesting about him isn’t his poetry, it is his Wikipedia page, because it’s his avatar, and appears to be self-authored. Talk about delusions of amazingness. Here is a guy who has made a career out of writing middling poetry, penning his autobiography to make it sound like a star really was born, and that star is he. It is embarrassing to read, so full as it seems to be of authorial praise passed off as the penetrating analysis of some third person.

And you know, maybe he is that star. But the point is that his magnitude in the firmament of poets is something much fainter than “visible to the naked eye” and more akin to “better seen with a deep space probe.” And you can tell from his Wikipedia page that he feels unrecognized, undervalued, overlooked, else why be the anonymous person singing such superlative praises to himself, if that’s in fact what’s happening? This average poet with a Wikipedia page that rivals e.e. cummings’s is like everyone else–he’s way more amazing than the world knows. They did not listen, they did not know how, perhaps they’ll listen now. And if not, there’s posterity. And if posterity rates his work with a shrug, well, maybe it’s just because he drew the line at chopping off his ear.

The bothersome fact is not that we now have multiple ways to channel our vanity, it’s that the limitless thirst for recognition or at least acknowledgement in every person’s heart is now cynically exploited by the Lords for profits earned through voluntary, 24/7 online unpaid labor, and it’s done by manipulation of human instinct-and-response to a very basic hormone. The algorithm shows exactly what evokes the anticipation, and constantly adjusts to make sure you can’t detox from the dopamine tit. Capitalism has squared the circle: The definition of art is now money. All art everywhere has been monetized, but not for you. For the Lords.

Why would people be so insatiable for the “rewards” that come from some dumb update to a fake life of a person you’ve never met and never will meet? Why is fake so much tastier than real?

The voracious devouring of fake

Van Gogh is nothing but an image. We don’t even know what he painted, and therein lies part of the explanation of his allure. As one German art critic remarked when yet another magnificent posthumous Van Gogh was discovered, “The dead Vincent paints and paints.” An even better quote came from the neighbor of a man who counterfeited Van Gogh and sold his work as originals: “Van Gogh’s been doing his best work thirty years after his death.”

While it’s funny to think that Yasuda Fire Insurance & Marine paid $30M for something that was worked up in a counterfeiter’s shop, Van Gogh’s work is inextricably tied to the fact that hundreds of his works are fakes and no one is sure which is which. The fight to prove that Vincent painted it has become its own industry, and the conclusions of those particular clerks of nostalgia swing the bidding from $30M to $0 overnight. Funnier still, the clerks declare a painting authentic one day and fake the next, then reverse course ten years later. No one cares except in this way: When declared fake the value plummets. When declared authentic the price heads for the moon. Did the painting ever change? Um, no.

Of course the best way to understand bias is to look at what’s not said. When museum chieftains declaim on the certainty that Van Gogh painted this landscape of space shuttles and semiconductors, it’s crucial to ask why anyone would care about provenance if the painting were ugly? Why are paintings judged on provenance and not on beauty? Well, the answer is that if you make beauty the criterion, then anyone’s as good a judge as anybody else, and we sure can’t have that. At least in the past we couldn’t, because once a Van Gogh equals the doodling on the pad next to the phone, or once “Hello, world!” equals Hemingway, the Lords are going to lose many pretty, warm, snuggly dollars. And the Lords generally don’t like to lose any dollars at all, as you’ll see from the late rent fee in your apartment lease.

When a thing is a fake, or might be a fake, it becomes news and the object of financial speculation. That piece of junk you bought at a yard sale is really worth $20M? Shit. Better start hitting more yard sales. Paintings, or rather the market for them, obtains a lot of its value because of the speculative nature of provenance and the relative frequency with which great works are authenticated, challenged, or shown to be fake. It’s much harder to fabricate the blockchain, apparently.

Humans and animals are genetically programmed to prefer the fake over the real if it’s more noteworthy, larger, or more colorful. “All that glitters is not gold,” is an admonition against our instinct to choose the fake over the real, but unfortunately the riposte is that “Yeah, but it looks great with this outfit.” Engineering us away from fake is to engineer us away from being alive, and with good reason.

We are designed by evolution and culture to seek stimuli that are exaggerated. Whether it’s a boob job, a hair plug, or even a colorful XXXL t-shirt to cover that 85 lbs. of bulging visceral fat, these supernormal stimuli alert us that what we are seeing is preferable to smaller, drabber, more subtle versions of the same thing. In terms of the experiences programmed into our genes, brighter colors, super sizes, and less-blemished surfaces indicate “better” or even “best.” We share this with thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of animal and insect species.

So the fascination with the fake is somehow tied up in our life force, the drive to stay alive. Literature, however impossible and unbelievable and patently false, is swallowed whole if only it promises things so fantastic, ridiculous, colorful, huge, and perfect as to blot out humble reality. Bible? Koran? Lord of the Rings? Voodoo? The bigger and faker the whopper, the more delicious. As Oscar Wilde said, people will believe the impossible but never the improbable.

Art was, is, and always will be a cachement of the absurd. You really think Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein looks like Gertrude Stein? She said it did; it was revolting and bizarre enough to leap the gulf of improbability and land squarely in the Land of Cannot Be. This drive to seize, then swallow the lie whole, underlies Trumpism and every other -ism, including pacifism, Nazism, nihilism, and prism. And this ceaseless search for the fake goads us on to ever sillier and less believable realities: That global warming isn’t real, that capitalism is working for you, that your fake posts are real, and of course that next year you’re gonna be FAF–fit as fuck.

[Seek – anticipate – dopamine reward] once propelled us along a lifespan that was infamously termed nasty, brutish, and short. There was a lot of seeking, most of which ended in disappointment a/k/a cortisol. But hunger being hunger and the need to couple being the need to couple, humans would seek again until after a while they got close to the goal, were flooded with anticipation, and then doused with a drizzle of dopamine, a/k/a SEEK SOME MORE! The cycle repeated, and the only constant was that the period of seeking was long and arduous, and the period of [anticipation – dopamine reward] was real, real brief.

A great way to compare old school dopamine with Internet dopamine is to go buy yourself a 12-lb. sledgehammer and a dozen 5-lb. wedges. Then get a 6-ft. foot green, knotty pine log about 2-ft. in diameter and try to break it up into firewood. If you are strong and smart and dogged, you’ll eventually bust off a small piece, and the moment it flies off you’ll get a little dopamine buzz for your two hours of backbreaking work. Then whip out your phone and check your new messages. See? With the log it’s two hours, a herniated disc, one piece of firewood, and a tiny dopamine burp. With the phone it’s one second, press a button, and ten or twenty big dopamine burps. That’s how it works, and that’s why people gravitate to Facebook more than they do to log splitting.

Of course the Internet was built on the foundation of fake, and its evil twin brother Algorithm is the unstoppable engine of growth that keeps us consuming the fake at exorbitant prices, and keeps us producing the fake for free so that the Lords can monetize the data of those who peruse our art, fake, junky, silly, worthless crap that it is. You will have noted that you cannot break free as both a producer of fake crap and an insatiable consumer of it. Caught between dopamine and the algorithms that drive it, you now know why.

The cheapening of vanity

All is vanity. But vanity used to be costly and risky and tricky to dangle. Especially the most pleasing form of vanity, admiring one’s reflection, depended on finding a still pool or an exceptionally smooth, wet stone. After millennia, mirrors came about but few had them. The jump from mirrors to portraits took more thousands of years, and even then more centuries passed before photography. At each step it got cheaper and easier to become “Ne yet Narcissus of ful yore agon.

Less satisfying forms of vanity such as bragging were formerly risky. Even in my childhood, a mere fifty years ago, bragging about one’s ANYTHING risked an ass-beating. I still remember the first day in 7th Grade Major Works English with Mrs. Wakefield. “Do you all know why you’re in this class?” she asked.

My hand shot up.


“Because we’re geniuses!”

There was an awkward silence, some snickering, and then a withering reproof by Mrs. Wakefield. “Geniuses you aren’t. You’re here to learn how to read good books and write about them intelligently.” So far, so bad. The real reckoning came after class, when Don Somer, the biggest guy in 7th Grade, passed me in the hall.

“Hey, it’s the fairy genius,” he said. Much derision followed, but everybody forgot about it never.

Farther back, braggadocio was often mortal, leading to fisticuffs, duels, wars. Even earlier in time, spoken vanity was dangerous because it signaled the tribe that you were more concerned with yourself than with the community. Native Americans were famously tight-lipped. If anything good was to be said about you, it had to be said by someone else. Some cultures even made the word “I” close to a taboo. One of the first things you learn about Japanese is that sentences tend to omit the word “I” altogether. Historically, the nail that stuck up didn’t merely get pounded down, it got ripped out and tossed back into the forge.

Less satisfying forms of vanity such as having others praise you, used to be complex, and it required a track record, humility, lots of politicking, and often death. Chaucer was adamant that “Then is it best as for a worthy fame / To die when that he is best of name.” Politicians went to great lengths to hide their connection to their flaks, and it was important to obscure relationships that might suggest praise was being ginned up by a mouthpiece, critic, or fake letter-writer to the editor.

The Internet makes full-time vanity possible and indeed modern society exhorts us all to practice it. No better example exists than the advice of a marketing maven I know: “You are your own brand.”

To understand the disease, or rather the total capitulation to full-time vanity that this mantra states, you have to ask yourself what is a brand? A brand is a commercial name that exists to facilitate the sale of a product or service. Andy Warhol made the point, brutally, that money and the products it pimps, that brands like Campbell’s soup are art when money is the driving force behind self-expression. Brands are money, money is art, you are a brand, and therefore you, my friend, are money. So pimp yourself wisely, and for dog’s sake take down those IG photos of you passed out in a ditch.

Whereas the exercise of vanity was once a perilous thing sometimes ending in death, or worse, requiring it, now it is a moral and social imperative that we exercise vanity at every turn. Put your IG handle on your rear windshield. Cross-link all #socmed accounts. Make sure that when you get your 15 milliseconds of fame everyone knows how to find you on Twitter. Keep your feed fresh, your videos crisp, your aphorisms pithy, and your face re-shaped with the most flattering filter. Would Disneyland let Mickey walk around out of head? Heck, no. So don’t wander out into the Internet looking anything less than your very best, especially when your best is wholly fake.

I have a friend who used to say, “It costs a lot for me to look this cheap.” The current state of vanity is that now it not only looks cheap, it is cheap. And it’s ubiquitous, garish, and metamorphosing into the ultimate in fake-perfect-vanity, the avatar. More about that later, but not from me.

As we all become comfortable penning our own stunning Wikipedia entries, wearing our vanity on our sleeve, and telling each other that it’s crucial to crassly advertise our so-called strong suits, something inside isn’t buying it. It’s the realization that no matter how many overpriced, “the latest” cycling kits you buy, you’re still a sagging, old-and-getting-older, wholly unremarkable fake. That badass gravel ride you did, well, the shorter version, that you proudly wear the t-shirt and bib shorts for? Yeah, that one. Inside, you cringe. I cringe. We all cringe. And the only thing that can override our gut is the post-ride alcohol binge, because Binge > Cringe.

If vanity is the answer, and we’re all our own brand, and more is better, and the only improvement on supernormal stimuli is a super size of the same, if too much is just enough and modesty is a quaint notion, why does more time spent Internet shopping and #socmedding make people depressed? Why, if you really do have thousands of followers and everything you post is liked-loved-ejaculated over, are you so sad? Why does more deliver less?

The answer is ugly. Can you say “wildfire”?

Honey badger doesn’t give a shit AT ALL

If you are really, really, really old, you may recall “The Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger” video that took YouTube by storm ten ancient years ago, before TikTok even, and which is at 98M views and counting. There is no accounting for taste, but there is a reason for the video’s popularity. Substitute “nature” for “honey badger” in the phrase “honey badger doesn’t give a shit.”

Nature really does not give a shit. Worse, it doesn’t even not not give a shit. Nature is worse than indifferent, nature is random. If you doubt it, you need to spend more time staring into dark night skies free from ambient light pollution. The honey badger, an avatar for nature, goes about his business killing, fighting, and eating venomous snakes with zero concern. This message, that nature does not give a shit, is stark, and it resonates. The more people try to fluff and primp in 140-character witticisms, the more their gut tells them that it isn’t working. Their closed universe may “like” them to death, but open reality doesn’t give a shit, at all.

Art, through fakery and money and algorithms and dopamine, all avatars of each other, works overtime to perpetuate the myth that life and nature imitate art per Oscar Wilde, as opposed to Aristotle’s myth that art imitates nature. I learned firsthand this summer that both are true, neither is true, and sometimes one is true and the other false. Let me explain.

I have spent the last few months in a place where most people are terribly overweight, terribly addicted to drugs and alcohol, terribly poor, and when they vote, terribly Republican. One of the things people here most hate is the government even though it funds the three busiest places in town, i.e. the school, the health clinic and the post office. The local supermarket has a handwritten sign over the register, posted after the last election, that says, “The Democratic Party returns to its folly, like a dog returning to its vomit.” Most of its customers pay with EBT cards. No one, least of all the cardholders, wonders which party invented welfare. The author of the sign never wonders what will happen to his business if when those cards go away, or which party is a sworn enemy of welfare. All anyone knows is “America.”

One of my neighbors once buttonholed me at 10:00 AM as I was riding up the street to harangue me about vaccinations. “It’s mind control! A secret plan to control our minds!” I didn’t say my opinion, which was that he could really use some mind control because it would at least prove he had one.

After health care, education, Social Security, welfare, and the post office, the biggest funder of this area comes from the USDA, which is the federal department that funds the U.S. Forest Service. Here’s where it gets even crazier. Everyone loves the forest service because that’s who runs the wildland firefighting crews, and those crews are what beat back the monumental fires that sweep through the Sierra every year now. Get it? Hate the government, love the USFS. Somehow, in the minds of the people who hang “Thank you!” banners and “You are heroes!” throughout town after a fire, the government they hate and vote to de-fund is precisely the government they swoon over. I’ve spoken with a few of the firefighters and get the uneasy feeling that some of them, too, are hard core Republicans.

Vote for the party trying to fire you and burn your house down. Go figure.

All of this is simply to say that the local literati who rant and rave on NextDoor, Facebook, and the like, the ones who fly giant “Fuck Biden!” flags in their front yards, are simply replicating the art that is spoonfed to them through social media and its algorithms. Like all abrupt changes in communication media, the initial democratizing effect of #socmed was quickly overtaken by a more intense concentration of power into fewer hands, allowing the individual the perception that they have more freedom, have more autonomy and more agency, when in reality it is exactly those things, in addition to privacy, always, that have been even further reduced for the proles and arrogated to the Lords. And under the control of social media, all sources of information and entertainment are intermingled and directly marketed to the individual, who is both consumer and laborer, always online, 24/7, working for free. Slavery never felt so good.

Politics, friends, news, messaging from public agencies, disaster notifications, social events, and family are all found in one location, as opposed to having to source different media for different news, which process always forces you to encounter new people with differing viewpoints. And each feed is tailored via algorithms to the precise psychology of only that individual, so there is less exposure to the variable messaging through art that would have at one time been directed to the public and all of their differing opinions. Since the algorithm chooses topics that elicit the highest dopamine response to each consumer/laborer, people see only the narrowest sliver of the extant information, but become biologically fixated through the dopamine response on the little jaundiced crumb they receive. Social media chooses what your mind has access to; it’s a library in reverse. Instead of going into the library and being able to aimlessly browse the shelves, the library pre-selects your books and delivers them to your inbox, never telling you what else is there. The card catalogue is a patented, protected trade secret. Same for your music. And everything else, including the shoes you wear.

This force closes a loop that was begun with the printing press. It combines surgical messaging with dopamine to change the way people think in the narrowest of ways. It is far greater than anything Goebbels ever dreamed of, as it drives society to think and act on the algorithm’s behalf, using chemistry, computers, and instinct to hijack freedom of choice so that you will do what the Lords want you to do. Life is literally imitating the art of social media, which is money, which is control.

Yet nature insists on its randomness. Even as the people in my town were drinking, drugging, bingeing, and complaining about how we need a real strongman in charge and how elections are passe, a series of wildfires swept down upon us in August. The hated government executed an orderly evacuation, set up refugee centers for people, pets, and livestock, shut down all looting, then put out the massive fire even as it burned to the doorsteps of many Trumpy homes. It got to within a quarter-mile of us. Others had the fire extinguished on their doorsteps. Not a single home was lost.

What was lost, however, were hundreds of thousands of acres of timber, resulting in less oxygen-producing trees, devastation of the few remaining giant sequoia groves, more air pollution, and more global warming. Our fires complemented even larger ones farther north that are among the largest in recorded history; one such fire did what some thought impossible–it actually burned over the Sierra from California into Nevada. It is a certainty that bigger, hotter fires are on order for 2022. Many insurers view the situation as so dire that they are no longer willing to renew fire insurance policies.

Is this a good time to double down on the denial of science and to aggressively cut firefighting budgets? Your answer is predetermined by your algorithm.

From the vantage point of art, this is a key point. You can write in the closed universe administered by the Lords, you can paint, photograph, and produce videos, but you are still beholden to the forces of a wildfire when it incinerates you. Art as money that only labors in service of the Lords will never provide the vantage point to see and interpret the imperatives of the physical world. It can only exaggerate, falsify, and distract you to ever larger fake supernormal stimuli.

Of course art has always been limited in its ability to reproduce naturelife, just as naturelife has always been limited in its ability to imitate art. Systems of control, whether censorship, the clerks, or the difficulty of reproduction (no printing presses, for example), have always kept art as far from the public domain as possible until it has been properly sanitized and stripped of its heretical notions. At the very least, it has been held back until the “tortured genius” is dead and no longer able to talk or, like Picasso, bribed with millions so that “Guernica” could take its proper place as a possession rather than a call to revolution against the Lords.

But social media and the Internet have so greatly ratcheted up the control in such a short period of time that people stuck in the old ways, people like me, are at a loss.

I thought I was a writer. Apparently I am, but that status is shared by 4.5 billion others, and more painfully, since what I write is not a product of social media, it is less interesting, less meaningful, and less relevant than I could have ever imagined.


You and me, we’re the same. We both have that feeling in our gut that something is wrong. This incessant shower of dopamine and its cycle of seeking for empty things hasn’t made anyone happier, hasn’t made the world a better place, and hasn’t slowed down the superheating of the planet.

What more do you need to know about the state of things than the phrase “another school mass shooting”?

As someone who has written regularly in one place for over a decade, I have an obvious and easily accessible storehouse of my own vanity. Realizing that vanity is within everyone, that its limitless expression is an illness, and that the conversion of art into money is an intentional sleight-of-hand executed by the Lords, is enough to take the wind out of any writer’s sails. Fortunately, vanity and seeking are part of existence. Dispense with them and you die, literally. Rats whose ability to produce dopamine was surgically eliminated starved to death despite being able to eat.

But I don’t think I want to continue writing according to the Lord’s rules.

I think I want to shut down the dopamine feedback loop between me and the closed systems. That means ignoring stats, turning off comments, and absolutely abjuring the beggardom of subscriptions. It also means refusing to partake in social media and refusing to read the advernews. If all is vanity, well, perhaps some of the vanity can at least be honest, and by honest I mean things like walking barefoot.

Now don’t misunderstand me. By honest I hardly mean truth-telling. It has been shown over and over again that honesty is not only the worst policy, but that it is no policy at all. It takes neither skill nor judgment nor acumen to tell the truth, and of course it requires zero memory. To lie requires you to remember the various incantations of the story, which were hopefully changed according to the listener’s needs, and it requires you to think carefully about structure, timing, and content. Lying is the best policy, indeed, it’s mankind’s only policy, to tweak and twist the truth in just the right way so that “No, those jeans don’t make your butt look like a dump truck,” sounds credible, sincere, and straight from the heart.

Honest writing should not be an exercise in truth-telling, it should be an exercise in truth-approximating. Honest writing should strive to enter the antechamber of truth but go no farther, and dally there only long enough to come away with a faint whiff of verisimilitude about the armpits. This is what I mean by walking barefoot.

When you take off your shoes and stroll out of doors, you receive no immediate communion with the spirit of Mother Earth, your feet do not magically spring into coiled arches and into splayed, healthy toes that grip and stride from ball-to-heel with the natural gait of the Kenyan barefoot marathoner. No, when you take off your shoes and go any distance at all it hurts like fuck. Your feet are soft, spongy, ugly, weak and rotten cupcakes that scream the moment they encounter anything hard, sharp, abrasive, hot, or cold. And the more you walk on them the more they hurt until some misstep or another drives them against a stick or jagged stone and the skin rips, the blood spouts, and you howl in pain.

Here, though, is the oddity. For millions of years, hominids walked unshod. Like hippos, deer, cats, beetles, crayfish, and stinging flies, humans were born shoeless. What’s more astounding is that shortly after birth, and roughly coinciding with the age of perambulation, the soles of the human foot begin to toughen. In the briefest of periods growing children used to become accustomed to walking barefoot, and generally they only abandoned the habit when they died.

You and I, however, we are creatures of Nike. We’re as likely to go to a party barefoot as we are to show up naked. And this isn’t far from where things now stand regarding the utterly fake architecture of social media. Just as shoes were used by the Romans to signify wealth and power, and just as being unshod was a sign of slavery and submission, the Internet-social media structure and the degree to which you wallow in it signifies wealth and power as surely as being un-wired signifies poverty and powerlessness.

Of course what you find over time is that the benefits of shoes are minimal to non-existent compared with going shoeless. Your soles develop toughened skin yet become incredibly sensitive. You feel hardly any pain when you walk shoeless, yet you feel everything beneath your feet. You walk more slowly, deliberately, and with the utmost care. Your eyes rarely deviate from your course, and you develop a precision, balance, and upper body strength that you never had before. More astonishingly, you find that the thing your feet evolved to do, walk, is something they do amazingly well without expensive accoutrements.

Most incredibly, you find that the 100+ muscles and ligaments and tendons in your feet do virtually all the work in walking, meaning that you can go for miles and miles over the worst terrain and never feel tired. Instead of finishing a long walk and wanting to denude the fridge, you are barely hungry. This outward indicia of powerlessness and slavery, going barefoot, is actually your birthright and is the pathway to strength, health, and the independence that comes with it.

Like any such pathway, though, it requires desire and it hurts and you can’t do it if you’re morbidly obese. Shoes are indoor cycling are social media. Expensive shortcuts to an inferior result.

The more you walk barefoot, the more you will question footwear. The more skeptical you will become about its benefits, its cost, its utility, even its attractiveness. When your default is the bare sole, your default will be the bared soul. That’s not to say that a pair of steel-toed boots won’t come in handy when chopping wood, or that a comfy pair of sneakers won’t work like a dream when you’re riding a bike, it’s simply to say that the closer you stay to what brought you, the likelier you are to be happy.

And what brought you isn’t Facebook. What brought you is a chance encounter between sperm and egg and the resulting imperative of a genome that folds back upon itself to the beginning of time. It can probably be improved upon here and there, but in the main, the things that make us human don’t reside in external computers or algorithms. They reside in our conscious decisions to submit wholly to those things, to embrace them warily and at a distance, or to reject them entirely, to simply walk away.


The way you were born.

Happy, happy birthday, every day.


Our really and truly “Goodgawdamighty!”

May 28, 2021 Comments Off on Our really and truly “Goodgawdamighty!”

I don’t understand love or how it works. One day I was talking to Ol’ Grizzles. “It ain’t that hard,” he drawled. “Ya see, love, well, it’s kinda like a big ol’ ball of twine.”

“It is?”


“How so?”

“Well, ya start out with a big ol’ ball, that’s your startin’ love, so to speak, like how it is when ya pick it up at the five-and-dime. And over time ya fuss and ya fight, ya cuss and ya bust a plate or two, and ever’ one of them dustemups, well, it shortens your ball of twine just a tad.”

“Sounds gloomy.”

“It is. Damn gloomy. But as long as ya know that’s what it is, ya can take yer countermeasures.”


“Yep. Ya gotta allus remember to keep addin’ to yer ball of twine. Ya shorten it up a bit after that fight over the toothpaste cap or who wiped his ass with the last square of TP and didn’t replace the roll, well, then ya gotta lengthen it a bit with sumpin’ else like a movie or dinner or she lets ya buy a new derailleur. That’s how ya keep the ball of love nice and big. But ya can’t ever stop addin’ to it or yer permanently fucked, and ya wind up starin’ at each other over breakfast hatin’ how the other one chews his cereal.”

In 2001 I was with famed naturalist Buddy Hollis, birding in Newton County in deep East Texas. Buddy Hollis has nothing to do with Buddy Holly, and in my opinion, even though both were from Texas, Buddy Hollis is way cooler. We heard a massive hammering, like a chisel being driven into a tree with a jackhammer. “Man,” I said, “that is one loud woodpecker.”

We trained our binoculars on what was a pileated woodpecker, the largest woodpecker in North America, with a massive bill, a brilliant red cockade, and a manner that bespoke total ownership of the pine tree he was splintering into bits.

“Back in the day we didn’t used to call ’em that,” Buddy said.

“Really? What did you call them?”

“Well you know most folks who’ve never seen one before–and keep in mind that the pileated is a tiny cousin to the ivory-billed, long extinct, so you can imagine how loud they were–and they’d hear this noise reverberating through the forest, and then they’d see the bird, and because it’s so dang big and so dang pretty and so dang loud they’d ‘most always say, “Goodgawdamighty!’ That’s what we called ’em back then, a ‘goodgawdamighty.'”

I never forgot that bit of natural history. Buddy was not only the finest naturalist anywhere, but it bespoke the incredible power of nature to call out to the human mind, to shock with beauty, with wonder, good God almighty, what in the world is that?

Unfortunately, despite my chops as co-author of a book on birding in Texas, I never really graduated from the amateur birding level, more of a masters hacker, actually. And over time, as with anything else, my skills have decayed through neglect and cycling. I can still fumble my way through a bird sighting but it’s often a lot of guesswork, a lot of guidebook-thumbing, and a certain percentage of bullshit mixed with “I give up” if it’s going to take too much effort.

Birding is that way. The pros know all the birds, their habitat, their range and distribution, their seasonal and age-related plumages, their calls, their songs, and the fine details that differentiate them from similar species. Real birders, good ones like Buddy, go birding to see what they know, and they pick up the rarities that go along with the activity.

They don’t go looking for rarities, “chasing birds,” toting up lists. They go to see what they know is there. Looking for a Swainson’s warbler? Buddy can tell you which road to turn down, and which tree to look behind for the little puddle in which you’ll likely find it.

I was riding my bike the other day along the Kern River, headed towards Fairview just past Ant Canyon. I glanced up and saw a raptor, a big one. His head was pale and he was soaring. “Huh,” I thought. “Bald eagle? But where’s the white tail feathers?” I watched him, bigger than big, as he floated down the river and out of sight. “Probably a juvenile eagle whose white tailfeathers haven’t come in yet.”

A real birder would have known that juvenile bald eagles don’t have white heads awaiting “white tailfeathers to come in yet.” Juveniles are dark throughout, and their heads and tails both become white when they become adults.

A real birder would have had zero questions about what had just flown over because real birders already know what’s there, or what might reasonably be there, and, if it doesn’t fit what’s supposed to be there, would immediately know the rarity they were looking at, because the number of birds that fit that description is exactly one.

A shitty birder would at least have gone home and checked the field guide.

But a lazy ex-birder who mostly enjoys looking at stuff pedaling would have done what I did. Look, scratch head, invent something, keep pedaling.

The next day Kristie and I were riding the same route. Whatever level poor birder I am, Kristie is much worse. However, like most new birders, she’s curious and not afraid to be ignorant. “That was weird,” she said.

“What was?”

“That hawk.”

“What hawk?”

“The one that just flew overhead.”

I glanced and shrugged. It was gone now. “Oh,” I said disinterestedly.

“I wonder what it was?”

Now I had to engage. “What did it look like?”

“A flying velociraptor,” she said.

My mind clicked. “It was really fucking big, wasn’t it?” Like the bird yesterday.

“It was huge. It blotted out the sun. It was like a dumpster with wings.”

“Fuck,” I said. “I saw that bird yesterday. It had a white head, right?”

“Not really white. It was pretty far up. It was kind of pale, though. But it was so fucking big.”

It’s hard to admit that you don’t know something, but with birds I’m used to it. I went back to my bald eagle hypothesis. It sounded plausible, but we now both wanted to know for sure.

We got back to the shanty and I flipped the book open to raptors. There it was. Biggest bird in the sky. Wingspan of almost 10 feet. Less than one hundred of them in existence. And we had seen it. A juvenile California condor, hence the pale head (let’s ignore for the moment that neither of us noticed the head was featherless.)

We hugged each other with excitement, shivering. “Oh my god,” she said, “we saw a condor. We saw a fucking condor.”

“Only thing better would have been to have seen a condor fucking,” I added. We squeezed each other and jumped on each others’ toes by mistake.

But still we couldn’t believe it, so I looked up Tulare County sightings on eBird. Sure enough, our condor had been seen and photographed two days before, 120 miles away by car, but a mere 20 miles as the condor flies. It had also been sighted nearby in Kern County.

There we had it. Our first goodgawdamighty, the real goodgawdamighty, the flying dumpster, the airborne velociraptor, the bald eagle that wasn’t. And … another little piece of twine added to the ball.


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Standin’ at the crossroads

May 17, 2021 Comments Off on Standin’ at the crossroads

The roughest climb around stands outside my front door, practically. You drop down to Main Street, ride a few hundred yards, and see a sign that says, “Alta Sierra 8.”

I’ve never ridden it because I can see that it is a wall, an 8-mile wall that goes to the base of another 2-mile wall that goes up to the Alta Sierra ski lifts. It bodes nothing good for anyone on a bicycle. Til now I’ve had the excuse of snow and etcetera not to climb it. Lots of etcetera.

But the ascent starts at a crossroad of sorts, and that’s the thing about crossroads, aptly summed up by Yogi Berra, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Our brains, in addition to acting as bodily administrators, telling which muscles to twitch and regulating the machinery, are, in their conscious state, purely problem solvers. Your brain exists to find alternatives so you can then make choices.

A million times a day, we’re all standing at the crossroads. “Butter or margarine?” “Maple syrup or Karo?” “Fight, flight, or roll over and catch another five or ten minutes?”

And even though our brains are supreme problem solvers, they are famously terrible deciders, cf. Hamlet. Our brains do the heavy lifting of determining or inventing alternatives, but it’s as if, once the alternatives have been placed on the workbench, the brain clocks out and don’t come back, leaving you to figure out which fork to take.

That’s usually the one with the piece of German chocolate cake on the tines.

The left-hander at the bottom of the climb was steep but my legs felt good. I’d climbed up to Sherman Pass two days earlier, another very attention-getting climb: 25 miles of constant uphill to the base, and 18 miles to the top, pegging out at 9,200 feet.

But whatever fitness I’d gotten out of that ride faded after about twenty minutes. The climb to Alta Sierra goes from 2,500 feet to 8,000 feet in eight miles. Before long I was slogging in my 36 up bitter, 13% grades. Among the many wonders of the southern Sierras is the absence of cars. Climbing Sherman Pass I had been overtaken by three motos and zero automobiles in three hours of climbing. Alta Sierra was the same, and on Sunday morning not a single car was on the road for the entirety of the climb.

Which lasted forever.

I got to the next crossroads, where Old State Road meets the highway. Should I flip it and enjoy what would have been the most amazing, screaming descent of my life, or take the fork that led to the dirt road?

I chose the unpaved route, figuring I’d get to do the downhill another day, and plus, it was way too early in the morning to go home. Old State Road descends for about three miles and then comes to, you guessed it, a fork. Straight leads to my front door. Right is Wagy Flat Road, another three miles of climbing along a rocky, sandy, rough forest service road.

I went right and felt good until I didn’t. I’d underestimated how shot my legs were after the climb to Alta Sierra. And I was hungry. And it had gotten cold in Alta Sierra. Fortunately I had lots of water in my backpack and two peanut butter bagel sandwiches, so I planned to go on to the top of the climb, descend to Sawmill Road, go left and go home.

At Sawmill I was bonking so I parked and ate a bagel, drank some water, and looked at the sun. It was around 9:00 AM. If I went left up Sawmill I had six miles of guaranteed misery to reach Rancheria Road. I’d never taken Sawmill past this intersection but knew that it essentially went right back up the way I’d come.

If I went left and down Sawmill to home, well … I’d be home.

Standing at the crossroads, the story of my life. Maybe yours, too. I took the right fork and another helping of misery.

The first mile or so was easy as it traversed Wagy Flat, but after that the road went up again and my legs were empty. Although the grades were hardly steep, I couldn’t pedal when they got over about ten percent, so I did what I’ve never done before: I walk-biked.

It’s easy to do. You simply take your ego, set it gently down, dismount, and then push until the road levels a bit. I did this on and off for about three miles. Once you’ve set your ego down, everything gets easier, and I enjoyed the walking. I could hear and see more, and after a hundred yards or so the road would flatten, I’d remount, and my legs seemed rested each time from the brief stroll. Egos are so heavy, and that’s been the best thing about the abrupt way in which I abjured group riding: Don’t have to carry around my stupidly heavy and utterly useless ego like I once did.

But still, getting off and walking? That’s not setting down your ego gently. It’s kicking it off the edge into the cactus-filled canyon.

The scenery changed to tall pines and then to redwoods. Eventually, you know what I got to?

A crossroads.

This was the fork where I could go left and suffer like a dog, go right and suffer like, say, a cat, or do a u-turn and suffer not at all.

The right led back to the highway, a mere eight miles off. I went right.

For three miles it descended gently, then began climbing again. After two miles the temperature had dropped into the low 40’s and a huge fog bank rolled in along with another impending bonk. I ate my last bagel then put on my rain jacket and thick wool gloves. Mind that I was already wearing a wool hat and a wool sweater. I reminded myself that there’s never really a dependable summer once you get above 9,000 feet, no matter how sunny and warm it is at the bottom.

Moving again, it kept getting colder, but before long I reached the ski lifts and the 2-mile paved downhill to the highway. Pointed straight towards home on CA 155, with glassy asphalt, no traffic, and the reward of a howling downhill calling my name, I approached, again, the turnoff onto Old State Road.

I’d been thinking about this.

If I turned back onto Old State Road it would take me to my front door. If I stayed on the highway I’d have the best descent of my life followed by a 1.2-mile climb to the house. Old State Road would be rough and would bang the shit out of me; doing all this dirt on a ‘cross bike has been great for my bone density but also replicates a low-speed car collision.

The highway pulled me at high speed towards the fork in the road.

Per Yogi, I took it.


What I learned

May 10, 2021 Comments Off on What I learned

I completed my Tour of Socal yesterday, a make-it-up-as-you-go-along kind of thing that started in Wofford Heights, went over to the coast through Bakersfield and SLO County, Ojai, Carpinteria, down to San Diego, over to Alpine, up to Julian, down to Borrego Springs, Salton Sea, Joshua Tree National Park, back across the park to the other side of the Salton Sea, back to Borrego Springs and Julian, then to Idyllwild, a brief detour to LA, back to Lake Isabella via Tehachapi and Caliente-Bodfish Road, then about three and a half weeks bivouacking around the southern Sierras in the Kern River Valley.

I rode a lot of miles but don’t know how many, drank a lot of coffee, saw a lot of breathtaking natural beauty, thought a lot, and even learned a thing or two, which I’ll list below.

  1. Wherever you go, you take your troubles with you, so try to go somewhere pretty.
  2. The fewer people you interact with, the easier life is.
  3. Relaxation is a function of your environment. Without exterior calm, you basically have to be a yogi to screen out all the junk so that you can clear your head. And I’m no yogi.
  4. The more you do, the more you can do. When my riding became more short-distance hopping from one campsite to the next, I lost a lot of endurance and strength. You have to push yourself 90% of the time or you rot.
  5. No one really cares what you do.
  1. Money ruins everything.
  2. What money doesn’t ruin, things do.
  3. People don’t really enjoy being outdoors. They enjoy buying outdoor equipment and carrying it around in their car/truck/RV.
  4. People are not mobile enough to do anything outdoors that requires significant mobility, exertion, flexibility, or agility. Campgrounds are basically nothing more than places to engage in 24/7 eat-drink-sleep-repeat.
  5. The single thing that determines all outdoor activities is, “Where can I piss/shit?” This prevents 99.9% of all people from doing anything outdoors or straying more than a couple of hours from what they deem to be an acceptable toilet. [Factoid: People were born equipped to properly eliminate without TP or toilets.]
  1. The easier it is, the less rewarding it is. But paradoxically, the harder it is, the more miserable you are.
  2. Solitude isn’t a state of mind. It’s the absence of other people.
  3. Water from a stream beats water from a faucet.
  4. Wool is the best fabric.
  5. The tanner and more rough around the edges you look, the wider a berth people give you and the fewer motorists flip you off.
  1. Don’t bikepack without a big, sharp knife.
  2. If you are outdoors long enough, you stop caring at all about how food looks, smells, or tastes as long as it’s edible. And your definition of “edible” changes radically, too.
  3. When you quit trying, you die. That’s why people in RVs and camper vans and cars jammed full of “outdoor” stuff all look so dead.
  4. 4×4 enthusiasts think that their machinery makes them tough even though they are too weak to hike the trails they drive.
  5. Natural beauty cleans you better than any soap or shampoo.
  1. Sometimes you have to give up the thing you love to keep the other thing you love.
  2. Some people want you to fail. Some want you to succeed. Most don’t care or even know.
  3. If you weren’t scared, you did it wrong.
  4. If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to experience deeply, take someone with you.
  5. Know when to quit, then don’t.
  1. Few people will ever question convention. Fewer still will break it.
  2. You are who you want to be.
  3. Hot chocolate with marshmallows still tastes good at 57.
  4. You do what you want to do.


“The broken conformities of our so-called intelligent species”

May 7, 2021 Comments Off on “The broken conformities of our so-called intelligent species”

I’m lucky to know smart people who can look beyond the surface. One of them commented on my peregrinations and the musings associated with them, and observed that I was pushing back against “the broken conformities of our so-called intelligent species.” This phrase has stayed with me for days.

“Broken conformities.” That phrase alone is so simple and profound. “What are working conformities?” I wondered. They must be the shared norms we evolved and developed as we banded together, cooperating to ensure the survival of our species in a harsh and indifferent world. Conformities of speech that led to grammar; conformities of killing that led to ritual and then perhaps religion; conformities of eating that led to manners; conformities of sex that led to marriage … and so many, many more.

Somewhere along the way, those conformities stopped working, and changed into broken ones, habits that we maintain simply for the sake of maintaining them, ideas we promulgate simply because they were passed down, behaviors we ape because a bigger monkey on a TV or movie or cell phone screen tells us that THIS is the banana we simply cannot live without. Unsurprisingly, conformities begin to break once you reach a certain critical mass of people. Organizational and anthropological studies have repeatedly confirmed that critical mass: 150.

Once your community, factory, village, military unit, bike club, heroin trafficking gang, WHATEVER, exceeds 150 people, things, in the words of Bill Gore, “Get clumsy.”

Hierarchies begin to take over rather than collaborative decision making. Freedom of action and speech gets curtailed. Cliques develop. People easily and quickly lose their commitment to a common goal. Conformities that once worked become broken. The so-called intelligent species has become that way, many scientists believe, as a result of “the varied demands of social interactions that have led to advanced intelligence.” But once those varied demands exceed the gross weight of interaction imposed by groups or organizations of more than 150 people, in the words of the great Chinua Achebe, “Things Fall Apart.”

What’s funny is that none of this is either a mystery or a secret.

Who hasn’t belonged to a bike club that split up, or that wasn’t itself the result of some sort of internal faction after the club got “too big”? Last time I checked, there were so many versions of Christianity that you can’t keep track of them all.

People have a limited capacity to deal with other people in a meaningful, constructive way. And if the maximum size is 150 for a tribe or factory, it’s way smaller than that for genuine personal relationships. In common parlance, the number of “real friends” you can actually have is five. Not six. Not seven. And no, not the 5,000 “friends” a/k/a marketing network you can maximally accrue on Facebook. Five. Five real friends. That’s it.

Is it any wonder that the more tightly we bind ourselves to fake friend networks that we become more stressed, less happy, and fundamentally less adept at coping with the infinity of stresses that all these interactions bring with them?

This, then, is possibly the biggest and most broken conformity of all, the broken conformity of human community. What once was a small group that itself resolved into a tiny handful of confidantes has become a massive, commercialized, industrialized prostitution of our most naked and intimate selves: the self of our inner, private relationships and the experiences, conversations, and interactions that define them.

So yeah, I guess my friend nailed it–I am pushing back. As hard as I can.

I can actually pinpoint the date that the pushback began in earnest. It was August 19, 2019, the day I quit driving. Whatever you think about cars, there’s no denying that a car-less life in the South Bay of Los Angeles is not the norm. And if you have the kind of work that I had, which is lots of travel throughout Southern California, converting all of that into bicycle commutes was sort of Herculean.

But it worked, only not in the way that you might think.

In retrospect, it worked because it greatly accelerated a process that had preceded it, the process of greatly reducing the actual number of people with whom I interact. When you are commuting here and there seven hours a day, there’s simply not enough energy to devote to the hundreds of virtual and casual relationships that are the mainstay of pretty much everyone’s daily life.

In other words, when you are beat to shit and still have a bunch of emails to respond to, plus make dinner, do laundry, pay bills, etc. etc., one of the first victims is going to be the most extended fringes of your human network. Whether it’s Facebook or the group ride, something’s gotta give.

The down side to cleaving off those interactions is that you’re forced to focus more and more closely on the ones you retain. In my case, that led to more problems, not less … in the short term. Once you stop focusing on relationships that are too attenuated, and you begin attending to the handful close at hand, it’s possible that those relationships will not withstand the strain.

I used to call what happened to me a “failed marriage.” But a very smart friend took issue with that.

“There are no failed marriages,” she said. “And I know, because mine ended after many, many years. There are only marriages that serve their purpose, and those that have run their course. None of them are failures.”

Never one to do things by halves, it wasn’t long before I found my true social circle, by which I mean people with whom I regularly interact in person, reduced to one. From a few thousand to one. And you know what I found?

I found that people I have long admired and respected, people who I always considered good and smart and caring and thoughtful and compassionate people, well, they still were, and even in my most remote locations, we occasionally found time to exchange an email, a phone call, or a text. In some instances, our paths even crossed.

And the people who I disliked, or about whom I was ambivalent, or who I simply stayed “connected” with out of habit or social grouping? Well, they flat fucking went away. All of them. And with them went their ideas, their opinions, their problems, every iota of psychosocial stress that came from having to interact with people that, at your most fundamental level, you really don’t want to interact with.

Most interesting and maybe most gratifying of all was this twist: a handful of people about whom I’d been ambivalent at best showed me a side I’d never seen before, as if my catharsis had made me less of an asshole, more vulnerable, someone who they suddenly found they could actually relate to. In the process of discarding the fake, I’d converted a few relationships into something precious.

The numbers, however, haven’t changed: 150 and 5.

It’s unclear how long I can continue to live on my bike. From day to day I’m not even sure where I’m going to be. But the human mind was programmed to handle the triple stresses of food, shelter, and clothing on a daily basis and to thrive in that uncertainty. What it wasn’t meant to handle were the stresses of 5,000 fake friends and a dozen social networks.

So many broken conformities are being repaired, too many and in too great detail to describe in one post, but think about this: Food, sleep, shelter, sex, love, and yes, shitting, have all changed profoundly. If you think about how life-critical any of these things are, and how incredibly hard it is to have most, let alone all of them function as they were intended, you’ll understand the scope and the depth of the repair-in-progress.

Take a single rehab project, food. I no longer care how it tastes or how it is prepared. I care only that it nourishes. That’s it. If it’s cold mash that looks like dogshit, spooned out of a Ziploc, I care not a fuck if it’s going to nourish me for the day.

Labels, brands, “cuisine,” all of it has simply died with regard to food. Does it have the calories and nutrients I need? Then I eat it with relish and thankfully, because when you live on your bike and spend a lot of your time hungry, and all of your time needing crucial calories to get through the day, the stupid, broken conformities of flavoring, fancy preparation, blahblahblah, becomes as meaningless as that fake friend you have on the ‘Bag because you ride bikes, and he rides bikes so hey, why not click “accept”?

Rehabbing food in the context of a tiny social circle of one or two means that you have time to do other things, like sit by the river and watch the birds. It means that you can still enjoy tasty, flavored food when it’s available or served up, but you don’t need it to feel happy, full, socially acceptable, or most importantly, to feel “not poor.”

Rehabbing food in the context of living on your bike and moving from wild spot to wild spot means that you quit judging other people for their food choices, too. What other people eat really, really, really doesn’t matter. All that matters is that the bagel has enough peanut butter smeared on it to curb the hunger.

Bring too many people into the mix, and the best conformity ever will break.

But whittle things down to the necessities and, to paraphrase the intro to the Six Million Dollar Man, we can rebuild them. We have the technology, we have the capability to remake our conformities.

Not as replicas of someone’s marketing fantasy, but as true images of who we, as human beings, really are.


Fat chance

May 3, 2021 Comments Off on Fat chance

“How do you stay motivated?”

“How do you force yourself to get up and do it all over again, every day?”

“Don’t you get tired?”

“What’s your secret?”

My friend Marc made an insightful comment several months ago while the pandemic was raging and everything was closed. “If you can’t get in shape now,” he said, “you’re never going to get in shape.”

I’ve thought about this a lot because it applies to much more than getting in physical shape, losing that extra 5, 10, or 50 pounds that stubbornly cling, no matter how much Cool Whip and cheeseburgers you eat. The pandemic, or rather the crises that it occasioned, has in fact motivated some people to change shit up permanently.

But for the most part, it hasn’t. “Life will never be the same,” ” XYZ is changing for good,” “Good-bye commercial real estate,” “No one cares about celebrity crap anymore,” “People are focused on self-sufficiency, learning to enjoy home-cooked meals, baking bread, and that’s going to stick,” “So many people are riding bikes now!” and perhaps my favorite, “People are finally going to understand how enslaved they have been to their cars and their commute.”

What the pandemic did was to remind us how much we love the life we’ve chosen, all of it. We love the convenience and we love the shopping. As malls have reopened it’s now bumper-to-bumper and the feeding frenzy of buybuybuy has taken off beyond Retail America’s wettest dreams. Traffic in LA is now more than 90% of pre-pandemic levels. Bicycle inventory is still impossible to get, but it hasn’t translated into commuting or families out putting around on the weekend.

The group rides are all back in force, every day is new kit day; order in the universe has been restored.

So what was all that about?

Two days ago I camped on the lower Kern River near a place called Keyesville Beach. The dirt access road led to an area filled with car-and-RV campers. One prong of the dirt road was blocked off to vehicles for habitat restoration. I dismounted and walked down it. Around a bend was a large flat plain that had boulders and a cliff wall in a large arc that opened onto the river, and then dipped back into a small series of diversions that formed a little island with trees, rocks, shade, and a flat spot to camp.

I went about my business. Even though I could see some of the other campers upstream, they were a couple of hundred yards away, mostly obscured by trees, and whatever alcohols they had going on were totally muted by the thundering of the river as it crashed through a narrow sluice against boulders the size of houses.

It was a beautiful campsite and when the sun went down and the mosquitoes came out I withdrew into my tent and spent a pleasant night staring at the Big Dipper and listening to the roar of the water. At one point I got up to piss and the moon had bathed all of the stones in clear yellow moonlight, so bright that you didn’t need anything else to see even the finest details.

The next morning I heard the sound of an engine, which was odd because the road was closed. Someone had obviously driven through, over, or around the small barricades. A few minutes later I peered through the trees and saw a family setting up camp. They had come for the weekend and were determined to arrive early and snag a nice spot, damn the signage.

What struck me was not their blatant ignoring of the signage. What blew me away was their size. The man must have weighed 400 pounds and his wife easily 300. They had a son who couldn’t have been more than eight years old who weighed 150 lbs. or perhaps more. The only normally sized family members were a daughter, about thirteen or so, and a small Chihuahua, Max, who ran over to my tent and began barking at me.

They were so fat that mom and dad each had their own giant tent, with the kids and dog in a third tent. The slim daughter carried everything from the car down the short trail, maybe 50 feet, to the campsite, and dad set everything up. He was gasping and breathing as hard as someone at the end of an FTP test. After about an hour everything got set up, he drove the car back over to the legal parking area, and somehow walked the 100 yards or so back to his campsite.

When he got back he sat down in a lounge chair parked in front of his tent, next to two enormous coolers. He reached into one of them, which was filled with beer, and got started. On his other flank was a stack of five cases of 16-oz. water bottles.

I looked at that guy and knew one thing with absolute certainty: It was 8:00 AM, and he wasn’t moving from that chair until it was bedtime, pisstime, or both.

I got my gear packed and began walking my bike back to the road; since they had blocked egress with their three massive tents, I had to walk through their campsite.

The man glared at me. The woman glared at me. Even the morbidly obese little boy glared at me. The only person who smiled was the daughter, who was finishing her umpteenth trip to the car to get stuff for mom, dad, and little brother.

“Morning,” I said.

The man just glared.

At first I thought that they were angry at me for walking through their campsite. But they were the ones who had blocked my exit, and they were surely glad to have the entire area to themselves. The day hadn’t yet begun, I hadn’t made any racket, and was leaving.

That’s when I realized they hated me because I was skinny and on my bike. They lived in a kind of hell, the hell of morbidly obese people who spend their entire lives enduring the withering disdain, contempt, discrimination, and hatred of people who are thinner than they are, which is basically everyone.

They had gotten up early, probably 3:00 AM, driven up from LA, found a secluded campsite where they could wallow in their immobility and alcohols and food without being judged by other campers, only to post up next to the skinniest guy around, who was riding a fucking bicycle and camping in a tent that wouldn’t have housed the dad’s left leg.

No wonder they were glaring. “Good fucking riddance,” they were thinking.

And oddly enough, I got it.

If you are morbidly obese in this world, you not only have to deal with the crippling effects of immobility, but what’s worse, the condemnation of everyone around you, judging you for the supposed moral failures that cause you to be fat, and worse, to raise your little kid to be fat, too. These folks just wanted the peace and quiet that other human wants.

That’s when I began to think about the bike-a-hike that Kristie and I had done the previous two days, riding to the base of a stiff climb, shouldering our backpacks and hiking up a vicious gradient to a secluded campsite on a mountain bike trail.

The only two people we saw in two days were two local MTB riders, who stopped to say hi. They had parked one car at the bottom, driven the other up to the pass, and were now cruising down what they told us was a “Black Diamond” trail.

Parenthetically I wondered why trails were named “Black Diamond” for difficulty. Why not something more interesting, like “Dazzle Princess,” “Lumpy Leprechaun,” “Cake with Chocolate Drizzle,” or even “Poopers”? Why “Black Diamond”?

Answer: Cuz it sounds so badass. To my mind though, driving a car up and biking down wasn’t all that badass. Why not ride up and then ride down?

This trail, which we’d hiked up, taking a route so steep and arduous that the MTB riders didn’t even know it existed, was a perfect example of the pandemic’s Chances Not Taken. It would have been brutal even without my 20-lb. pack and Kristie’s 40-pounder. And however hard it was going up, going down the next day was worse.

But after all was said and done and I’d ridden on to my river campsite that afternoon, there was no denying that the arduous route left me feeling pretty good. There had been scenery, solitude, extreme exertion, companionship, and a mountain lion outside our tent at night screaming at us. Terrified? Very.

But back to motivation, and the unlikely convergence between the camper who was too overweight to walk and the mountain biker who was too lazy to ride up the slope before riding down. The big guy, who I’ll call Al, was actually quite motivated to go camp when you think about the effort, planning, and expense he went to in order to wind up by the river with his family for the weekend. And the MTB guys were motivated to downhill a Black Diamond trail called “Just Outstanding” that took a couple of hours to descend.

Where did their motivation come from? What, actually, is motivation?

One obvious clue is that it stems from the word “motive.” One has a reason to pursue a thing and when one pursues it one is deemed “motivated.” It’s a simple concept. Motivation is nothing more than the will to achieve your end. It isn’t a magical elixir or elusive state of mind accessible only to the chosen few, it’s the drive every person has to do every single thing that requires overcoming an obstacle. For Al the obstacles were gravity, mobility, and small spaces; for the MTB riders the obstacles were gravity, large objects, steep drops, and sudden unplanned stops, occasionally of the head-first variety.

In no case do we say that a person is motivated to do that which is effortless. “Motivated to eat ice cream,” “Motivated to sit and watch TV,” “Motivated to fuck off all day.” It’s only when we have to struggle to attain the end that we start thinking about motivation. But oddly enough, we seldom stop to think what the actual motive is. Instead, we look to motivation as if it’s some magical chemical in the coke can or coffee cup, some divine inspiration that drives people to greatness and the lack of which dooms us to the pedestrian, boring, ordinary failures of life.

However, since we are all motivated throughout the day, it’s easy to divine our motives, and these are the problem, not the absence of “motivation.” Al’s deepest motive is food satiation and he orders his life and his family’s life around that. It’s not easy to be morbidly obese and there are numerous aspects of it that are hardly fun. And it’s time consuming, expensive, and subject to unjust social opprobrium of the worst sort.

The MTB riders were motivated by the thrill and skill of the descent, not by the agony and physical exertion of the climb. Their motivation was clear and easy to understand, and that ride had gobs of it.

This plays out with everyone and it’s instantly recognizable: The person motivated to work hard for money, the person motivated to spend all day commuting on the freeway for a job, the person motivated to study hard to pass the bar exam, the person motivated to drink or do drugs for relief from stress, the person motivated to take great risks for fame, or the person motivated to buy organic food for a (supposedly) longer life.

Of course when the answer to “How do I get motivated?” is “You’re already motivated,” it’s disappointing to say the least because the person asking the question doesn’t want it pointed out that they are motivated by food satiation, money, celebrity, rent money, pride, social status, or any other of the things that truly motivate people.

When people ask the question “How do I get motivated?” what they really mean is “How do I change my motives?” In hard terms, “How do I become different from who I am?”

And the answer to that is not simple, because as even the smallest child knows, “Change is hard.”

Questions about motivation are really questions about being. “Who am I?” and “Who do I want to become?” and “What am I willing to endure along the way?” Because motivation requires you to overcome obstacles, and because people are inherently lazy, it’s a daunting prospect to say the least, cf. diets.

“Know thyself” was the immortal advice of Socrates, and this is the path to motivation, not tricks or tips or early alarm clocks or to-do lists or personal trainers or lifestyle coaches or the therapist’s couch.

When you live in society, knowing yourself is exceedingly hard because much of what we do is a reaction to the demands, expectations, and suggestions of others. How can we separate our innate wants and desires, our deepest motives, when they are tangled up with the infinite motives of others?

Look no further than social media to see how paralyzing outer influences can be on self-knowledge. The curated photos more perfect than any plastic surgery, the glowing reports of life lived successfully and perfectly blissful in paradise, and the suggestion/coercion that YOUR life should be just as perfect is enough to derail even the most single-minded student of self.

Nor is self-knowledge enhanced by excessive knowledge of the political and social and scientific world around us. Some basic understanding of those processes is critical, but to immerse oneself in the daily swamp of vitriol, polemic, and opinions-wielded-as-facts diverts the only resource we have, our reflection, from its most important object, to the most trivial. What good is it to have an opinion on anything if you don’t know yourself?

None. None at all.

As with all obvious choices, the simple decision to know thyself is the most arduous route of all, and it brings to mind this immortal poem by Stephen Crane, “The Wayfarer,” which sums up the conundrum of striking forth along the obvious, well-marked, and undeniably proper path of truth, which is nothing more than self-knowledge.

The wayfarer,
Perceiving the pathway to truth,
Was struck with astonishment.
It was thickly grown with weeds.
“Ha,” he said,
“I see that none has passed here
In a long time.”
Later he saw that each weed
Was a singular knife.
“Well,” he mumbled at last,
“Doubtless there are other roads.”

Stephen Crane, 1899

What was true in 1899 was true in 1899 BC, and long before that. Finding motivation is really nothing more than finding yourself, and the precursor to that is recognizing the motivation you currently have and what it says about your motives. It’s a harsh mirror that can’t be tricked with a little nip-and-tuck or a better photo filter.

Standing in the bathroom and gazing soulfully at the scraggly sag that stares back isn’t, perhaps, even all that effective. The mirror is manmade and the reflection is artificial under artificial light.

Where can you get an honest assessment?

Look no farther than outside, where the sunlight is harshest at midday, but where evening and morning lend an unspeakable softness and beauty to even the hardest granite crags. Look no farther than outside, where the tiny limits of your little speck of a home give way to the vast breadth of sky, so broad that you have to pivot full circle to see it all.

This is the environment most unforgiving but most forgiving, most critical but most accepting, most indifferent but most filled with warmth and love. Whoever “you” really are, nature will reveal it. And the good news is that we only have a few types. Briggs-Stratton and Rorschach notwithstanding, every single person is, or once was, capable of mercy, of love, of gratitude, and of happiness. In order to get at those things, though, you need a motive–you need self-knowledge–and all you seem to have is a Catch .22 because you can’t get motivated without self-knowledge, and you can’t get self-knowledge without motivation.

Pass the beer. The syringe. The Facebook. Whatever.

It goes without saying that if you’ve read this far you really have an excess of time on your hands, or you’re in jail, or you have more than an academic interest in motivation.

Which brings us to what I started with, the source of mine. Maybe my experience is a red herring. You be the judge.

This essay began with the question, “How do you stay motivated?” Because the assumption is that getting up every day, pedaling to a new destination, setting up camp, provisioning, combating hunger, weather, and exhaustion require some special motivation sauce not readily available at Safeway.

Well, it doesn’t.

To the contrary, being outdoors for the better part of a year now has shown me an ever-clarifying picture of who I am: Hairy, bearded, smelly, introspective, loving, patient, slow, accepting, and eager to learn the tiny secrets that nature reveals in her daily, minute-by-minute variety show of animals, birds, insects, stones, waters, skies, plants, storms, and stars.

I’m a student and will be for life, and my motive is to learn and to pass on the crumbs that I’m lucky enough to collect. In me there is no greatness, no fame, no novelty, no originality, nothing remarkable, unique, irreplaceable, or otherwise an exception to Ecclesiastes 1:9, “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”

How I got to this place is less important than what it teaches every single person out there looking for “motivation” to lose weight, be happier, quit drinking, have less anxiety, get richer, live healthier, be more active, quit spending so much time on Pornhub, and every other failed New Year’s Resolution ever. It teaches us that what we need isn’t motivation, but someone to teach us who we really are, and that someone is nature, and it’s right outside your front door.

Don’t be surprised when you step out and get rained on, snowed on, or when it’s too hot, too humid, or when the mosquitoes descend in a cloud.

Don’t be surprised when your legs ache, your lungs burn, your back hurts, or your joints throb.

Don’t be surprised when sleep in a tent seems worse than a bed of nails, when your nature getaway turns into a state park jamboree filled with howling drunks, growling generators, and terrible music played past midnight.

Instead, take those as the singular blades of grass that cut sharply but not mortally. Take confidence that each tiny scar impels you another step down the path of truth and of knowing thyself.

Believe with all your heart that motivation is nothing harder, nothing easier, nothing uglier, and nothing more beautiful, than you.


The answer

April 17, 2021 Comments Off on The answer

Hi Seth,

Your most recent post about forgiveness was beautifully expressed.  It is true that forgiveness benefits the offender, but I have also seen forgiveness benefit those who forgive.  Forgiveness has an underrated and extraordinary ability to relieve the anger and pain of the person who was harmed.  Clearly some acts make forgiveness difficult to imagine, but the greater the harm the greater potential to heal.  Not until we forgive can we set aside or move past the consequence of the harm that was done. 

By way of example, I want to tell you what happened to the 17-year-old gang member who shot me in ’97. I sent you an email a few years back on gun violence and related the events of that night. What you don’t know is the “ending” of the story. I call it an ending, but it was really more of a beginning.

In 2016 I attended Jason’s first parole hearing. I went to the hearing prepared to argue that he should remain in prison for the rest of his life. Even though I was attending to speak as the victim, I prepared like I would for a trial.

Jason was serving life in San Quentin and I expected to see a hardened, tattooed, remorseless prison gangster. When they led Jason into the hearing room, I was surprised to see a shackled, slightly overweight, shuffling middle age man with glasses and downcast eyes. He looked like he was going to his execution and he was nothing like the killer I expected.

What followed affected me profoundly. I learned that Jason had taught himself to read and write in solitary, that he was a good worker who cleaned the prison hospital and that he was sorry for what he had done. I remember writing on my legal pad “not what I expected.” While I’m sure that some victims appreciate these hearings as an extension of the punishment the offender deserves, I was ashamed to be a member of a society that would subject anyone to such scrutiny. The hearing included a thorough recitation of Jason’s childhood, foster care, juvenile and adult criminal history, incarceration offense, prison misconduct, and as a final indignity they went line by line through a psychological evaluation. It was not lost on me that the stakes of these hearings are nothing less than one’s freedom.

Once the commissioners finished their recitation, Jason was allowed to speak.  While I was moved by his apology, he said two things that resonated with me.  The first thing he said was he had always viewed the police as just another gang.  Better funded maybe, but a gang nonetheless.  He next told a story about how during his attendance at one of his self-help groups he met with a retired police officer who volunteered his time at the prison.  Through tears he told how much it meant to him that this retired officer would listen to the story without judging or shunning him. 

When it was my turn to speak, I went through with most of my presentation, but when I reached the end I told the commission that because of what I heard I would not ask them to deny Jasons parole. I told them that I would respect whatever decision they made.

Jason was denied parole that time, but I could not stop thinking about what happened at the hearing and what he had said. The more I thought about his description of the police as simply another gang, the more I realized that, he was right, at least from his perspective. With that realization I began to understand that we were both simply doing what each of us had been trained to do [Ed. Note: Tom is a retired policeman.] Considering his upbringing, illiteracy, physical and emotional abuse, and all of his negative contacts with the police I began to see that the violence of that night was all but inevitable. Once this became clear to me, I realized that his apology was unnecessary. Once I understood why it happened, I was able to release whatever anger I still harbored.

However, while I may have been able to let go of my anger, my wife was not. It would be difficult for me to effectively and fully express the degree to which the shooting harmed my wife. When Jason was sentenced to prison, so was she. She suffered deep depression, substance abuse, and an intense fear for her safety and mine. For most of the first 10 years she hardly left the house and spent most of time sleeping or self-medicating. She was in a masters English program and trying to teach at our local JC, but she was never able to finish her thesis and she simply walked out of her English class one day, and has never returned. While things eventually improved I feared that she had been irreparably broken.

When I was given notice of Jason’s first parole hearing I asked Christy if I should attend, and while the idea that Jason might get out of prison clearly terrified her, she told me that if it was important to me, that I should go. When I returned from the hearing and told her what I had done, I was surprised that she didn’t object to my decision.

What Jason had said about the retired police officer got me thinking that I could have a similar or even greater influence on his life if I were to offer my help. About a year later, at Jason’s second parole hearing, I got that chance. At the second hearing, I again told the board that I would respect whatever decision they made but that I wanted to reach out to Jason and help him, if I could. I told the board that I had come to understand why he had shot me and that because I understood I would accept his apology if it helped him, but that for myself it was unnecessary. When they denied Jason parole a second time, I realized that if he wanted my help he would be unable to contact me. In fact he was precluded from contact by a stay-away order. Not really knowing what my next step would be, I contacted the Department of Corrections Victim Services, who put me in touch with the Victim Offender Dialogue program.

The assigned facilitator, Martina Lutz-Schneider, next began the lengthy process to determine whether our talking to one another was a good idea. All through this process, Christy continued to support me, even as I could see that she was increasingly anxious and fearful. That said, every time I told her that I would back out of the dialogue if she wanted me to, she would simply say that I should keep going if it was important to me.

As the dialogue approached, Martina asked me to think about having a support person attend the dialogue with me. She said this was important even if I didn’t need the support, because as time passed it would be valuable to be able to talk about the dialogue with someone I was close with, who was able to witness our dialogue.

One night while I was trying to figure out who would be a good candidate, I asked Christy if she had any thoughts on who would be good and to my complete surprise, she said “What about me?” To be clear, given her fear of Jason, she was the last person I would have thought to ask.

As the day of the dialogue approached, Christy became increasingly anxious and fearful, but every time I suggested we cancel, she told me no, that she knew this was important to me and she insisted the dialogue go forward.

The day of the dialogue, Christy was too frightened to be in the same room with Jason, but she was able to watch it via a monitor set up by a documentary film crew.   Jason and I had a great conversation, we laughed and cried and I found myself thinking what a waste it was that he had been abused and thrown away by society.  We talked for a couple of hours and at a break, the producer approached and said that Christy wanted to talk to Jason.  I found my wife in tears and she told me that she could see the remorse in his eyes and that she wanted to tell him that she was proud of what he had accomplished in prison that she forgave him. 

I know that I will never again in my life see anything as beautiful as my wife walking into that room, throwing her arms around the man who nearly killed me and opening up her heart. 

I hope that I haven’t taken too long to get to the point, but your apology and plea for forgiveness reminded me of the power contained in both the apology and the forgiving. Since that day, my wife is a different person or rather she is person whose strength and beauty are a distillation of her struggle to confront her deepest, darkest fears. Her act of forgiveness released her from her prison and has led to a succession of amazing events, not the least of which is her support for his release at his third and last parole hearing.

The anger generated by that act of violence could have destroyed us, but the simple acts of understanding and forgiveness instead made us all better, stronger, more compassionate and loving human beings.

Jason texts Christy and I every morning and I can’t tell you how much joy that simple act gives us. 

To each person you apologized to, you gave a key to unlock their self-imposed confinement. You can’t make people do anything, but your act of humility and contrition has the power to allow them to release themselves and that is a beautiful gift.

Thank you for your insight, self awareness, and for taking us along on your journey.

Kindest Regards,

Requiem for a dad

April 13, 2021 Comments Off on Requiem for a dad

Franklin Chandler Davidson died today surrounded by his cats and his wife.

He didn’t pass, go onto his reward, reunite with his maker, set his burden down, or expire peacefully. He just fucking died. As Leadbelly sang in Poor Howard, “Old Howard’s dead and gone, left me here to sing this song.”

Dad’s dead and gone, and I’m the only son left to sing his song. It will be out of tune, scratchy, an original score, and have too many stanzas, but it will be sung from my heart, all true except for the parts that aren’t.

He just missed the 85-year mark, drifting off into death after complications that arose after getting his second covid vaccination. He was hospitalized for a short time with meningitis, which was beaten back with antibiotics that left him too feeble to ever recover.

It was a good run, dad. In your life you were hospitalized exactly once.

The dad who died was a shell of the dad who lived. Years of dementia had left him in a terribly degraded state, the very thing he feared most. I remember him once telling me, when death was more theory than practice, that he wanted “to be pushed to the curb and left to die” if he ever became senile.

Brave but unfulfilled words, like one of his favorite pieces of advice, “Die young and make a good-looking corpse.” He hung onto life tenaciously long after his mental faculties were gone.

And what mental faculties they were! Phi Beta Kappa as a philosophy major at UT Austin, journalist for the Daily Texan, journalist for the Texas Observer, Fulbright Scholar in Poitiers, writer for Harper’s, admitted to Harvard, Brown, Columbia, and Princeton for graduate school (he chose Princeton), full professor at Rice University, only faculty member ever to hold dual endowed chairs in political science and sociology, department chairman, expert witness in countless voting rights cases, cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in Bolden v. City of Mobile, oral historian of Texas politics, author of numerous books, countless papers, winner of university-wide teaching awards, lover of poetry and literature, and damned handy with a manual post-hole digger.

Dad could write eulogies, too, and for a period of years, as parents and older relatives died off, he was much in demand at funerals. Dad got to the essence of the good in a person’s life. He made you cry, but he made you grateful that someone with such a gift for words had spoken beautifully and thoughtfully about the dead.

Dad was good with kids a lot of the time, too. One time our friends were over, including Jimmy Superville, who seemed destined for prison and an early grave.

“Okay, boys,” dad said. “We’re gonna have a shit picking contest to see who can clean up the most dogshit in the yard the fastest!”

You never saw a bunch of kids go after anything so hard, and in ten minutes we had picked up six months’ worth of dried turds. The winner? Jimmy Superville.

“Jimmy!” dad said, “I declare you the all-time champion shit-picker!”

It was likely the only thing he had ever won, and not only was he proud, but we were envious.

Of course dad was also a bonafide sonofabitch. Arrogant, overweening, skeptical of the intellect of others, in love with titles and academic pedigrees, misogynistic to mom and abusive to his sons, stingy beyond reason, overly fond of booze, and possessed of a violent temper that he vented on defenseless kids … dad was complicated, contradictory, lovable, hateable, human.

Why? Because dad was born on a West Texas ranch into a mean-ass cattle ranching family whose saving grace was his mother Sarah. If dad’s ideas of discipline were odious, his father’s were barbaric. Sarah was the first person on either side of the family to attend college, and his dad Frank was an ill-tempered, murderous Border Patrol agent who 4-F’d out of the Marines due to flat feet.

If dad got the mean streak from Frank, he got the gentleness and bookishness from Sarah. That love he passed on with incredible passion to Ian and me. We could read by age four, and he used us at ages five and six to review the proofs of his first book, Biracial Politics, which on publication got a glowing review from C. Vann Woodward in the New York Review of Books.

“That review got me on tenure track at Rice,” he later told me.

He read us stories at night, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Hobbit, and so many more. And he read with such excitement! On a penurious salary at Rice with a young family he insisted on buying the Book House series, a World Book and later Britannica encyclopedias.

In my violent and crazy home, words were honored. Writing was beauty. Writers were nobility.

And TV? We never had one. “TV is for idiots,” he would say, which only made us lust even more for Gilligan’s Island and Gunsmoke.

Dad’s trajectory was scattered. He sold real estate, Fuller brushes, worked in the oilfields, and served in the navy on the USS Thomaston between Korea and Vietnam. His name is engraved on the plaque of hometown veterans in Fort Davis, Texas.

He left El Paso, where he graduated at the top of Ysleta High School, destined to become a Baptist preacher, only to lose his religion one day swabbing the decks of the Thomaston. He enlisted to earn enough money to finish college, but his religion began unraveling before that.

“There was a guy in my co-op, Abe, a Jew. I was always trying to convert him. Then one day he said, ‘Well, Chandler, what if a person doesn’t believe the New Testament?’ I was flabbergasted,” dad said. “It had never occurred to me that people might not believe those words. That they might not be true.”

He’d been raised among the bible beaters but quickly left them behind.

When the scales fell from his eyes he realized that he was surrounded by the social injustice of segregation. Austin’s movie theaters didn’t allow blacks, so dad joined a group that fought against and that successfully desegregated the theaters. A great YouTube story about it is here.

Dad’s social conscience led him to switch Ph.D. programs from philosophy to sociology at Princeton, after which he flunked his comprehensive exams and faced dismissal from the program. His professors gave him one more chance, and six months later he passed. Dad’s thinning hair thinned a bunch during those years, I’m sure.

He had married mom, had two unplanned kids, and was battling the demons of academic survival at Princeton. That toxic recipe, along with dad’s misogyny and mom’s profound unhappiness, began the process that put paid to their marriage after nineteen years. And unhappy though they might have been, in good times dad lavished love on his sons.

He bought us bikes and taught us how to ride them, then took us on bike rides.

He converted our wagon into a plywood airplane and dragged it endlessly around the block, replete with airplane engine sounds.

He taught us to play baseball and started a thousand sandlot games at our neighborhood park in Galveston.

He took us camping and floating down the Rio Frio.

He taught me how to birdwatch.

He took us to see The Fugs.

He took us to the memorial service for Mance Lipscomb.

He took us to war protests.

He taught us to love Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie.

He took us backpacking in the Rockies.

He taught us to swim in pools, lakes, and oceans.

He took us sailing, taught us to fish, and how to appreciate the majesty of a sunrise.

He taught us to hate racism and discrimination in all its forms, and we were allowed to hate Republicans if we so desired.

He thought the Second Amendment was dumb but taught us gun safety and how to shoot a .22.

He taught us how to sharpen a knife.

He taught us that long hair on boys was okay, and that you shouldn’t judge people by the clothes they wear.

He taught us how to barbecue a brisket and how to safely shoot off fireworks.

He taught us to save money, not to owe money to credit card companies, and to fear debt.

And he showed us how to love animals, whether dogs, cats, or guinea pigs. As a boy his dad had made a big deal out of dad’s first deer hunt. Frank had rifles and pistols galore, a physically little man yearning to be big. “I shot the deer,” dad told me, “and ran over to it. It was such a beautiful animal.”

To Frank’s chagrin, he cried, and worse, never hunted again. He was eight.

But even as dad devoted his life to social justice, he never fully understood racism. He had few if any black friends when I was growing up, and his circle consisted mostly of white guys. He never saw that you can be part of the solution, but also part of the problem. When mom entered medical school, dad insisted we live on the black side of town, at 1512 Rosenberg. We were the first white kids to attend Booker T. Washington Elementary, since demolished.

We protested mightily, but dad said, “Only way you’ll ever get along with other people is through integration.” However much he failed personally in that regard, he was right and he succeeded with me and Ian.

Dad had a cadre of students from the 60’s who loved him, guys like Bill Ross, who earned dad’s respect at a party by jumping up and down on our car, ruining the hood.

“What the hell are you doing?” dad had yelled.

“I’m fucking up your car for the lousy C you gave me!” Bill shot back. Boom. Lifelong friends.

Dad was at the forefront of the LGBT movement at Rice. A young woman who would later become the first lesbian mayor of Houston came into his office one day in 1980. Dad had a big poster that said, “You have not converted a man because you have silenced him.”

“Will you be the faculty sponsor for our club?” the woman asked.

“I don’t know. What is it?”

“The gay and lesbian student association.”

“Why don’t you get one of the gay or lesbian faculty members to sponsor you?”

“They all refused.”

Dad didn’t miss a beat. “I’d be honored,” he said.

When mom dumped dad he fell into a depression, but pulled himself out of it by fucking his way through the dating scene like a scythe through silk panties. Dad was a dick but eligible: full professor, mid-40’s, looked a bit like Sean Connery, a happy drunk who loved a good time.

Dad’s family consisted of his second wife, his brother Tony, sister-in-law Robin, their kids Josh and Chelsea (and Chelsea’s family), niece Hilary and nephew Evan, me, daughter-in-law Yasuko, granddaughter Cassady, her husband Torazo and their three boys Ringoro, Kohaku, and Suzunami, grandson Hans and his wife Julia, and grandson Woodrow. Dad’s cousin Eddie, the only person he ever forgave for being a Republican, and with whom he grew up on the ranch, is alive and kicking in Ft. Worth.

Time and his second marriage marriage beat dad down in a good way, especially with respect to his grandkids. He took them to the ocean, to chess tournaments, far afield to Dauphin Island, to Disneyworld, and a thousand times to the neighborhood swimming pool. He never yelled at, and certainly never struck them.

When I married in Japan in 1987, dad was the only member of my family who came to the wedding. He loved Japan and his daughter-in-law, and doted on our kids.

But after my brother shot himself, dad was never the same. He never saw his role in the tragedy, could never see the connection between his and mom’s abuse and the sad outcome 49 years later. Like many fathers, dad feared his sons. We were never good or smart enough, even though Ian went to Penn on a full doctoral program scholarship. That insecurity, arrogance, and fear of failure he passed on to us.

I recognized dad’s mental decline several years ago, when I convinced him to join me on a trip to Germany to visit my eldest son. He was disoriented, fearful, and utterly incapacitated in such a foreign environment. When I told his wife upon our return, she denied it. Sometimes we only see what we want to see.

For years his good friend Barbara, whose own mother died of dementia, took him to lunch and kept his spirits up in the face of the obvious. But inevitable means something.

Last November I rode my bike to Texas to say goodbye. I knew I’d never see him again. We sat there and talked, him doing everything he could to pull it together, just for a little while. And he did.

We got to talking about poetry, and I told him I was memorizing the Canterbury Tales in Middle English.

“Oh my gosh,” he said. “Let’s hear some of it!”

I obliged. His face lit up, old synapses firing might and main. “That’s wonderful!” he exclaimed.

No one had ever asked to hear it before. Of course dad would.

Love you, dad.

‘Crossing things up: A conversation with Amanda Nauman

March 19, 2021 Comments Off on ‘Crossing things up: A conversation with Amanda Nauman

From career cyclocross racer to career gravel rider, Amanda Nauman has seen just about everything that the dirt, mud, and inclement weather can throw at her. Apparently, the more the merrier; she won Unbound Gravel in 2015 and 2016 when it was known as Dirty Kanza, has stood on the top step at the Belgian Waffle Ride, and won the Rock Cobbler despite the promoter’s assertion that “It’s not a race.”

Do you pin on a number? Is there a start time and a finish line? Then if Amanda Nauman’s involved … it’s a race.

She has watched the changes in domestic racing and been a force as participant, competitor, organizer, and mentor. She shared her time with me a couple of weeks ago to answer a “few” questions. Enjoy!

Seth Davidson: How is gravel different from road racing? The thought here is that road racing was originally on unpaved roads, cobbles, and goat paths, which seems very similar to gravel.

Amanda Nauman: In its truest sense I don’t think it is different from road or MTB. Put at least two people together with a finish line, and it’s a race no matter the bike or terrain. A lot of people see road racing as structured and rigid with categories and rules. On the flip side, gravel’s an unsanctioned, free-for-all, mass-start style of racing. So when you ask me how they’re different, I don’t think of the dirt or pebble sizes, I think of the rules or lack thereof. The racing is the same.

Seth Davidson: Cycling seems to have a plethora of disciplines compared to other sports. Why? Is that a good thing?

Amanda Nauman: I come from a swimming background, there are four strokes and everybody’s good at their own strokes and distances within those strokes. So for me, having that individuality within a sport is just how it is and totally normal. There are many ways people can express themselves on a bike; much like in swimming everyone had their own stroke or distance. I think it’s great that there are different ways people can get on two wheels, fast or slow or sketchy or whatever. It’s a good thing, cycling’s a large umbrella.

Seth Davidson: What do men need to know about gender discrimination in sports?

Amanda Nauman: That it exists. That’s what I want men to know, and not pretend it doesn’t exist and that everything’s equal. And I want them being open to have conversations about how to make women feel more included and equal. That awareness is the only thing I’d want to stress.

Seth Davidson: Have you experienced discrimination as an athlete?

Amanda Nauman: Not that I can think of explicitly. I have certainly been in work environments where I was treated differently because I was an athlete pursuing a racing goal. And I’ve definitely felt like I haven’t been treated equally or fairly as a woman when it comes to race results and sponsorship opportunities. It’s a subjective space that’s hard to quantify of point to a specific example, but I’ve felt it.

Seth Davidson: Have you experienced discrimination in your non-cycling life

Amanda Nauman: No, luckily.

Seth Davidson: Your mom is Indonesian and ethnically Chinese. Did she face discrimination here?

Amanda Nauman: No, and I spoke with her about it before this interview. She has absolutely experienced racist comments but not discrimination. She hasn’t outwardly felt like someone was making a comment or preventing her from doing something because she was a woman or minority. She left an oppressive country at age fourteen because her parents knew there were better opportunities for her in the United States. [In Indonesia] women were given this box you had to fit in, no career, just stay at home and have kids and it was a waste of time to pursue higher education. She had the complete opposite mindset and drive in that regard and saw the US as a place to pursue these things she couldn’t pursue in Indonesia. We never really talk too much about the fact that her ancestors were Chinese, but when she was younger, Indonesia went through a nationalistic phase and her family was forced to change their names and become more “Indonesian.” It’s wild to imagine a place where that was acceptable, the government telling you that your name was too Chinese you need to change it. She has experienced discrimination like this in Indonesia, which is why she came here. The US gave her opportunity and freedom she wouldn’t have otherwise had. She went to an engineering school and wanted to fly helicopters, and that wasn’t going to happen in Indonesia, but she came here and did it. She set a great example for me growing up, even though we never explicitly talked about it, that women can do whatever they want; and if this is something you want to do, don’t ever let the fact you’re a woman or Asian be a reason why you shouldn’t.

Seth Davidson: What do you think about having separate women’s fields in gravel events?

Amanda Nauman: I have mixed feelings depending on the course, the event, the style of race that it is. It’s dependent on those variables. For example, in 2016 when I won BWR they tried a women’s category where we started in between a couple different waves of men. It turned into a strategic game of planning to jump in with the men coming up behind us and each woman trying to get away from the other women. So depending on how it’s implemented, it adds a layer that can be more strategic.

Seth Davidson: Does it distort race results when women mix in with groups of men?

Amanda Nauman: No way. I think that’s part of the game and part of the strategy depending on the event, especially BWR where it’s more road racing style and there’s way more opportunity to stay in a group on the road and spread out on the dirt. It doesn’t distort it at all. I think where it becomes muddied is if a group enters with the plan of having a man or multiple men pulling a woman or group of women as far as possible with the goal to win. In the natural selection of a mixed category start, how people are able to move around, move up, or get away, that’s part of the racing. But if a group of guys show up to just protect a woman from the wind, yeah, people have a problem with it, otherwise it’s just natural selection and that’s part of the race.
Here’s an example: Last year at Mid South it was muddy and the front guys threw down when we hit the mud, probably eight minutes into the race. We were going as hard as we could and amidst the chaos I could see Hannah Finchamp get to a group just ahead of me. The realistic part of my brain knew that if I didn’t get there in those first few critical moments, there was a very high probability she was going to win if she escaped, and she did. Having the men in the mix adds to the group dynamics and allows the racing to shake out much differently. Had she been solo with just the women’s field chasing her, maybe we could’ve brought her back and made it a much closer race. But that’s not how the cookie crumbles in the mass start format of gravel.

Seth Davidson: How do you like racing with men?

Amanda Nauman: It’s awesome and super fun. I appreciate riding and racing with like-minded cyclists regardless of gender.

Seth Davidson: How do you like starting with/racing against recreational riders?

Amanda Nauman: It’s great. I never had an issue with that. I think it’s awesome. I raced triathlons in college, and starting just minutes behind the professional fields was inherently part of that sport. I loved being an amateur racer and having the opportunity to compare myself to professionals on the same course. Here’s an example from when I went to the 2012 Saint Croix 70.3. At the time, Lance Armstrong was racing triathlons again and I was a big fan. The swim start at that event takes place on an island offshore. I had swum over to the island as a warm-up and I remember him getting out of the water right next to me. I couldn’t believe it. Another time, I was at Age Group ITU World Championships in New Zealand and walking around the venue near Sarah True (Sarah Groff at the time). I was starstruck and stoked to be doing the same event. Those are special moments for me, and I always think about that because of the position I’m in now. I’ve found success racing gravel and cyclocross and I’m aware there are women and juniors who look up to me. I recognize the importance of being at events and taking time to connect with the community. If I can be welcoming and motivational, I understand the impact that can make on recreational riders or aspiring racers. I want to be a good example and put on a good show for bike racing fans at the same time.

Seth Davidson: What do you think about professional gravel racers?

Amanda Nauman: I’ve seen the evolution of that identity first-hand. In the beginning I would have laughed at the concept because gravel races were hardly even a classification. As the popularity of the discipline rose, so did the popularity of the figures at the front of the racing. It was a natural evolution of brands wanting to be associated with the rise in popularity. In gravel, the “professionals” are more brand ambassadors than anything else. I remember listening to an interview with Ian Boswell a year ago after announcing he was going into gravel and he was asked whether he considered himself a professional athlete anymore. He said no because he was no longer in the drug testing pool and he now had a desk job. If Ian lines up at some of the big gravel events this year, he’ll be lining up with people who absolutely consider themselves professional gravel racers. So perhaps that label is whatever you want it to be. And to each their own on how they choose to identify.

Seth Davidson: Do you want to see more or fewer World Tour pros in gravel events?

Amanda Nauman: I think the more, the merrier. As this discipline evolves there’s no hiding that the UCI sees it as an opportunity to create something for themselves. Even though this is an unpopular opinion, I think it would be worthwhile to have a separate show for the UCI license-holding riders. I’ve heard people say it would be cool to have an Unbound Gravel type of event that was for pros only and be able to do the t.v. media coverage, and have all the narratives just around the pros. Just imagine a Strade Bianche style race in the Flint Hills with the fastest riders in the world dueling it out. I know that’s intriguing and appealing to me as a fan, and I think there’s something to that format. There’s an opportunity to have an elite level of gravel events and it feels like just a matter of time before that happens. As much as I hate to admit it’s a possibility, the more that World Tour pros show up to unsanctioned gravel events, the more the UCI is going to want a piece of that cake. There’s no doubt that elevating the speed, intensity, and professionalism will make more people interested. But how this involves, well, I’m curious to see myself.

Seth Davidson: What unique obstacles do women have to overcome as competitive cyclists?

Amanda Nauman: Being given the same respect as men. It goes back to one of your first questions, it’s in the same vein, women have to overcome the fact that they aren’t treated completely equal yet. It’s weird to think back in 2011 and 2012 how much I just accepted the fact that we were treated differently and less than the men. At the time cyclocross was in a transition period in Europe. Prize money was starting to become more equal and the schedules were getting rearranged, so the elite women didn’t have to race so early in the morning. It was ridiculous that we accepted anything less than that as the norm for so long. There have been a lot of little wins in the past decade like getting the Junior Women 17-18 category the recognition it deserves and I’m hopeful that one day it will feel completely equal and we can tell stories of how ridiculous it was before change was demanded.

Seth Davidson: What do you think about gender discrimination in equipment design such as saddles?

Amanda Nauman: My longest running sponsor is SDG Components and they’ve been at the forefront of offering a female-specific saddle. When it comes to saddles and saddle companies, I believe that soft tissue relief has been addressed for men and women. Women have been given options that are as good or better than men in that regard.

Seth Davidson: Are you more or less data-driven than your competitors?

Amanda Nauman More. I have a math brain and went to an engineering school. I love Excel and I do a lot of calculations. Way more than my competitors.

Seth Davidson: Do you typically train with a power meter?

Amanda Nauman: Yes. I have a power meter on my gravel bike, my road bike, and typically on one of my ‘cross bikes. For my spare ‘cross bikes and my mountain bikes, I use heart rate data.

Seth Davidson: Is MTB or ‘cross a better training ground for gravel racing?

Amanda Nauman: ‘Cross, but both are great. The handling skills required on your gravel bike you can learn from being efficient in a ‘cross race setting. For sure my ‘cross background gave me a leg up in gravel racing. My first Dirty Kanza win was 2015, the “mud year.” Without my ‘cross experience, there were issues I’d never have been able to manage. For instance, knowing the feeling of when your derailleur is about to snap because it’s clogged with mud is inherent knowledge for a ‘cross racer. There were so many sheared derailleurs that year because most people don’t know what it’s like to ride through peanut butter mud.

Seth Davidson: What do you think about Major Taylor?

Amanda Nauman: The first word I thought of was trailblazer. I’ve been to the Major Taylor Velodrome and it’s a great tribute to someone who became a role model for any athlete who has faced discrimination. His autobiography is titled, The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World: The Story of a Colored Boy’s Indomitable Courage and Success Against Great Odds. He wanted to be remembered as someone who faced challenges when many things were stacked against him, and did the best he could despite the circumstances. When I think of Major Taylor, I think of Cullen Jones. In 2008 he was the first African-American to hold a world record in swimming (4x100m free relay). He had that presence of someone doing something that’s not the norm and showing people that it’s possible, just like Major Taylor did. It’s great because Cullen took that opportunity and platform and now spends a lot time working with different organizations to try and dispel that stereotype that black people don’t swim. It’s interesting to look at what is happening in that realm and how it translates to cycling. He’s said that a lot of people tell him and think, “I can’t swim because I can’t float.” He says that’s not an excuse not to learn how to swim. “I can’t float either, and I have Olympic medals.” In that culture it’s been ingrained and he’s working hard to show people the stereotypes don’t matter, you can still rise above it.

Seth Davidson: Do organizers do a good job of marketing to the black community?

Amanda Nauman: I think organizers don’t do a good job of marketing, period. I’ve always had this beef with organizers specifically. Most bike racing organizers don’t have this marketing skill set and a lot of that probably comes from wearing too many different hats and not being able to focus on it. As a whole they can improve on marketing, period, but this question can apply more to USAC where it’s about development, nurturing, creating a community. I don’t feel like it’s the job of the race organizer. If cycling is a thing we want to grow within the black community and create more opportunities there, I feel like it’s more of a responsibility to the larger governing body than it is the individual race organizer.

Seth Davidson: How can we get more black kids racing bikes?

Amanda Nauman: It comes down to opportunity. Going back to Cullen Jones, he’s working at the root of why there aren’t enough black kids swimming. Perhaps the reason why a lot of people believe that black people can’t swim or don’t float is because we’re not addressing fear, stereotypes, legacies passed down over generations. In swimming, a lot of this stemmed from public pools being a racialized place many years ago.  Cullen realized he’d have to start at the bottom with education and changing the perception. With cycling, I don’t think it’s a question of “how” first. I think It’s a question of “why aren’t there more black kids racing bikes?” We need to answer that before we answer how to fix it. Lack of education, opportunities, safe areas to ride, that’s where we need to start. Then there will be more kids on bikes and then some of those kids will want to race. Going back to the marketing aspect, getting the cool factor instilled is a huge part, but also asking, “why don’t they think it’s cool right now?” A Nike ad with a black cyclist on a bike isn’t enough. At least I don’t believe that’s enough. If we find out why a majority of black kids don’t think cycling is cool, then we can start to fix that problem. We should be asking, “Why don’t you think it’s cool and what’s it going to take to motivate you to do it?”

Seth Davidson: What are the biggest challenges of promoting a new race?

Amanda Nauman: For us launching an event in the middle of a pandemic has been the biggest challenge. Realistically in a normal year in CA, it’s the permitting that’s the biggest challenge. Now that I’ve tried to make a race happen here, I understand why it’s so hard for promoters to do what they do. Promoting a new race specifically has been a challenge because there’s no precedence. We’re asking people to believe that David and I have gained enough experience at gravel events across the country and we know how to deliver a great event.

Seth Davidson: How do you want your Mammoth race to look in five years?

Amanda Nauman: The goal is to bring some semblance of the Kamikaze Bike Games back. It’s a famous festival they used to hold at the mountain, but it’s been canceled for a couple years now. We put Mammoth Tuff on the weekend that Kamikaze was normally held, the closing weekend of the bike park, in the hopes that we can reignite that flame. We want Mammoth to be a gravel destination, and on top of that the goal is to make it more than a gravel event, a reason for people to come back, celebrate and ride bikes in Mammoth.

Seth Davidson: ‘Cross used to be all the rage. Before that it was road racing. Now it’s gravel. Is this just a fad?

Amanda Nauman: I still think ‘cross is all the rage. ‘Cross still has a huge following in different parts of the country. Being in Tacoma, Washington for Cyclocross Nationals at the end of 2019 was a treat to see how much people absolutely love ‘cross in the Pacific Northwest. There are different pockets that have healthy local scenes and for those areas, ‘cross is still raging.
I don’t think gravel is a fad. I believe the discipline is in a transition phase of trying to figure itself out. It might look like a fad from the outside because of how many people are supporting the mass participation style of events. But it’s the lack of a license, the community feel, the ability to ride in the same event as your peers that will let this discipline live on. Time will tell how the discipline evolves, but the very root of gravel is community and coming together to do a challenging bike ride, and the passion for that won’t fizzle.

Seth Davidson: Is the racing community more collaborative or competitive? How?

Amanda Nauman: The UCI sanctioned disciplines I’ve raced in are way more competitive. On the flip side, I’ve found the unsanctioned discipline of gravel to be extremely collaborative. I’ve been on Google Hangout meetings with other gravel racers and promoters, but I feel like that would never happen with ‘cross racers because it’s so much more cut-throat. Standings, rules, qualifications, points, everyone’s trying to get an edge up and that’s the nature of those sanctioned disciplines. Everyone’s in competition so why would there be collaboration? In gravel we’re all kind of in the same boat of doing races for fun and promotional reasons, not for a better UCI ranking or call-up number at a championship event. Therefore everyone is more willing to talk about schedules and projects to work on together.
I believe the pandemic shed a light on this during summer last year. A majority of the gravel community was quick to collectively say mass gatherings aren’t safe and racing can wait through the end of the year. On the flip side, many ‘cross racers were willing to race if given the opportunity over the fall and winter. Up until all of the UCI races were canceled for the season, the major opinion there was, “I’ll do whatever I can to race safely.” I was blown away because that mindset has been ingrained in the cut-throat, competitive atmosphere. If ‘cross racers don’t race, they lose points, standings, and positioning. If gravel racers don’t race, they simply lose the opportunity to race and market themselves. It feels like gravel racers have figured out how to make up that lost opportunity to sponsors whereas it’s tougher for the ‘cross racers. So that’s a long-winded example of my outlook on collaboration versus competition in the disciplines I’m familiar with.

Seth Davidson: Who inspires you?

Amanda Nauman: My mom. It goes back to the fact that she had an idea of what she wanted to do, found the things she was passionate about, and never let anyone tell her she couldn’t do those things. Growing up in a house with that mentality and being told I could do whatever I wanted to was very motivating. I was inspired by how deeply she cared about and pursued her passions no matter what.

Seth Davidson: What drives you?

Amanda Nauman: I’ve thought about that a lot this past year without having the external motivation of racing, and I think everyone was forced to ask that question. I’m driven to be the best at whatever I set my mind to. I’m definitely very competitive but I’m also very self-driven. Finding something I really care about and pursuing it 100% has always motivated me. I like knowing I gave everything I could towards a goal. For instance, I love the feeling of standing on a start line with all the confidence because I know I prepared well and all the work was done to get to that point. That’s just as satisfying a feeling as getting a good result, in my opinion.

Seth Davidson: What question do you wish you were asked in interviews?

Amanda Nauman: A lot of interviews miss the question of “What do you want to leave behind?” because that shows motivation behind a person. And I don’t get asked “Why do you do all this stuff?” very often.

Seth Davidson: What do you want to leave behind?

Amanda Nauman: Being a good inspiration for kids. Bike racing is a very selfish pursuit. Everything revolves around you and your goals. A few years ago, I was asked to be part of the Women’s CX Project by Corey Green, Brett Hungerford, and Scott Dedenbach. It was a pivotal point in my life because I was able to mentor and help junior racers. It was important because I realized I could give back the knowledge that I had acquired over the years. As soon as I saw that all the hard work David Sheek and I had done for me to find success in racing could be used to help junior racers find success, I found more of a purpose. It was such a great feeling to mentor the next generation of racers. From that experience, David and I started helping USAC with their CX Talent ID camp, and it became something I was more passionate about than strategizing to get a World Cup spot. Bike racing is inherently selfish and that external validation is the motivation for a lot of people, but I hope that most of them get to a point where they can share their expertise and knowledge with the next generation or development teams because then we’ll all be better for it.

Seth Davidson: Thanks, Amanda!

Amanda Nauman: You’re welcome.


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How happy works

March 18, 2021 § 7 Comments

I used to think that happiness was a point in time rather than a state. In other words, you could be happy, but after that brief moment you would feel something else. Whenever I met someone who claimed to always be happy I was skeptical, to put it mildly. They were people most often involved in sales by the way.

How can you essentially be happy all the time if you’re alive? If you are dealing with other people? If you are trying to navigate society and the world, if you are trying to survive?

Last night I was lying in my tent next to a creek. Two great horned owls called to one another immediately above me, and a third was calling farther off in the distance. The creek was filled with frogs with their nightly froggy chorus, and the crickets were chirping as if it were early spring, which of course it was.

I had spoken with my wife a couple of days prior, and she made it clear that things were over. Of course, how could they not be? I was the one who had behaved like a jerk, and I was the one who had precipitated and then continued onward with the separation.

But when you have been with someone for all of your adult life, and raised a family together, the binds are not so easily broken. Inside one small corner of my heart was the perverse and completely irrational hope that perhaps things could somehow, with magic, with therapy, with counseling, with tail of newt and heart of spider, be fixed.

Fixed? What does that even mean? People break up in so many different ways. Some shatter. Some crumble. Some petrify. Some simply slow down until they come to a complete halt. Stopped. No way forward and no way back. And of course how can you fix a thing that isn’t a thing? How can you fix a thing that isn’t broken? How can you resuscitate something that isn’t dead?

The answer, or at least one answer, is to set it down and move on as gently as you can. Such a branded word, “move on.” As if feelings and lifetimes are things that we simply graduate from, like high school. Shake a hand, get a slip of paper, listen to a song, and go on to the next place. Move on.

The realist in me knows that you can never move on, you only move in circles, orbiting those things that have greater mass. As she said to me, “You just want to be free, like a hummingbird, going from place to place as you wish, free, only free.”

The external things aren’t always the thing that tells you when a thing is done or when a thing is over. The spark in your heart, the tiny vibration on your heartstring, when that goes out, the thing is done, whether Your fault, her fault, the world’s fault, or no one’s fault. It just means it is over forever. It never comes again.

But in another way, when you realize it, you own it, and then everything begins to unwind. You realize you are still you, and the only thing that you have to do now is live. It is as simple or as complex as you choose to make it.

I lay there beneath the canopy listening to the night birds and the night sounds and the rustle of the water as it passed a few feet away. I had let the thing down, it weighed on me no more than the smallest of weights, a thing that my shoulders are certainly strong enough to carry.

I felt a profound happiness being outdoors, in the night, in nature, where I belong, where everyone belongs, and to where we will all return. I simply choose to return while I am still alive. And happily, at that.


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