Friday, May 29, 2009

May


Spring morning sunshine
Beams through my north side window
It is May, I see










Monday, May 25, 2009

The 93rd Running of the Indianapolis 500


Of course it isn't the same as being there. When you're at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, you are tuned in to the public address system, and aware of each passing moment as you move toward the 1:05 p.m. order: "Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines!" Notable steps on the journey include the Purdue University All-American Marching Band playing, "On the Banks of the Wabash" at 11:15, "America the Beautiful" at 12:43, "God Bless America" sung by Florence Henderson at 12:47, the National Anthem at 12:54, and flyover of vintage B-25 aircraft at 12:56.

The announcement, "Drivers to your cars!" is also made at 12:56, despite the fact that they've been in their cars for some time already. From their cockpits they listen to the invocation at 12:57, "Taps" at 1:02, and "Back Home Again in Indiana" sung by Jim Nabors at 1:03.

The precision with which these pre-race formalities were scheduled and carried out was always a source of wonder to me. We remain mostly unaware of the other times and places in our lives where the minutes are so carefully meted out.

As I said, it's different when you're not at the race in person. Unable to rely on the festive atmosphere to provide excitement, the television broadcast attempts to create it artificially with scripted commentary delivered by white-toothed TV journalists clad in simulation racing suits. These rookies, who couldn't tell Lloyd Ruby from Ruby Tuesday, breathlessly tell the viewer that it's time to get excited, just before cutting away to another commercial for GoDaddy.com.

In spite of the distance between Spokane and Indianapolis and the need to rely on ABC/ESPN for the coverage, I know what is going on, minute by minute at the track. I remember. I remember the hot sun on aluminum bleachers at 10:17, the worried gazes to the west at gathering storm clouds at 10:28, and the smell of fried chicken and Stroh's beer at 11:09. Beyond that, I remember the orders being called out the previous day at 1:02 p.m., "Boys, it's time to clean out the garage.", the starting of the charcoal at 4:19, my brothers and I singing to our mother at 8:13, and brother Bredy lugging out the famous, "Wheelbarrow of Beer" at 9:42.

I've used this space to write about time-binding and nostalgia, but written words do not do justice to the alluring power of the past, calling to us from somewhere just beyond our reach, often in the voices of loved ones lost. The sights, sounds and smells of the present moment instigate our time travel, but like the young sportscasters in their racing togs, the present always seems a dim and twisted reflection of the cherished moment we wish we could experience just once more.

At the conclusion of the Yom Kippur service and the Passover meal our Jewish friends recite the words, "Next Year in Jerusalem." Meaning no disrespect to the depth of their religious conviction, moved by the depth and intensity of my memories I offer my avowal: "Next Year in Indianapolis!" 

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Aiglatson


My dad used to have a lapel pin with the single word, Aiglatson, printed on it in such a way that the word seemed to be spiraling out of sight. The button always raised eyebrows, and elicited questions. "What does Aiglatson mean?" Of course, Aiglatson is nostalgia spelled backwards. The subtle, underlying message of the button is that we often twist and distort the past in the course of looking back on it.

I thought of Dad's old button when I read an article in the May issue of Funny Times, written by Co-publisher/editor Raymond Lesser. Entitled "Kite String Theory", the article waxed nostalgic about the good old days in which the author grew up. He noted, however, that everyone tends to wax nostalgic about their past, including a 12-year-old in his son's school class who wrote a poem about the lost simplicity of VHS videotapes.

Engaging in an episode of nostalgic remembrance once in a while is not altogether harmful, invoking as it does a pleasant feeling of warmth, not unlike eating nachos or tossing down a shot of peppermint schnapps. (Then again, wetting your pants also feels warm for a while, or so I've been told.) 

Much like dancing, playing cards or video games, and gardening, repeatedly entertaining nostalgic longing can become habit forming, leading to loss of productivity and general feelings of malaise.

Most dangerous are the times when we forget that nostalgia is a distortion. It is all too easy to become cynical and negative about the present, as well as the efforts of those trying to make the most of it, by constantly contrasting the here and now with the "Once upon a time...". 

I am especially concerned about institutions, including the Church, that have withdrawn from the hard, important work of visioning the future we wish to create. True visioning cannot take place when the most compelling image of the future a distorted, nostalgic longing for a comfortable past. As my mother was fond of saying, "Things just aren't like they used to be, and what's more, they never were."

One of our two (reportedly) national political parties has been characterized as The Party of 'No'. I think it's more accurate to say that the Republican Party is often The Party of No-stalgia, stating the desire to return this country to its former values, which imply Christian, male, white, English speaking, and heterosexual. The good old days are sought, like the 50's (1850's or 1950's...your choice). Of course, this begs the question, and distorts it, as to what extent the country ever truly embodied such values, and whether that extent was a good thing for anyone not Christian, male, white, English speaking or heterosexual.

In The Life of Reason, George Santayana wrote: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." I wonder what Santayana would have said about those who cannot remember the past objectively, yet employ their distorted, nostalgic recollections to justify present decisions and actions?


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A Green Future, or a Black, Stretchy One?


Sally and I attended the Spokane City Council Meeting yesterday evening to express our support for the passage of Spokane's Master Bike Plan. Our Council representative had encouraged us to attend after Sally forwarded him my last two posts about bike parking and connectivity. Once at the Council Chambers, we were encouraged to sign up to speak in favor of the plan. Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking, which is true for Sally, by the way, we signed up.

In her remarks Sally emphasized that she rides her bike for shopping as well as commuting, and that she makes decisions about where she shops in part by whether they have bike racks. I made the point that, unlike most of the other speakers, I was not an officer of any bicycle advocacy group. In the course of my statement I noted that I did not wear spandex, nor were my shoes permanently attached to my pedals. I stated my concern for bike facilities and plans that would allow everyone to be able to ride safely, including children, and amateurs like me.

Gauging by the response after the meeting, our remarks were well received. Members of the council and subsequent speakers made reference to our comments, which made us feel like the evening was well-spent.

After the meeting, however, a woman bedecked in black spandex pants, patterned jersey and reflective yellow vest approached me. Though she thanked me for my remarks, she vehemently stated that I really should get some spandex and proper clipless pedals and shoes. By the way, clipless pedals and shoes clip together, leaving me wondering why they are termed "clipless". The woman's disposition was reminiscent of brokers on the floor of a stock exchange or the two ladies who came to my door last week toting copies of The Watchtower. Yes, she was an enthusiast.

In response to the woman's stinging indictment I mumbled my usual excuses for being ill-equipped and underdressed while I ride. But I knew. In the depths of my being I knew that I stood convicted as a pretender, a would-be Ponce De Leon seeking to use my bike as a Fountain of Youth on two wheels, relishing the sensation of the wind blowing through my helmet and what's left of my hair.

After disentangling ourselves from my Inquisitor, Sally and I had a few moments to recover and debrief. Sally made an insightful comment about her support for bicycling as an alternative means of transportation for everyone, and not merely for enthusiasts. It was this broader notion that seemed important to us, and that also appeared to be in danger of being swept away in a sea of spandex and special interest advocacy. I wondered aloud, "In Amsterdam, did we see anyone among the throng of bicycle commuters wearing spandex?" The answer was no, though we saw cyclists there in business suits, dresses and high heels! We then tried to imagine people changing into "driving clothes" before getting into their Toyota or Land Rover. I guess some people do....

John Wiesner climbed down from the cab of his truck holding the remains of a six-pack of Diet Coke and wearing a motorcycle helmet. John stated that he viewed all roads as unsafe, and that he never drove anywhere without his helmet. He was never without a Diet Coke either, though I can't recall whether he considered that particular libation to be a safety component. My hunch is that he did.

John Wiesner and his helmet came to mind as I thought about "driving clothes".  In the past, automobile driving gloves and coats were employed, following in the tradition of jodhpurs and long boots worn by equestrians. I imagine that my agrarian ancestors were less likely to don such finery than they were to wear their work clothes, whether driving the milk wagon or astride a horse, as they went about their daily lives. Like my workaday predecessors, we moderns have given up the practice of cladding ourselves for travel, instead jumping into our cars for the commute to work, a quick run to the grocery store, or a trip across the country wearing whatever we are wearing. 

I fear that bicycling will not be accepted as a viable transportation alternative for the masses in this country as long as clothing protocols reminiscent of the showy habits of the aristocracy persist. I further wonder if it is possible for Americans to embrace any simple activity or pursuit -- biking, hiking, camping, cooking, gardening, to name a few -- without it becoming justification for a flurry of shopping activity. If we are ever to move toward a simpler, greener future, we'll need to take a route that does not commence with a side trip to REI, Williams-Sonoma, or L.L. Bean. 

Saturday, May 16, 2009

A Dollar's Worth of Hope


It was unusual for us to stop. Sally and I were riding our bikes to Huckleberry's, luxuriating in the second straight day of beautiful, spring-like weather. As we rode down 27th Avenue, our attention was drawn to some young girls operating a lemonade stand. We stopped, and almost immediately noticed that this lemonade stand was special. Yes, they were selling organic, gluten-free energy bars and organic lemonade, but it wasn't the products that made their effort so special. "MONEY YOU PAY GOES TO: Lands Council Charity" proclaimed the sign in front of their table. Apparently the girls really wanted to do something for the Lands Council, and had decided that a lemonade stand was what they could do.

These are lean times for non-profit organizations of all types. The economic meltdown has chased away donors. At the same time, other sources of non-profit organizational support, such as grants and income from endowments and investments, have declined precipitously. As daunting as these challenges have been, there is an even greater threat to the future of non-profits. Our society has forgotten the powerful words from FDR's first inaugural in 1933:
 
the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
We find ourselves constantly in the shadow of fear... fear of financial loss, fear of other religions, fear of illegal aliens, fear of change, nameless fear. In reaction we turn inward, focusing on ourselves and our individual concerns, rather than the significant, long-term issues non-profit organizations work so hard to address. In that same inaugural address, FDR also stated:

Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto, but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men (sic).
In the midst of these dark days, a ray of sunshine broke through. Four rays actually. Four young girls who care about the future of the planet made a decision to raise money, not for a trip to the mall or a ride on Spokane's renowned Looff Carousel, but for a local charity, the Lands Council.

I didn't have to ask how much my lemonade would cost, for the girls volunteered the figure. "You can pay whatever you want." How much is a sign of hope worth? It turns out that it was priceless.


Friday, May 15, 2009

Bike to Work Week - Day Five, Final


Time: 1 hour, 6 minutes, 24 seconds
Distance: 11.79 miles

Rode to Sally's office, and we rode home together on a lovely spring afternoon.




Bike to Work Week - Day Five, Part 2


Where the Bike Lane Ends....

Having complained about the lack of bicycle parking in Spokane, I'd like to also mention the lack of connectivity in the Spokane Master Bike plan. There are some painted bike lanes scattered throughout the community, but for the most part these nice routes don't connect to a thoroughfare you feel safe riding on. An example is Southeast Boulevard, now closed for construction. The bike lane starts near our house and continues until just before the major intersection with 29th Avenue. Just when the street becomes busiest, and most dangerous, the scant protection afforded by the bike lane's white line disappears. This phenomenon is repeated as Southeast Boulevard narrows at the intersection with 25th Avenue, with Perry, and at 5th Avenue where it disappears for good, throwing the bicyclist to the mercy of  major city streets.

Near where Sally and I once lived in northeastern Wisconsin, there was an infamous highway, officially designated County Road Q. Unofficially the road was called the... the..., well, it was named for the predominant, European ethnic group within the city. It wasn't called the French Connection.... Anyway, County Road Q featured a four-lane, 55 mph, limited access overpass spanning the Fox River, which promptly ended in a 3-way stop at a single-lane cross street. The bridge was built as the initial segment of a highway bypass that remained unbuilt for 25 years.

I think of County Road Q every time I approach a Spokane street sign proclaiming, "Bike Lane Ends". I wonder if I'm supposed to turn around and go back the way I came, or get off my bike and into a proper vehicle. The current Spokane regional bike map employs 4 or 5 colors to designate preferred biking routes, diverting attention from the fact that even our best bike routes are but partial segments that end whenever the road narrows or a major automobile thoroughfare is reached. The designation of the busy, narrow streets where many bike lanes abruptly end "Shared Routes" would be funnier if it weren't so dangerous. Any bike route that ends at Division Street, Sprague Avenue, the railroad tracks or the interstate is not really a bike route at all. They are instead our versions of County Road Q. 


Bike to Work Week - Day Five


First of all, let me say that I really like living in Spokane. We live here by choice, and have no desire to exchange our fair city for another, especially any in Washington beginning with the letter "S". That being said, there are aspects of life here I wouldn't mind changing. The streets really are bad. The last two winters have been long and white, and the last two springs haven't arrived at all. And then there's bicycling.

I have become a bit of a bike zealot. I came to this form of transportation late in my adult life, and it has rewarded me with improved health, a renewed zest for existence, and the self-righteous smugness of having a MUCH smaller carbon footprint than the Dodge Ram Mega Cab Dually drivers with whom I share Spokane. My greatest frustration is the sense that, despite somber lip service to the contrary, Spokane remains a community inhospitable to bicycling. 


One example of this inhospitality is in regard to bike parking. Whenever major biking events are scheduled in Spokane, an attended bike corral is provided. That's good, for otherwise every tree and street sign in Spokane would be festooned with bicycles. There are countless downtown blocks where there is no bicycle parking to be found. The lack of suitable bike racks sends the strong message that Spokane doesn't really expect anyone to ride here. This is in sharp contrast to truly bike friendly communities like Amsterdam, or even Corvallis, Oregon.     

Corvallis has been recognized as one of the most bicycle friendly communities in the nation, with lovely bike paths, continuous bike lanes, sensors at intersections allowing riders to get a green light without waiting for a car or pedestrian to come along, and numerous bike racks on every block downtown. It is not hard to find a bike rack in Corvallis, though finding an empty space at the end of the block you prefer can sometimes be daunting.

In Spokane we are often relegated to locking our bikes to trees, street signs, or using the rack in front of a bike friendly business like Auntie's Books, even though our business is elsewhere. As much as I like living here, decent bicycle parking would make things better.



Thursday, May 14, 2009

Bike to Work Week - Day Four


Time: 45 minutes, 5 seconds
Distance: 8.35 miles

Went a different direction this morning as a change of pace after three trips toward town. Stopped at the bank in Lincoln Heights and then headed south on Freya all the way to Moran United Methodist Church. The brisk wind in the aftermath of last night's rain made the entire ride a challenge.

Spandex

I'm not certain anybody looks good in spandex, and I'm pretty damn sure nobody my age and weight does. Most days I feel I've reached a point in life where I'm not easily intimidated. But it's hard to feel like a real bicyclist in the presence of sleek athletes in skin tight black and yellow uniforms, cleated shoes securely attached to their carbon fiber machines, while I'm peddling about wearing jeans and a second hand jacket. 

Cowering in the presence of these banshees, I'm reminded of how I felt entering the 7th grade. Seemingly everyone in the school bought their clothes from the same shop, a boutique called Rod's. I wore mostly hand-me-downs from my three older brothers, though that fall I was lucky to have a brand new shirt of my own, albeit from JCPenney. The very first day I wore it, one of my "cool" classmates came up behind me, turned the collar of my shirt out to verify that it wasn't from Rod's, and then pulled up the little loop sewn onto the back pleats, tearing my shirt, my one new shirt, in the process. I was terribly angry, and totally humiliated.

Ever since that time I have compensated for my low social stature by swearing off anything that is cool or fashionable. As if you hadn't noticed. Included on my list of taboos are spandex riding togs. My disdain for such finery was affirmed again just yesterday when I ducked into REI on my ride home. There were some very nice short-sleeved biking jerseys just inside the door, picturing Mt. Rainier and other signature features of the State of Washington. The price tag trilled $70. I coughed in exasperation and withdrew.

So each day I don my moral indignation with my jeans before I ride, though I confess that seeing myself in my uncool clothes brings back all the old insecurities that I should have left behind with my acne.

I tell you what, I'm making a resolution. If I can get my weight down another 20 pounds, in addition to the 45 I've lost, I'll buy some spandex. I'll even take pictures of myself in my new duds! 

Not one to have such fun alone, I invite you to participate by entering the "Why I Shouldn't Receive a Photo of Hollis in Spandex" haiku contest. The winner of the contest WON'T receive a photo. All non-winning entrants will receive a tasteful frontal photo. Anyone NOT entering the contest will receive 3 photos: anterior, posterior, and full profile. Take that, you banshees!

Note to my UCC friends: The 3rd of my photos is also known as the Unprofessional Profile. Merely receiving it in your inbox is likely grounds for your mandatory attendance of a supplemental boundary training workshop. It also could lead to a fitness review... for you. The photo will constitute mine.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Bike to Work Week - Day Three


Time: 72 minutes, 6 seconds (Upwards of an hour, for Kiwis)
Distance: 12.89 miles

A slow descent into town via picturesque 17th Avenue, then down Adams and the brick clad Jefferson, bone-jarring even by Spokane standards. A quick stop at Spokane Art Supply, just north of REI on Monroe, then through the park to see the falls, and home.

* * * * * * *

Some of you may wonder if I was being a bit harsh in describing the aggressive and selfish attitude of Spokane drivers when it comes to Sharing the Road. After all, haven’t we all experienced drivers who stop their car, right in the middle of an intersection, to wave a bicycle through?

Sally and I met in Gillette, Wyoming, a dusty, boisterous mining town once called the “Pronghorn Capital of the World”. Given that the entire vicinity has been turned into an open pit coal mine, it seems the Pronghorn capital has moved south to Rawlins. Gillette now touts itself the “Energy Capital of the Nation”. 

Gillette was a tough place, though apparently not as tough as Rock Springs. We knew this from the number of people who stated clearly, “We don’t want to become another Rock Springs”, which helped us decide to cross Rock Springs off of our dream vacation destination list. 

Anyway, in order to take a break from Gillette, Sally and I used to take day trips to nearby Devils Tower National Monument. Even if you aren’t familiar with northeastern Wyoming, you may have seen Devils Tower in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Devils Tower is the hauntingly beautiful monolith that Richard Dreyfuss replicates out of mashed potatoes. 

On our first trip to Devils Tower, the cute little prairie dogs so prevalent at the Monument captivated Sally and me. They were so tame that they would come right up to you and eat out of your hand. They did a lot of this kind of eating; so much so that the Park Service warned that the practice was putting them at risk. Not only were the prairie dogs eating the wrong kinds of food, they were also losing the will to forage for grasses, broadleaf forbs, and the occasional insect. After all, would you rather forage for broadleaf forbs or be handed Cheesy Poofs? Further, as a direct consequence of their eating habits, the Devils Tower prairie dogs had taken on the appearance of soccer balls with feet, a shape not conducive to quick dives into their burrows to escape their numerous natural enemies, including hawks, eagles, ferrets, badgers, foxes, coyotes, and snakes. 

Which brings us back to bicycling in Spokane. The seemingly kind drivers who stop in the middle of traffic to wave bikes across the road may think they are being helpful. In fact, they are turning us into the wheeled equivalents of soccer ball shaped prairie dogs just waiting to be picked off by our natural enemies, including Eagles, Talons, Vipers, Cougars, and the Dodge Ram Mega Cab Dually.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Bike to Work Week - Day Two


Time: 43 minutes 51 seconds
Distance: 7.71 miles (12.4 km, for Kiwis)
Temperature: 46 degrees F (<8 degrees C, for Kiwis)
Wind: WSW @ 26 mph (22 knots)

Sally is off to Okanogan County again this week, so there was scant incentive for me to ride to her office. Instead I did my business, grocery shopping for essentials: roasted red pepper soup, honey, and beer. There are three grocery stores within a mile of our house, so shopping by bike is usually neither a challenge nor an accomplishment.  Given that and my desire for more of a ride, I chose to peddle to Huckleberry's, halfway down the hill to Spokane. As the weather was not optimum, I again wore my "breathable" pants and jacket. In addition, I took the opportunity to try out Sally's Climitts, which are fleece-lined, weatherproof covers that attach to the handlebars over brake and gear levers. 

Anyway, I had a nice ride to the store despite the wind, which made braking at stop signs unnecessary. To my delight, upon checking out at Huckleberry's I learned that they are granting an extra 5% discount on all purchases by bike riders this month. Hooray! Premium ale at discounted prices! Yes, well, soup too.

I was surprised that there weren't more bikers out and about. Perhaps they do not have "breathable" outerwear, and were thus dissuaded by the weather. Perhaps they were not as willing as am I to take their chances with the notoriously bad Spokane streets and notoriously aggressive Spokane drivers. In an effort to ensure our safety, Sally and I have added new Mirrycle Mountain Bike Mirrors  to our stock of bicycle gadgets. I am now confident that, just before my demise, I will get a good look at the car that kills me.

One of the mottos of the pro-bike community is Share the Road. It's a great idea. After all, bikes do have all the same rights and responsibilities as other vehicles on public byways. Sharing the road with a Dodge Ram Mega Cab Dually with a gross vehicle weight rating of over 5 tons certainly seems like the way to go when you're riding a 20 pound bike, especially if you're wearing "breathable" outerwear.

In spite of my town's reputation for trucks and SUV's, the problem of biking in Spokane isn't the large size of the vehicles on the streets, but rather the diminutive brain capacities of their drivers. It is in their honor that I reveal, for the first time, the Spokane Truck and Auto Driver's Guide to Sharing the Road:

1. If I'm on a street, it's mine.
2. If I've ever been on a street, it's mine.
3. If I can crowd you off of a street, it's mine.
4. If a street reminds me of the street I used to live on, it's mine.
5. If I decide to take another route, it's mine.
6. If you're going faster than I am, the street is mine.
7. If your stopped at an intersection, the street is mine.
8. If I need the bike lane for parking purposes, it's mine.

I write this with apologies to the individual(s) who first coined these as Toddler Property Laws. Though tongue in cheek, I did note that one concerned Spokane citizen wrote a letter to the editor this week worried that all the money that would normally be spent on street maintenance is going to be diverted to promoting bike riding. 

How much bike promoting can a city do with $1.75 ?



Monday, May 11, 2009

Bike to Work Week - Day One


Time: 1 hour, 2 minutes, and 45 seconds
Distance: 11.23 miles

As much as I enjoy riding my bike, I was reluctant to register for Bike to Work Week. After all, I arrive at my "workplace" simply by waking up in the morning. Given that fact, rather than asking the guys at Wheel Sport what kind of tires they would recommend for hardwood floors, I decided to participate by riding to Sally's office this morning. En route I stopped by Four Seasons Coffee to buy a pound of fresh coffee beans. Mmmm, worth the effort.

I left the house dressed for the rain that was in the forecast, and indeed returned home dripping wet, but not from precipitation. I was drenched in the perspiration that results from mixing physical exertion, unexpected sunshine, and an impermeable layer of plastic clothing. This brings us to the Question of the Day: What does the word "breathable" mean when used to describe outdoor wear? 

At the time of purchase, my rain pants boasted a tag labeling them as "breathable". They have 10 inch zippers at the cuffs, so I guess that qualifies them as "breathable", sorta like pulling a plastic bag over your head after carefully constructing a single vent with a hole punch. "Oooh look! Breathable!" 
(Note to our younger readers: Do not try this at home.)

There have been times in my life when I would have welcomed more effective rain gear. There was the Canadian canoe adventure with my high school physics teacher where it rained, non-stop, for 8 days. There were times in Michigan's Upper Peninsula when we were sure the Northern Pike were in a feeding frenzy, if only we could have withstood the copious quantities of rain dumping from the sky. There were countless hours at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, watching safety trucks drive around the track in the rain, "drying it off" for the unfulfilled promise of on-time start. If only I had possessed then, what I do now: "breathable" rain gear. 

In truth, my rain gear worked. I didn't get wet in the rain today, and I am still breathing.

Tomorrow's post: "Share the Road, Spokane Style"

Time Binding


Sally and I watched Ratatouille on Saturday evening. I don't want to spoil the movie for any who haven't seen it previously, so go rent it, put it in your Netflix queue, or whatever. I'll wait....

* * * *

Done? OK. I love the wonderful scene in the film where the malevolent food critic, Anton Ego, comes to the protagonist's restaurant, Gusteau's, with the intention of writing one more bad review, destroying the restaurant. Our heroes, Remy and Linguini, serve Ego a simple peasant dish, ratatouille. As Ego takes the first bite, his mind travels across time and space. He is a child in a country cottage again, being served ratatouille by his mother. The resulting, remarkable transformation results not only in a glowing restaurant review, but in Ego being transformed as well.

This scene is a great example of an aspect of time binding. Time binding refers to the ability to link time in our minds, and to understand the relationship between the past, present and future. I specifically associate time binding with words, events, or objects that result in our moving out of the awareness of chronological time, linking us with other times and places in and beyond our lives.

For example, the scent of rain on hot asphalt brings back memories of childhood. The aroma of baking bread can transport us to grandma's house as if the intervening years have disappeared. Forgotten boxes in the attic serve as time machines, reminding us of places, people, and times in our lives long passed. This phenomenon, time binding, is what Anton Ego's transformation in Ratatouille so wonderfully illustrates.

Yesterday, on a beautiful, sunny spring morning, Sally and I lived out a time binding experience. As we worked in the yard and garden, we decided that it was a good day to scatter Sally's dad's ashes. We brought a portion of Joe's ashes to Spokane from Grand Junction, Colorado, following the memorial service for Sally's mother in February with just this intent. 

Joe loved his fruit trees, and we loved their fruit, including the wonderful sweet apricots from the "family tree". Two strong, young apricot trees raised from seeds from that hearty stock stand in our backyard. A recent addition, a Montmorency Cherry tree, now graces our budding orchard. We anticipate tart pie cherries just like those grown by Joe in Grand Junction.

In yesterday's glorious sunshine, Sally and I cleared away a ring of wood mulch from around each of these trees, and sprinkled some of Joe's ashes around each, adding our tears in the process. We remembered Joe, his outward manner so often tart and sour, his inner sweetness so available to those willing to invest a bit of themselves in finding it.

Time binding. A Disney movie illustrates it as a flight of mind to a childhood cottage. Philosophers and theologians describe it as the movement from chronos to kairos. On this weekend, Sally and I shared it in the placement of a few ashes, and the anticipation of luscious fruit. Time binding. The old hymn had it this way:

When we are called to part, it gives us inward pain; 
but we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again.


Joseph Forsythe McMillin (1914-2003)

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Time Travel


I was awake a bit before 5 this morning. It was on account of the cat, but since this post is about time travel rather than alien beings, I'll say no more about that.

Anyway, since I was up, I thought I'd check to see if my son, Evan, was online. Given the modern miracle of instant messaging, I was able to text Evan the question this morning, "Are you still awake tomorrow?", to which he could have replied, "Yes, what are you doing up so early yesterday?". 

You see, Evan is spending an academic year in Wellington, New Zealand. Due to the difference in hemisphere, the academic year in New Zealand is from March through November, and May is the onset of autumn. Confused? We're just getting started....
Wellington is five hours behind Spokane on the clock at present, but one day ahead on the calendar. I say "at present", because Wellington was but three hours behind Spokane in clock time when Evan arrived in New Zealand in February. Then we shifted to Daylight Savings Time in March, and he shifted off of it in April, bringing us to the five hour difference.

The calendar difference between Wellington and Spokane is the result of our being on opposite sides of the International Date Line. Until Evan's trip I had but the scarcest awareness of its reality, and no understanding of its history. The former started to sink in when we noted on Evan's itinerary that he flew out of Los Angeles on January 31st, and landed in Auckland on February 2nd. Were he asked by some prosecutor where he was on February 1st, 2009, he could rightly answer that he had experienced no such day.

Apparently written speculation about the International Date Line goes back to at least the 14th century, where a Jewish Talmudic commentary refers to the beginning of day six hours east of Jerusalem. Later, Magellan's voyage took his ship and crew across the International Date Line from east to west. This was experienced as the "loss" of a day, for whereas the chronicler of the voyage had tracked the passage of days for three years, and knew that the date of the ship's arrival in the Cape Verde Islands was Wednesday, July 9, 1522, a Portuguese resident of the islands claimed that it was Thursday, July 10th. This was initially determined to be the result of cultural differences between the Spanish and the Portuguese, not unlike the experience of flying back to Indiana and feeling that the calendar has been turned back twenty years.

Magellan was not the last of the great explorers to experience the International Date Line. Sir Francis Drake's crew lost a day sailing westward around the world in 1577-1580. And of course, Evan Bredeweg missed out on February 1st.

I can't help but wonder what it feels like to make this crossing, which I hope to accomplish in November. If one were at sea level, instead of 35,000 feet, would there be any sensation of time's passage? Would there be a blurring of vision or strange musical interlude as in science fiction movies? I imagine the crossing to feel like going over a high spot on a country road, or the apex of a roller coaster rise. I imagine Magellan's crew and Drake's crew sailing merrily back and forth, north-south along the Date Line squealing and laughing until grog came out of their noses. But that's just me.

We'll see how our crossing feels in November. For now I'm left calculating what Evan is doing tomorrow, glad that he will think of us and maybe give us a call yesterday. And I'm happy that love and caring are realities that extend beyond place and time. Come to think of it, we knew that even before the 14th century.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

When Dad Changed the Future


We were in our accustomed places around the dinner table, with Dad seated at the end facing the kitchen. Mom scurried back and forth from the oven to the table, placing serving plates and bowls of food before us. The dinner menu rarely varied much, comprising beef, potatoes, and either canned peas or corn, the choice of which had been made thirty minutes earlier. The tossed salad was also the same every night, consisting of iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, cucumber, and "mango", a southern Indiana idiom for green pepper. The salad dressing was Dad's special combination of Mullen's, Catalina, and 1890 brands of bottled french dressing, dispensed from a clear plastic squeeze bottle. Given the ritual constancy of our family dinner, who could have predicted that Dad would alter the future that evening?

The dinner started off as usual, with Dad waxing eloquent about some topic or another. He was a preacher, both by profession and at heart, and customarily employed the chair on the east end of the table as his pulpit. On this night, though, Dad illustrated his point with a simple action. He picked up the dinner knife from the right side of his plate and sat it down on the left, next to his fork. His intended point was simple and direct: "I've changed the future."

As accustomed as my brothers and I were to Dad's impromptu homilies, that simple, silly gesture got our attention. It also drew our ire. Knowing ourselves to be wise beyond our years, we were not likely to be drawn in by the sleight of hand of street magicians or the siren calls of carnival barkers. "Oh, come on! All you did was move your knife!" We returned our attention to our plates, wary that our rivals around the table would finish before us and claim seconds.

"Every action we take changes the world," Dad said, "even those as seemingly insignificant as moving the silverware." We remained unswayed, despite Dad's earnest oratory, and left the table triumphant. Dad's argument that evening fell on deaf ears.

Years later, studying under cosmologist Brian Swimme, I wrote a paper about the so-called, "time cone". Though the concept is not easily summarized in a blog post, the visual image I would place before you is of an hourglass, placed on its side. There is no sand in the glass... it is time which is flowing. One end of the glass represents the future, and the other the past. The narrow center of the glass is the here and now. But here is the surprising thing about the time cone: Rather than the future flowing through the here and now into the past, the current is reversed! It is the past which flows into every present moment. And it is from the here and now that the future, until now indeterminate, bursts into possibility.

It was in the course of my work on the time cone paper that I first recalled Dad's subtle knife switch so long before. For the first time I understood the point he had tried to make. The past becomes real when we remember it and act in response. The future is an unwritten book, awaiting our decisions and actions to make it possible.

No one image has had such an impact on my thought and life as has this simple notion. Every moment is filled with promise. Each second is pregnant with possibility. Even actions as simple and random as switching the flatware from one side of the plate to the other can embody consequences for the future. 

Given my clear memory of it, it turns out that Dad's supper sermon didn't fall on deaf ears. I am left wondering whether his point that evening merely reflected reality, or altered it. I suspect that it changed me somehow. And wasn't that the point?

Damn. He did change the future.


In grateful memory of Harry W. Bredeweg (1917-1981).

Monday, May 4, 2009

Good Things in Threes


Since my last post, Sally and I traveled from Spokane to the Tri-Cities in southeastern Washington. Our eldest, Megan, has just purchased her first home, and we were happy to help her relocate from her apartment of three years to her new digs. The new house, a three bedroom tri-level, is in a lovely valley at the foot of an orchard covered hillside on Kennewick's south side. We spent the better part of three days helping her pack up and clean out, though in truth, she wound up doing almost all of the cleaning.

Three of Megan's friends, Kyri, Jen and Kristin, came by at various times to help us pack, move, and unpack again. Though Sally and I have moved numerous times and have assisted our three kids in multiple moves as well, I think this was the first time we moved within the same town. This new reality called for a different way of packing. Instead of carefully wrapping individual items to protect them from breakage, we modeled our activities on looting: Our object was to get her stuff out of the apartment and down the street as quickly as possible. As I crammed the entire contents of Megan's master bathroom into one large box, I recalled stories of packers employed by moving companies putting EVERYTHING into boxes, including half-filled wastebaskets and dirty ash trays. 

Megan rented a medium-sized U-Haul truck on Friday and Saturday, with the idea of moving her stuff and then picking up some furniture items that some friends had offered. I confess that I thought she had gotten too large a truck, and told her so, but her wisdom was soon borne out. Sally and I loaded the truck once with boxes and furniture. Jen helped us load more large items and boxes for the second trip. A third trip was required to gather the additional furniture donated to Megan by her friends. By Saturday evening I was thankful Megan had rented such a large truck.

Once at the new house we confronted some irritating realtor related realities. In addition to a weird, three-button garage door remote that engaged every time it touched a finger, pocket, or purse, Megan had been given a set of house keys, three of which fit the front door latch and deadbolt. To our vexation, it turned out that we had no keys for the remaining entrances, and the remaining keys on her ring seemed to fit nothing. Unconvincingly playing the locksmith, I changed three doorknobs and three deadbolts so that Megan could access each of the three doors. We also had three new keys made at Lowe's so she could give one to Kristin, give one to Sally and me, and keep extras for herself.

Thanks to good friends, a sound truck, and some helpful people at Lowe's, we had Megan into her new place by Saturday night. Sally and I drove home to Spokane where our cat, Taj Mahal (aka Mr. Cat), and dogs Juni and Cayenne were eagerly awaiting us. Though we felt a bit guilty that we weren't able to help Megan finish cleaning the apartment, we went to bed with sore muscles and full hearts, proud of what Megan is doing, and that all three of our kids are doing so well.