Archive for the ‘quotables’ Category
Five days on the bike, 243 miles of riding, all kinds of weather and terrain. Through rain, farmlands, and mountain passes.
Day 5: Harpers Ferry, WV to Washington, DC
Our fifth day of riding was a lovely, mostly sunny day of riding back to DC via the C&O Canal towpath from Harpers Ferry. A night of restful sleep and a great waffle breakfast at the Teahorse Hostel completely refreshed us, so even after four days of riding we were ready for more. We chatted with the hostel owner, Laurel, and two Appalachian Trail hikers who had also stayed the night. They were headed in different directions on the AT with very different hiking styles.
Along the way, I found that bicycle speed is the perfect pace at which to notice flora and fauna, start up conversations with new people, and feel the sun warming up the land. We paused at one of the lockhouses on the canal and met a volunteer named Bud who offered to show us the interior of one of the restored lockhouses further down the trail that he was checking up on. The three of us continued down the trail and had the opportunity to look inside the lockhouse, which would be fun to rent for an overnight stay (it’s $70-100/night for up to eight people). The house was very basic – you have to carry in everything you need, including water – but has two bedrooms that can easily accommodate eight. It does a good job of evoking the feeling of a bygone time.
We talked with Bud for a little while before starting off down the trail again. Soon enough, we were stopped again to chat with an older man who was curious about where we were headed and where we were coming from. He said he had done a lot of bike touring in his day and sent us off with a cyclist creed: “For every uphill there is a downhill, but for every headwind there is another headwind.”
The rest of the ride back into Washington, DC via the C&O was pleasant and had pockets of sunlight to warm us up enough. We were both feeling tired of trail-riding by the last 10 or 15 miles, but soon were back into the city with all its familiar traffic (rush hour on L Street isn’t pretty). Happened to run into Chris on our way in and then stopped to visit a friend at a nearby coffee shop. Nice to see familiar faces!
We had a wonderful trip overall, and it was refreshing to get out of the city for awhile. Bike touring can be very affordable: no rising gas prices to worry about, free lodging if you already have camping equipment (the C&O Canal hiker/biker sites are free), and plenty of time to stop whenever you like. Most of our meals were made on the road, and as cyclists we also had to snack constantly. We had a good idea of what we didn’t need to bring, though we didn’t overpack too badly. If we tent camped more it would have been more worthwhile to haul the camping equipment, but low nighttime temperatures drove us to seek indoors shelter more often on this trip.
A few takeaways if you’re considering a bike touring trip:
- Wear more sunblock. It’s easy to forget on cloudy days.
- If wearing cycling shoes, it’s worth it to take a pair of off-bike shoes. After a long day of riding, throwing on comfy sneakers can be the best feeling in the world.
Never run out of snacks. Salty snacks especially. And eat lots of peanut butter. You can never really eat too much if you’re riding your bike all day. You can drink too much, though: beer hits you harder after a day of riding.
- Talk to everybody you meet, even when you think you don’t have the time. Plans were meant to be changed.
Recently finished reading Candide by Voltaire, one I happened to read on my commute because it was available free on Kindle. Having a Kindle probably does have an impact on the books you end up reading – what’s free, or recommended based on your purchase history, or maybe those you’re too embarrassed to be seen reading on the Metro.
First things first: Candide is funny. Funnier than I expected, and very short, making it a good read for your commute (unless you drive or bike to work). It’s a satire written in the picaresque style, with Candide wandering from place to place in a sort of episodic fashion. Oh, and it’s violent – misfortunes I can’t imagine befall characters at every turn.
Pangloss*, Candide’s mentor, guides him with the philosophy that they ”live in the best of all possible worlds” where all things happen in the best possible way, because nothing better could have been possible. This simplistic optimism is satirized throughout the story as Candide’s adherence to his mentor’s philosophy is tested time and time again, in an exaggerated, whirlwind fashion. The idea that every person regards himself as the unhappiest person to live leads many characters to recount their long and tragic lives. Candide and everyone in his life face death time and time again, and happen to find each other again even across the oceans and years that separate them. At one point there’s a ridiculous scene in which Candide reunites with Pangloss despite having watched him hanged earlier in the story. Life was much more brutish in the 1700s. It’s certain that by the end Candide’s philosophy on life is changed, no longer content to accept that all is for the best.
* Fun side note: “pangloss” is a word listed in the dictionary and defined as “a person who views a situation with unwarranted optimism.”
Advice given to me at graduation by one of my English professors, Judith Plotz: “Carry a good anthology of poetry on your travels.”
As a scholar of Romanticism, Professor Plotz introduced me to some of my (now) favorite poets, including the English peasant poet John Clare. She taught me to memorize poetry, believing in its powers to sustain a person. She measured her love for poetry like the cadence of one’s gait, each word dropped like a step upon the earth. I’m thinking back to her advice now, as I do more walking and prepare to spend over 8 hours straight walking in the Sierra Club’s annual One Day Hike.
Recently, another of my former English professors, Margaret Soltan (University Diaries), has begun to record an online poetry lecture series at Udemy, called Modern Poetry. Her focus is on Modernism and Post-Modernism. It’s a free online course, so no risk in poking around and seeing if you enjoy it. Every human being owes themselves this appreciation of language and its power. In particular, Professor Soltan goes through detailed analyses of certain famous poems, such as Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror“. But it’s also just nice to listen to her speak of poetry in general.
Give poetry a chance, especially if you’re only ever been forced to read it. Especially if you find it challenging. Poetry expands your understanding of the breadth and depth of human experience, shaping language to express desire, pain, tedium.
“The present moment is constantly slipping into the past…”
Dr. Cornel West is an incredible speaker. I went to see him speak on Thursday as the keynote presenter for “Democracy and Public Argument”, a series hosted by the George Washington University’s writing program. Having a background in civil rights and democracy struggles along with degrees in Philosophy from Harvard and Princeton, Dr. West is equal parts intellectual and activist.
Courage was a recurring theme throughout his speech. Dr. West poetically emphasized the courage and conviction necessary to uphold a democracy – to never take your rights for granted. At one point he claimed, “I am an anti-imperialist even when America is the empire.” So much of democracy relies on critical public discourse.
Other topics ranged from the Occupy movement (of which Dr. West is a strong supporter, speaking often with Occupy groups across the county), the Obama re-election campaign, the history of democracy in America from the time of our founding fathers, and the necessity to shed one’s ideologies to find the common truth of humanity. You can’t find the truth in a person or a civilization unless you listen to its suffering.
The Mexican poet Octavio Paz traveled to India on many occasions throughout his time. His poems from India from 1952 to 1995 were collected and bound as A Tale of Two Gardens. It provides a view into India that could only have come from a poised observer, seeker, and deep lover of the land.
Concert in the Garden
(Vina and Mridangam)
for Carmen Figueroa de Meyer
The hour is an enormous eye.
Inside it, we come and go like reflections.
The river of music
enters my blood.
If I say body, it answers wind.
If I say earth, it answers where?
The world, a double blossom, opens:
sadness of having come,
joy of being here.
I walk lost in my own center.
And at times you open a book and read a poem, and can never again find it within the same covers. You wonder if all experience of poetry is that: striking, ephemeral, unreal.
Sometimes you have to recognize that others have put it better than you can or will.
Many people often argue that smart growth proponents (like me) are trying to force people of their cars in favor of biking, walking and transit. But, to me, growing smarter really is just providing more legitimate options.
New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an excellent piece for the January 17, 2011 issue of The New Yorker. In ”Social Animal,” he speaks of life in “the middle of a revolution in consciousness.” Characterizing this specific body of people as the Composure Class, he describes the conditioned need of these individuals to achieve (achieve is indeed the rallying call) in the areas of career and intelligence – a result, Brooks writes, of living in “a society that prizes the development of career skills but is inarticulate when it comes to the things that matter most.” I feel it’s pretty spot-on, even though I approached this article cautiously – as probably too generalizing. But by the end of reading it, I was convinced he was writing from somewhere beyond logic and so his assessment is something more than merely assessment.
A neuroscientist and a realization:
“I believe we inherit a great river of knowledge, a flow of patterns coming from many sources. The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary phase we call genetics. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago we call culture. The information passed along from decades ago we call family, and the information offered months ago we call education. But it is all information that flows through us. The brain is adapted to the river of knowledge and exists only as a creature in that river. Our thoughts are profoundly molded by this long historic flow, and none of us exist, self-made, in isolation from it.
“And though history has made us self-conscious in order to enhance our survival prospects, we still have deep impulses to erase the skull lines in our head and become immersed directly in the river. I’ve come to think that flourishing consists of putting yourself in situations in which you lose self-consciousness and become fused with other people, experiences, or tasks… And it happens most when we connect with other people. I’ve come to think that happiness isn’t really produced by conscious accomplishments. Happiness is a measure of how thickly the unconscious parts of our minds are intertwined with other people and with activities. Happiness is determined by how much information and affection flows through us covertly every day and year.”
It’s a reminder, in itself, to select those paths we don’t in fact select consciously. It’s in the deep pulses, the not quite tangible parts of… daily living. Can happiness be overwrought?
Here’s the poem “I Am” by John Clare, a poet of the rural self amidst nature. This one he composed while in Northampton County Asylum.
I am: yet what I am none cares or knows
My friends forsake me like a memory lost,
I am the self-consumer of my woes —
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied, stifled throes —
And yet I am, and live — like vapors tossed
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
Even the dearest, that I love the best,
Are strange — nay, rather stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes, where man hath never trod,
A place where woman never smiled or wept —
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling, and untroubled where I lie,
The grass below — above the vaulted sky.
Literature reflects the world by giving the reader another’s perspective on it. Once in awhile, you’ll come across passages that give you a familiar idea cast in a new light. The landscape at a different time of day. Here, Amis on traffic.
“We know that traffic reflects the temperaments of the great capitals (and here in a farewell flourish I invoke my world citizenship): the unsmiling triumphalism of Paris, the fury and despair of old New York, the cat-and-mouse audacity of Rome, the ragged murder of Cairo, the showboat longevity of Los Angeles, the industrial durance of Bombay or Delhi, where, four times a day, the cars lash the city in immovable chains. But here, in London – I just don’t get it.
They adore doubleparking. They do. … You hit a red at the crossroads but you inch forward anyway, into the lock, into the headlock. You may even decide the time is ripe to get out and run an errand. Why? Why not? Everybody else does it. It seems clear to me, after five seconds’ thought, that if everybody does it then nobody gets around, nobody gets anywhere. … And, just recently, something has gone wrong with traffic. Something has gone wrong with human desire.
I don’t get it. No – I do! Suddenly I do, though there’s no real reason (is there?) why anybody else should. In traffic, now, we are using up each other’s time, each other’s lives. We are using up each other’s lives.”
The passage comes quite late in Amis’s London Fields, but the entire novel is worth reading. To call it a ‘murder mystery’ is an understatement. It’s more mysterious and murderous than that.
From Cat’s Cradle (1963) by Kurt Vonnegut, teachings from the fictional religion known as Bokononism:
“If you find your life tangled up with somebody else’s life for no very logical reasons,” writes Bokonon, “that person may be a member of your karass.” At another point in The Books of Bokonon he tells us, “Man created the checkerboard; God created the karass.” By that he means that a karass ignores national, institutional, occupational, familial, and class boundaries. It is as free form as an amoeba.
And another great Bokononistic maxim, selected by the Couchsurfer who gave me a copy of the novel:
“Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.”