Friday, August 27, 2010

Book Review: The Road

     The post that follows this one was probably influenced by the fact that I just finished reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy.  It was loaned to me by my Uncle Frank--we are related by marriage only, but he is my favorite.  After watching the film, "No Country For Old Men," which I thought was great, I was keen to examine McCarthy's other works.  The film was excellent, I think because of both acting and direction.  Javier Bardem was especially fine, I thought, because he doesn't seem like the type to play the character, yet he does so so believably.  Even this is realistic because it is not rugged looks that make a warrior or a psychopath--it is mentality.  The Road was dark, yet worth reading--definitely worth reading!  It is about a father and son trying to survive and make their way to the coast in a post-apocalyptic/cataclysmic world.  The world they travel has become lifeless and gray--they cannot see the sun, which suggests a nuclear catastrophe or meteoric collision. 

     The story is hard to read because is it so terrible and depressing, yet one cannot turn away.  This is because we come to care about these two characters: father and son, a loving relationship in a cold, dying world.  Desperation has driven people to such atrocities that they can trust no one.  The landscape has become so lifeless and denuded that starvation is an ever-present concern.  What will happen to these two?  I won't spoil it for you.  I will say that the book is an exploration of the value of human civilization and sensibilities.  Is this value real or imagined?  How strong or fragile is it?  It calls to mind the Book of Ecclesiastes (1:2) "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity."  It is a tough subject to tackle, but it is worth tackling and tackled here quite well.  McCarthy reminds me some of Poe--he is concerned with the health of the human soul.  In the battle between good and evil, he sees the evil quite well, but cannot dismiss the good.  In this book that good is the love of one human for another.

     Some may find this book too dark and disturbing to read.  What is described is very extreme--it serves a literary purpose not a scientific one.  I do not suggest such a scenario is impossible, but nearly so.  Even the meteor strike that some scientists suspect led to the extinction of the dinosaurs did not kill off life on the Earth--not by a longshot!  In fact, some scientists believe that birds really are dinosaurs, which suggests that some made and some didn't.  I eat sprouts, so I sprout seeds from time to time.  You can never get all the seeds to sprout at the same time.  There are something called "hard seeds" that will not sprout until much later than the others regardless of conditions.  These "deviants" are insurance against plants being wiped out by variations in weather.  It may be a pain to farmers and gardeners trying to carefully control their crops, but not to Nature.  The planet is resilient, but human civilization is fragile.  It takes a lot less than an apocalypse to make it come unhinged.  It is based on human agreement, trust and cooperation and once that is lost all bets are off. It is this same bond that brings humanity back from the brink when things fall apart, and they have several times in the past.

Book Review: What's The Matter With Kansas?

     There is a war on this planet.  It is the same war that has always been: the haves vs. the have-nots, or in America, the rich and the unrich.  It is America that I am principally concerned about.  The latter characterization is the better one because the conflict does not merely involve the poor, but for all intents and purposes, anyone not already rich is in the same boat.  As a matter of course, those who have, want it all and are unwilling to brook even competition--increasingly government attends to these demands.  All conflicts, save this one, pale in comparison or are merely attendants of this one, though attired and called differently.  

     In America, the rich are smart.  They try not to live too close to the poor.  They have their own neighborhoods.  They limit their social contact with the un-rich.  It is a wise policy.  In Latin America it is different, however, in those countries the poor are often the descendants of Indians or slaves—the losers and victims of the conquest, a built-in peasant class and treated as such.  Gaudy displays of wealth serve two purposes there: to pacify the demands of decadent vanity and as demonstrations of power to all.  Latin America also has a major kidnapping problem and constant tension.  One could argue that Castro, Chavez and Morales are signs that such a status quo cannot be maintained forever, or even much longer. 

     In America though, we all started out equal (unless you were non-white), except in the South--it has always been the largest pocket of white poverty in America.  Now we are increasingly not.  The American Dream of the 1950's began to die in the 1970's.  The bursting of the housing bubble has left only a few glowing embers remaining of the fire.  What's the cause?  Folks may give many reasons, but fundamentally, it is the loss of opportunity and the hijacking of the country by a wealthy few.  I don't hate prosperity, but no one likes the loss of socio-economic mobility either.  In effect that is what has happened, and it is a violation of the American social contract. 

     What's the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank, asks, but doesn't answer the question of why the un-rich, but religious folks of Kansas have become so conservative and in his eyes voted against their own economic interests.  There is a heavy focus on the culture war, while not looking very hard or long at the economic war and the poor job done by Democrats in waging it on behalf of the constituency they claim to represent—the working man.  Frank does touch on it—at the end of his book, after we are worn out by his descriptions and discussions of conservatives of religious ilk.  One would be lead to believe that only religious folks are conservative, which is obviously untrue.  They are merely a large constituency that is easily tapped by the G.O.P. and Franks does not delve sufficiently into why. Is it just about religion or is there something more? 

     I don't claim to know why either.  I have some ideas, but not because Franks fleshed out his own so well.  Franks appeared more interested in what happened to the Populist streak in Kansas—the radicalism that Kansas was fervent for.  I suspect it is still there.  It is the Democrats that changed, not the people of Kansas.  The Democratic Party crucified the working man on a cross of gold under Bill Clinton whose administration brought us NAFTA (It stands for the North American Free Trade Agreement, which creates controversial commercial relationships with Mexico.), the end of the Glass Steagal Act (which Obama has yet to re-institute) and Welfare Reform (which assured that gov't. would offer neither a hand-out or a hand-up).  The first hastened the hemorrhage of jobs outside the U.S., the second—instituted after the Great Depression—removed regulations that prevented banks from getting involved in the stock market and the last ended any commitment Americans had to eliminating unemployment and the ever-growing underclass in these United States.  

     The conflict described by Franks stems, I believe, from a crisis of leadership.  It stems also from instigation by the wealthy of a natural beef, that between yuppies and non-yuppies—a war within the middle-class or once middle-class, white-collar and blue-collar, Geeks and Jocks.  In many ways it is no different from any other labor dispute.  Typically, it breaks down along the lines of those who are faring well and those who are faring ill, the "new economy" vs. the "old economy."  To the latter, corporate power and immigration are aspects of the new "slave power," while to the former the same are putting food on the table--until recently at least.  These are the new "Bleeding Kansas" issues.  This is why both the Democratic and Republican parties are in trouble today.  I'm not so sure they can get out of it.  The status quo is broken and we need a new one, but I don't think they can adapt. 

Was I wearing a helmet?

When people ask about my injuries, which are minor, but evident due to the bandages, they often ask, "Were you wearing a helmet?" To which I must respond, "No, I was not." I reason that I was not struck on any part that the helmet would have covered. At best the helmet would have merely changed the angle of impact to my face, which may not have been advantageous. I'm not trying to be a pain or devil's advocate or anything but accurate within my limited frame of reference. I think wearing a helmet is generally a good idea, but the summer heat makes it rather uncomfortable. I have biking accidents in the past--all relatively minor--and none involving automobiles. It usually a matter of misjudgment of time, speed, or space. A helmet can be very useful in such cases, but the skull, which is all that it really protects, already is the most protected part of the body.

Guess what I'm saying is that life is the luck of the draw, and that wearing a helmet really wouldn't have helped much and might have hurt. What would've helped was perhaps wearing my denim jacket or leather. Then only my face and elbow would've been hurt and not so badly. That of course wasn't going to happen in August--maybe in October. The helmet would not have made a difference--this time. Interestingly, I'm not sure that the Europeans insist on helmets quite so much as we Americans do. I suspect that is because cycling is an everyday, casual activity--utilitarian, yes, but not an extreme sport like BMX or mountain biking is in the U.S. This blogger insists writes about that difference seemingly with some knowledge--I cannot claim to have left the shores of these Great States. I am not sure, however, that I agree with his conclusions. His own experiences suggest it is the rest of the body that needs protecting, not just the head. As I suggested in an earlier post, there is the possibility that the body may be destroyed and the head preserved, and I may not want that. Morbid, I know, but true.

The better lesson here is bicycle maintenance. My son was riding with me and I gave him the good bike and I took one that I was working on--rideable, but a work in progress. There was some looseness in the headset, and I'd stripped the drop bars of ancient tape, removed the most of the rust and was in the process of polishing it down to its original form, and planning to paint it with black Rust-oleum, and wrap it in cork. I'd also forgotten my riding gloves, which I do usually wear. I hit that pothole hard, at an unfavorable angle, but if I'd even been wearing my gloves, its possible my hands might not have been thrown off the handlebars quite so completely. A wrapped handlebar would've been even better, and zero play in the headset--priceless! C'est la vie!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Potholes and E.R.'s

I took a nasty tumble early last night--about 6PM--no broken bones or stitches, but my face took the brunt of the fall and I don't think a single part of my body escaped injury. I was dazed, confused and bleeding on a city street and luckily no cars were around me when it happened or things might have been worse. A young woman who works in a nearby clinic suggested I call 911 and I did. The ambulance arrived promptly and after refusing the board and collar--I get claustrophobic and I wouldn't have been able to keep it together long enough, if at all--they carted me off to Elmhurst Hospital. My son had been riding with me and luckily my wife arrived soon enough to take him home from the scene of the incident.

Elmhurst Hospital gets a bad rap for being a city hospital, but they do all right--once they get to you. One of the reasons I went to Elmhurst is that there have been so many hospital closings. I know St. John's on Queens Blvd. closed--I'd gone there for stitches nearly a decade ago--and the choices had been whittled down--I didn't want to go into Manhattan if I didn't have to. You know the country is in trouble when they look to cut the muscle and bone, like teachers, firehouses and hospitals. It was also closer to home and I wanted to be able to get home on my own if necessary--by bus or train, of course. Turns out my wife took me home and I was released between midnight and 1 AM, but not before acquiring some ER experiences.

My first interaction with hospital staff was when a friendly African-American woman asked me, "What country you from, dear?" Her question was understandable because I was probably one of the few people in that hospital that was born in this country. Queens County is almost certainly the most diverse county in the United States of America. I hesitated for a moment and responded, "The Bronx." Yes, I hail originally from the "Boogie-down Bronx!" You can take the boy out The Bronx, but you can't take The Bronx out of the boy! Shortly thereafter another stretcher came into the receiving area alongside me. The patient wasn't bleeding or anything, but he did seem out of it. He was surrounded by paramedics and what looked initially like police, but I soon noticed they were correction officers and the man was handcuffed to the stretcher--a prisoner, most likely from Riker's Island. It's easy to forget Riker's Island is there--it's out of sight and out of mind. However, Elmhurst is the closest place and it seemed that the prisoner was being treated decently and there was no danger that the correction officers were coddling him. I was then wheeled out into the middle of the ER proper.

They were still collecting info from me as this was going on--sign this, sign that--and it's really not a good time to be signing stuff. When I looked out behind me, I saw that the place was full of stretchers right out in the open--no place to them. Not a good sign I was getting seen anytime soon. There was an old lady next to me with labored breathing, and I couldn't help but feel for her. There was lots of activity, but generally the ER staff avoided eye contact with patients unless they were actually talking to them. Guess they were avoiding questions and requests. I finally got tired of waiting and said, "Hey guys I'm bleeding out of my face for a few hours and I haven't even got an icepack." Someone tended to me very shortly thereafter. Luckily, I was strong enough to seek them out. I also suspected my injuries were not so serious that I should occupy space at the place much longer.

The cause of all this was a pothole. This is especially irritating because that stretch of road--about a half mile of 37th Avenue--was so ridden with them! One expects such craters and depressions when mountain biking, but not road biking. I'd gotten past a number of them and this one got me. I was riding a women's 10-speed, so the family jewels were spared, but my hands slipped off the handlebars and I got tangled in my bike as I went down, so try as I could, I couldn't roll with it. All that stands out to me was hitting the pavement with my right cheek sliding on it some. I got me a bloody shiner. It sucks! Hurts too. It really ticks me off! Just like the hospitals, firehouses and teachers, some decent roads would be nice! Look out for potholes people!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Trashed Bicycle

My son wanted a larger bike.  He's thirteen and nearly my height and shoe size so he's probably right.  Anyway, I found a 26" Schwinn, ATB style bicycle on the curb and the derailleurs seemed to work okay, so I figured I'd try fixing it.  Thus far I've found that it's really not in such bad shape as it appears--it needs a new freewheel and the headset needed servicing.  The bottom bracket and hubs need adjusting and servicing as well, but this is all maintenance--no big deal.  I am surprised at the fact that folks don't maintain their bikes better.  I think its revealing.  It reveals the fact that bicycles are treated as throwaway items in our throwaway culture.  It also reveals the fact that folks are ignorant about bicycles and consequently their full potential as a mode of transportation goes unrealized.  This is not surprising, but I wonder if folks even know the basics of bicycle maintenance.  It's not like bicycles come with a maintenance list and schedule.  Quite frankly, I am not even sure what a good maintenance schedule is.  I'll ask about this on my new go to place: bike forums.

I overhaul the hubs about once a year, which is probably less than often than it should be.  I overhaul my bottom bracket about as often--maybe every nine months.  I've never serviced the headset on my bicycles, though doing this one, I'm thinking I should.  I guess that's all the bearings, and the chain that needs periodic cleaning and lube.  I have yet to mess with my derailleurs and brakes except for occasional adjustment.  Eventually I shall have to change the brake pads, but I imagine that will be obvious.  The thing that eludes me thus far, is truing a wheel and replacing spokes.  Luckily, I've only broken two spokes in the 4+ years I've been commuting.  Bottom line, there's more to bicycle maintenance than fixing a flat and its worth doing.  Ten years of hard riding is easier on a bike than a car!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Fw: Signals

   Most cyclists in NYC don't use hand signals.  This is understandable.  Things move at such a pace that often there is no time for it.  Also, it is a physical act not the flipping of a switch.  Nevertheless, I've taken to doing at least a token hand signal whenever I can, which isn't always.  It makes the most sense though to at least try.  My thinking on this matter has been affected by two things: blocked bike lanes and female cyclists. 

   I've written on the matter of bike lanes and their limitations.  The fact is leaving a bike lane strikes me as a risky legal proposition--even when blocked.  Thus, it seems wise to do so as politely as possible, not to mention the fact that relying on a driver who may or may not be paying me any mind to guess where I am going to go isn't a good daily policy.

   The other matter is that I am ever more impressed by lady cyclists.  They exercise ever so much more common sense than male cyclists typically do.  I find that generally speaking, they are well adapted to urban cycling--they are civilized.  Their bicycles often reflect that fact.  Frequently enough for me to notice, they ride around on retro looking bicycles with nice fenders and comfortable handlebars, chainguards, etc... and yes, they signal.  They don't all do it.  I don't know if they do it all the time, but I hardly ever see guys do it.  Upon observing it, I couldn't help noticing that it wasn't that hard and it seems like only a special kind of jerk could refuse them access to the lane.  Of course that could just be me and my chivalric tendencies, but I don't think that's the case.

   I've taken to employing signals more often, but I hasten to add that I am not really asking permission, but serving notice of a lane change.  This works only because I am taking what can be taken and signaling the motorist not to be a jerk and allow what he or she should.  I am considerate (with regard to speed and distance) when taking a lane and am insisting on the same from the motorist.  The ladies appear to be doing the same.  This is not always obvious in the rat race of traffic, so a reminder is useful.  It happens that most drivers are not jerks and those that are, are usually stingy about the space they afford you and are not homicidal.  The first rule remains: "stay out of the way!" roughly translated--don't impede the flow of traffic. 

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Film Review: "What's the Matter With Kansas?"

I just saw the film, "What's The Matter With Kansas?" with my wife.  Now since I don't get date nights often, I want them to go well, but this was disappointing.  I learned of the film quite by accident.  A friend at work loaned me the book to read and I found it quite interesting--I've read about a quarter of it.  I began searching about it online and learned of the film, which is playing in one theater in NYC and that run would end in a few short days.  Thus, the rush was on for me to try and catch the flick before it was gone.  Well, we kind of expect that films will not be as good as books, but this film was not a success.  I attribute this to lack of commentary and direction--as in, "what's the point?"  Not having finished the book, I am uncertain what the point is and the film did not alleviate the problem.  Furthermore, the two things are very different.  The film only covers the same subject: Kansas, politics and the culture war, but the film is all show and no tell.  Both feature the author, but the film hardly so, which is unfortunate--the scenes which feature him are the clearest in meaning.  This is a shame because the subject matter is so important.

Although the film resists taking a derisive tone towards Christians, it uses them against themselves.  An effort at depicting Middle American Christian culture goes on here, and while one is tempted to feel this may not be truly representative, the outpouring during the pro-life campaign described is surprising to say the least.  So many persons were willing to be arrested in acts of civil disobedience that the targeted abortion clinic shut down!  It did not appear that the police were being accommodating either. The intention appears to be to demonstrate that these folks are sincere, whether one thinks them crazy or not.  I don't think them crazy at all, nor do I think them the only reason that Kansas votes the way it does.  I would say that the film dwells on them too much, except that they do provide a coherent philosophy one can dissect and perhaps find a route to understand those who vote similarly without openly espousing the same views.  This is not sufficiently communicated in the film, however.  Therefore, these are only my thoughts and guesses.  Perhaps after finishing the book I will understand more clearly--it may be that the two can complement one another.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Good Bike Lane Placement

I saw a good example of a bike lane that I normally wouldn't like.  For the record, I am always willing to revise my views based on the facts.  This doesn't qualify as a view change though.  I was driving along on my way to the Holland Tunnel when I came across a new street configuration on Forsyth Street between Delancey and Houston Street.  The bike lane was on the left side of the street.  The cars were parked on the left side of the street also, but a few feet from the curb.  I don't usually like this because it doesn't provide enough of a buffer between cyclists and pedestrians, and believe it or not they need to be separated.  However, this is a quiet street and actually quite a few people live there, yet it's not a busy, busy commercial place like Chinatown or Soho.  I can see cyclists being a greater problem than pedestrians because it could potentially cut the pedestrians off from the park along the border, but I don't think there are enough cyclists to make that a real problem.  I'll have to bike through it and check it out.