Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Long Time Ago, in a State Far, Far Away...

In the Fall of 2004 Sparky and I had the opportunity to rent bikes from Dubbelju Motorcycle Rentals in San Francisco for an all-too-brief ride up to Napa-Sonoma, including traversing the spectacular Trinity Road between the two valleys.

We picked up the bikes—an F650 for me and a Sportster for Sparky—as early as we could, and headed out through the obligatory fog across the Bay Bridge.

The fall weather was spectacular, but we barely had time for a quick lunch in St. Helena before we had to return across Trinity Road and south to San Francisco.

We did take the time to stop at the Marin County highlands for the obligatory Golden Gate photo op, then wound our way through evening rush-hour traffic in an unfamiliar city (dead reckoning all the way) in order to drop the bikes back at Dubbelju by closing time, grab the gear we had stashed there, and grab the BART to the airport for the red-eye back to D.C.

We had hoped to snag a pair of big-bore Beemers for the day, but it was first-come, first served, or a Hobson's choice, or something like that. In any case, Sparky was tickled with the Harley, and I was pretty happy with the 650.

 I had ridden the 650 (as service loaners) before, but this was a longer ride on a wide mix of roads—unfamiliar urban congestion, interstates, divided highways and narrow, uber-twisty two lanes. I spent many miles standing on the footpegs, simply because the bike inspires that kind of "irrational exuberance" and in hindsight, I think it probably was the perfect choice for the kind of one-up, lightly-loaded riding we were there for.

We were both pretty exhausted by the time we settled in for the flight home, and disappointed our ride had been so truncated. I'm failry certain that if either of us ever get back out to the left coast, we'll try and make a better go of it.

Beast as passenger

Beast riding the Jubal Early at White's Ferry, with hot chick in the background. (Funny story about that ride, yeah...)

A Bike outstanding in its field...

Beast again, at the Celtic festival in Leesburg June 2004

Beast's friend

Beast's best friend, from June 2007

Beast, April 2004

One of my favorite pictures of Beast, in one of my favorite settings.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Winging it

I gotta say that freestyling bread has got to be maybe the most impressive thing I have ever seen done in a kitchen—a kind of yeast-and-gluten based jazz, an improvisational art form that I plainly do not have the stones to try. It is an interpretive dance, dusted with flour.

Mary has been doing this of late, and Madeline does it also. Now, I baked my first loaf of bread in, what—third grade or something like that? And since then, I have baked all sorts of breads over the decades, and lots of other goodies as well. I consider myself a reasonably accomplished amateur baker. But, as I learned from my mother, I bake always using a recipe, followed with great deliberateness and devotion. How do these two do it?

It's almost scary for me to watch the bold and fearless way these women bake: intuitive, insightful, free-form, based on solid experience and whatever ingredients are at hand. Everything goes into the big stainless steel bowl in its turn (nothing seems to get measured) where it's mixed, then kneaded, then risen: a single vessel for the whole process. Four round loaves emerge from this crucible to nestle together on a big baking sheet, making a giant clover-leaved loaf, each leaf with two flat sides and a broad dome.

The motivation to bake is often some ingredient that needs to get used up; dairy-based, typically, so the breads are usually rich with cottage cheese or the equivalent. Some mix of herbs usually enlivens the flavor, often finely minced onion as well, a perfect compliment for a 1/4 rye-1/4 whole wheat loaf, like the ones we just enjoyed.

I watch it happen, and stand back and keep out of the way. It's a music I can't play...though I certainly enjoy listening, and am a willing audience.

On the other hand, I am pretty good at free-style cooking.

Sunday morning I announced we were having quiche for dinner, and Mary concurred. When the time came, at the end of a long day of many hard tasks large and small, we went at it.

Mary made the crust, in this instance using the old-reliable recipe—pie crusts are treacherous and notoriously vindictive creations who won't hesitate to turn on you if you show the slightest weakness or fear or relinquish an iota of control for a moment. She prevailed, predictably.

I began making the filling by cutting up a hunk of smoked pork (like bacon but without the cure) and sauteing it; then adding finely minced onion, some finely chopped kale stems and, shortly after those, the kale leaves; then some sliced white mushrooms and salt and pepper. While that was all slowly cooking together, I beat a handful of eggs, some freshly-skimmed cream, and some cottage cheese until it was frothy. As soon as Mary had the two crusts ready, I divided up the kale mixture between the crusts and poured the egg filling over them.

The quiches were done in about a half an hour, along with a pumpkin-like winter squash I threw together. The squash was just cleaned out and baked with some cider, butter, brown sugar and spices. The two quiches and the squash together would make about three full meals for the two of us, with mostly local ingredients and without recipe (...excepting the crust...) with about thirty minutes prep time all told.

The trick is having a wonderful assortment of outstanding ingredients on hand, and a willingness to use them how you see fit. No recipe for the filling, just the miracle of all those foolproof pieces to put together like a puzzle. I suppose I could try and apply that approach to baking, but...

Nah. I'm not even going to pretend like that's going to happen. I will leave it to the two virtuosos. I know when to leave well enough alone.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Supper for a fall evening:

Home-corned brisket of local-grown beef, simmered in the crockpot with nothing but sweet cider all day, sliced thin and served open-faced on fresh baked onion rye cheesebread with just a smear of mustard.

Mixed green salad, with tomatoes and two kinds of green peppers—still from the garden.

A pint of pumpkin spice ale.

Hardly a scrap left.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Life V. Lifestyle

Over the years, I have seen many references to the “motorcycle lifestyle,” a term most strongly associated with the V-Twin universe. I deliberately use the noun ‘motorcycle,’ instead of the verb, ‘motorcycling,’ because what I have seen referred to is considerably more of a state of mind than a state of action.

The term immediately calls to mind all the stereotypical signifiers and tribal signs that stretch back to Hollister and “The Wild Ones”: bandannas and black leather, shortie helmets plastered with bellicose slogans (or no helmets at all) mirrored shades, ape-hangered choppers, highway pegs, engineer boots, wallets on chains and patch-bedecked denim vests. Also: “Trailer queens,” V-twin branded pickup trucks with nary a bike in sight, manly tattoos, t-shirts tautly stretching bald eagle-and-furling-flag motifs across ample pale bellies, et cetera, et cetera. The very embodiment of the phenomenon, the fount from which it flows, the alpha-and-omega of the "motorcycle lifestyle" is, of course, the company that created it from whole cloth, Harley-Davidson USA, of Milwaukee, Minnesota.

But worldwide, the motorcycle industry has fallen on hard times. Despite 2008's four-dollar-plus-a gallon gasoline, motorcycles sales are down drastically except for scooters, which are not perceived quite the same way as motorcycles by the general public. In a period of economic downturn, consumers view motorcycles as a luxury—not as practical transportation—that can (and must) be dispensed with, even disposed of. They are non-performing depreciating asset in the worst sense, right up there with jet-skis, bass boats, and all other manner of man-toys that might seem justifiable in flush times, but are surely the most extravagant and expendable of luxuries when things get tough.

A generation ago, HD, the very embodiment of rugged American individualism was dragged from its deathbed (where it had been driven by a succession of clueless management teams) through massive intervention by the Federal government. This meant years of onerous tariffs on large-displacement Asian motorcycles, and it allowed the company some breathing room while it focused on its notorious and long-standing quality control and reliability issues.

HD pulled itself together admirably (truly, it was a B-school case-study in good management) and it watched its market share climb from year-to-year as it overcame its bad reputation. HD tapped into a growing market of affluent middle-class Americans (The notorious, and reviled "RUBBIES"—"Rich Urban Bikers") who were looking for a little adventure, looking to make a slightly rebellious statement. HD understood what people wanted, and gave it to them—in spades.

But having committed itself wholly to this marketing approach, HD finds itself on the skids once again, without a simple government life-support solution in sight. By focusing on fulfilling a mid-life-crisis driven fantasy rather than meeting a real-world need, HD painted itself into a corner. Overall, the decline in HD sales is less severe than that of the world-wide motorcycle industry in general. But in order to maintain sales volumes and dealership expansions in a market that was approaching saturation, as well as to grab some of that housing-bubble cash, HD undertook aggressive financing strategies that equated exactly to the subprime mortgages.

When the collapsing housing bubble began destroying equity, HD found itself the owner of a large fleet of defaulted-on and rapidly depreciating motorcycles. Repossessions became a dime-a-dozen, and painfully depressed the market for new and used motorcycles across the board; the market has yet to recover, and likely will not improve until well into 2010.

HD’s stock price has been plummeting over the last year, it has laid off thousands of employees, shelved plans for a new North American factory, and this week it stunned the motorcycling world by announcing it is pulling the plug on Buell immediately, and seeking a buyer for MVAgusta, which it acquired barely fifteen months ago.

Buell had been HD’s hope and lifeline since 1983 (around the time of the tariffs) serving first as a captive market for HD’s V-Twin engines, then as a subsidiary of HD serving a younger, more sporting market. Buell was to HD as Saturn was to be for GM: a new, nimble, progressive company built from scratch from the ground up with a fresh approach, sharing some corporate DNA but injecting new ideas into the corporate body.

Eric Buell, the eponymous founder, is an enthusiast and iconoclast—a Steve Jobs for the motorcycle world—and Buell Motors may rise again, a phoenix from HD’s ashes. Unfortunately, despite their differences, Buell inherited many of its parent’s shortcomings, and if it lives on, it will be as a boutique manufacturer, selling to a niche market of enthusiasts. Right now the one thing Buell and Saturn have in common is a very uncertain future, dragged down by their moribund corporate parents.

In hindsight, I imagine HD regrets having spent the last two-and-a-half decades building motorcycles for a lifestyle (n.) instead of for motorcycling (v.). But it's too late to change; what has been done cannot be undone. We may be on the cusp of losing two of America's great motorcycle marques in one fell swoop.


I forgot to mention “HOG,” (“Harley Owners Group”) to my knowledge still the only factory-supported enthusiasts club in the motorcycling world.

BMW enthusiasts have two major unaffiliated groups to choose from in the United States alone: BMW Motorcyclists of America (BMWMOA) perceived to be an ally of BMW North America, and the BMW Rider’s Association (BMWRA) which has historically tended to be more openly critical of BMWNA and more skeptical in general. There are countless other local, regional and specialty BMW clubs in addition to the two national groups, all entirely unaffiliated with BMW or BMW of North America.

The irony is that while the two major BMW clubs refer to themselves as “Motorcyclists” and “Riders,” the Harley group refers to themselves simply as “owners” —no doubt to preserve the ‘Hog’ acronym, but a revealing insight, none the less.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


An inescapable stumbling block of human intellect is the irresistible compulsion to create a linear narrative with itself at the center—like a pre-Galilean solar system—in the face of an incomprehensibly indifferent universe. It sees order where there is none, finds patterns amid chaos, then organizes these delusions in its most flattering light.

Religion, tribe, caste, class, party, clan, race, politics, philosophy—all feeble and ultimately faulty efforts to impose order and predictive value on a vindictively unpredictable world.

The view from Stephenson

Here—what the old timers refer to as 'down-valley'—is where the identity of the valley falters a bit. The ancient mountains splay outwards, appearing as little more than far-distant wrinkles, turning their backs on each other in lassitude, barely bothering to define the gently rolling sprawl between.

This timeworn place, where seventeen generations of mountains have come to die, entombs each succeeding layer on the bones of its predecessor. It is a geological ossuary. Amid the dust and glare, the bountiful fractal history displays itself in both the contours of those distant ridges and in the dirt at your feet.

Squinting against the dazzling sun and the unbounded sky, you can envision the succession of orogenies building mountains from chunks of continental crust, grinding them away and flushing the dust back to the sea with the tools at hand like some dissatisfied and frustrated sculptor. The steady northward succession of Appalachian water gaps betray how the workpiece gradually moved upwards into the steady-held cutting tool over eons, allowing the most patient of processes to make its mark.

At the same time, beneath the same sun and the same brilliant sky, you sense the fractal nature of the human presence here, a tiny imitation of the cycle of orogeny and erosion. To stand here within sight of the interstate, the railroad and the U.S. highway, all three nearly coaxial, is to marvel at the obviousness of this path as a north-south route traversing an immense span.

The interstate is merely the most recent entrant in this field, not breaking any new ground but simply mimicking a portion of venerable U.S. Rt. 11 as it passes from Quebec to New Orleans. I imagine Rt. 11 was superimposed on some earlier Valley Pike or collection of roadways, themselves built upon earlier road, paths and trail, until, with enough regression, we encounter the first north-bound pre-Columbian traveler en route to his or her passage to points unknown, who were probably taking advantage of trails worn by migratory animals.

It pleases me to think of someone pausing briefly beneath the same dazzling sun five-hundred generations ago, admiring the distant beauty of Signal Knob rising through the blue haze and the flame-colored leaves.

Kick the rough ground where the fallow farm fields were churned over for this new place, this most recent squatter on the thin surface soil, and you uncover plentiful stones just beneath the sparse weeds and coarse grasses. Uniform grey limestone, occasionally striated or iron-stained, they are abundant and likely steered many farmers towards pasture animals rather than field crops. Animals thrived on the limestone-nourished grasses, while plows were worn and thwarted by this taut skin of dirt stretched over the valley's ribs.

You kick the dirt circumspectly in places like this, where the transition from past to present may not be complete, out of respect for what lies beneath. You do not want to disturb the cadre of ghosts sleeping below the surface. This place of time unbounded can have an oppressive air; these mountains, and their ancestors, have been here for four and a half thousand million years. People have seen them for one-one hundredth of a million years. I have seen them for one-twenty thousandth of a million years.

I don't quite know what to make of that. So I scuff the dirt once more, and return to the task at hand...

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Lovecraftian Lexicon:

And just in time for the Holidays!

  • Aeons
  • Batrachean
  • Biliferous
  • Cacodaemoniacal
  • Cyclopean
  • Daemon
  • Demonaic
  • Effluence
  • Eldritch
  • Foetid
  • Foetor
  • Gelatinous
  • Gibbous
  • Gloaming
  • Ichor
  • Lambent
  • Lucubration
  • Mausolean
  • Miasmal
  • Necrophagous
  • Noisome
  • Obdurate
  • Outre
  • Piteous
  • Rugose
  • Sepulcral
  • Terrene
  • Ululate
  • Vaporous

Use these three times in conversation, and they’re yours forever. No one—except the Great Old Ones, sleeping beneath the stars for the aeons—will have a clue what you’re talking about, but that’s not your problem, is it?

The Wonder of the Night Sky

One of the benefits of living in the woods is seeing the night sky as it should be seen.

Last night, roused by Carrie’s abrupt pursuit of a pooka, we decided to get dressed and catch the late late show—the Orionid meteor shower. Aided by the combination of a brilliantly clear fall sky and a cooperatively absent moon, we enjoyed a rich and full star field from les chaises longue set right out in the driveway.

In years past we went to absurdly extreme lengths to enjoy a show like this. In mid-November, 2001, we woke everyone up after midnight, piled into the Aerostar and drove fifty-plus miles to the east flank of the Blue Ridge to see the Leonids. Aided by thermoses of hot apple cider and hot chocolate, plus a couple boxes of waxy chocolate-covered donuts, we lay under the icy night sky in awe.

Prior to that evening, my lifetime count of shooting stars was in the dozens, most from a single night at the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado. But the 2001 Leonids were astonishing—seeing our first shooters even while still driving on the interstate—and my recollection immediately afterwards was that at no time from when we arrived until dawn had lightened the sky was I not seeing a shooting star in one quadrant of the sky or another. My calculation (counting was simply impossible) was 3,000 shooting stars that night.

We followed up in 2002 by reserving a room at Skyland Lodge in Shenandoah National Park in order to be able to improve the driving/sleeping/viewing ratios. We watched from an east-facing overlook along Skyline Drive, lying on our backs on snow-covered stone walls until daybreak, then hurrying home along with all the crazy long-distance commuters to schools and jobs. It was a beautiful display, made more magical by the setting on the snowy mountains.

Last night was its own experience. The stillness was a thing of its own; other than the rustling of Schroeder’s peripatetic wanderings, our immediate surroundings were silent. I saw only one airplane in the time we lay under the icy black sky, and no satellites. (We realized that seeing satellites depends on the sun illuminating them, so after a certain point in the evening you just don’t see them anymore…).

At some point, Mary and I heard what was perhaps, the death scream of some small animal, followed by the call of an owl. More owl calls, the distant yipping of a fox, then the unmistakable howling of a coyote—or coyotes. The howls began an eruption of barking from every insomniac dog within earshot in Fauquier, Culpeper and Rappahannock counties, which slowly petered out due to an apparent lack of interest. Then it was still and silent again, until our resolve faltered and the chill night air chased us inside again.

Final count: A score of shooting stars—maybe two dozen all told. And for no more trouble than bundling up, walking into the yard, moving the lawn furniture and settling in. How great is that?

PS: The 2009 Leonids are expected to be above average this year—though not anything like 2001—peaking around 500 per hour November 17 around 21:30 UT (Okay, that's best if you're watching from Mongolia. But still. The moon is also cooperating then. Stay tuned!

Random thought

Try whistling "The Farmer In The Dell" slowly as you go through your daily routine. It's make you feel better about things, and will freak out about one person in fifty.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Oh My Freaking Dog!

The November 2009 issue of Harper's has an eleven-page article entitled "About Motorcycles," by Frederick Seidel.

The article (sadly, behind a pay-firewall for the time being) does not appear to be the least bit snarky or endulging in cheap stereotypes, but is a personal history of sorts, a memoir. Well, I haven't finished reading it yet. But I'll say, it's a bit refreshing to see the topic appear in such an esteemed and literate publication.

Addendum: The piece is a little reminiscent of HST's "Song of the Sausage Creature" minus the poetry, with an extended exposition on various Ducatis. I'd say, all in all, it's a nice addition to the literature.

Yeast Music

It is quite the modest spectacle to have three large carboys and one small carboy—seventeen gallons of cider in all—fermenting at once. In the quiet predawn darkness, there is a syncopated gurgling of four airlocks bubbling away in slightly different rhythms, superimposed over a subtle sizzling—the sound of millions of tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide rising through the cider and striking the inside of a carboy.

Taken together, it is the work song of ten billion yeast plants, contentedly chewing away at molecules of various sugars, burping out tiny little burps of gas, secreting ethanol, and budding off their daughters.

Yeasts of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains! (...of long-molecule sugars!)

Monday, October 19, 2009

Serving shit to the masses

On October 4th, the New York Times ran a front-page story about a 22-year old Minnesota woman who ended up partially paralyzed as a result of eating an E. Coli-contaminated hamburger manufactured by Cargill and sold by Wal-Mart to her mother.

I am far past the point of having any illusions about our industrial agricultural complex; I have long understood that sadism and contamination are part and parcel of ', affordable, readily available...' meat products. But I have to say, the Times article made me realize how unconscionable—almost uniquely among the purulent array of filth-laden animal products available on grocery store shelves—ground meat, a.k.a., hamburger is.

The Times article describes a process of lowest-common denominator products being melded together in a process that exactly mimics that of making compost, where the ideal is to produce the largest amount of broken surface area and to thoroughly mix decomposing bacteria throughout the entire mass so they can begin multiplying exponentially as quickly as possible.

I am, by no means, a vegetarian—anyone who knows me will attest to that. I love meat. And I am not an evangelist of vegetarianism or veganism. If you want to eat meat, that's your decision. But by DOG, if you intend to ever eat another bite of commercially-produced meat, you owe it to yourself to read the entire article before you eat any more @#$%^&* hamburger. SERIOUSLY. The whole piece is so infuriating that to quote here and there doesn't begin to do it justice. You just have to read the whole damn thing, but here's the basic take-away from the Agricultural Industrial Complex:

It's up to you to cook this junk until it's dead, because it's just not cost effective for us to keep SHIT out of it, understand?
There's not a prison dark enough for these bastards. Honestly.

Never Thought I'd Write This But

I have a relatively lengthy commute these days—an hour and change each way—so I spend a fair amount of the day on the road, and recently the trend has been car more often than bike. On account of being out here in the sticks, my radio options are constrained; a couple of NPR affiliates, a couple of formulaic stations that would have been called 'Top 40' in the day, and Country.

Lots of Country.

I hate Country.

It's right up there with opera, at the top of my list of "Things To Which I Will Not Listen Unless Forced." In fact, if I'm not mistaken, those are the only two genres of music that I reflexively steer clear of in general.

The current state of the art, country music-wise, sets my teeth on edge; its ritualistic formulaic constructions make haiku seem like free association in contrast. It's a Nashville-dictated and tightly constrained stringing together of maudlin, utterly predictable hackneyed cliches and trite imagery, punctuated with product placements and appeals to base emotions, following weary standards of instrumentation, orchestration, arrangement and production—a tedious, paint-by-numbers mass production of white boys in white tee-shirts and black cowboy hats.

So imagine my surprise when, flipping restlessly through the channels, I paused on a song I've been flippng past for a few months, "Welcome To The Future" by Brad Paisley. Now, Mr. Paisley seems to fit squarely into the mold, albeit black tee-shirt and white cowboy hat. But here's the difference: In "Welcome to the Future," he talks about a mixed bag of "change" issues: Having TV in the car; Pac-Man on his phone. He skates along the edge of cliche, singing about:

"My Grandpa was in World War Two, He fought against the Japanese..."
...but instead of turning this into some predictable jingoistic rant against some (insert right-wing blather here) he says:
"...I wish they could see this now...I was on a video chat this morning with a company in Tokyo..."
The best part, and the part that totally caught me off-guard, was that Brad Paisley, stereotypical young white male American Country music icon, seems to think its a big deal the America has a black President, and that it's a GOOD thing:

I had a friend in school, running-back on a football team, they burned a cross
in his front yard for asking out the home-coming queen. I thought about him
today, everybody who's seen what he's seen, from a woman on a bus to a man with
a dream.
Wake up Martin Luther*.
Welcome to the future.
Glory glory hallelujah.
Welcome to the future.

I'm sorry, but listening to that (the performance is pretty top-notch)brings a tear to my eye, in part because the sentiment is so unexpected in the context.

Also. While I'm in a confessional mode, I might as well come clean. At my advanced years, I've suddenly decided I like Rush—a band I wouldn't have been caught dead listening to in high school. I picked up used copy of "Chronicles" (A greatest hits from 1990)and have been indulging in a good bit of making up for lost time, enjoying the guilty pleasures of unalloyed power chords and helium-fueled vocals. Also: Neil Peart (Drummer) and Alex Lifeson (Guitarist)—motorcyclists! (Peart: R1150GS/R1200GS; Lifeson, I dunno...)

Aah, good times.

*I'm making the assumption, based on the prior reference to "...burned a cross in his front lawn..." and the reference to "...a man with a dream..." that this refers to Dr. Martin Luther King, and not to the author of the Protestant Reformation. But I could be wrong.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


You know, I don't ever recall being told directly that the term 'cold-pasteurized,' as applied to food, actually means 'treated with ionizing radiation to kill the bacteria introduced into the food-product we are selling you because of all the feces we couldn't be bothered to keep out as we processed it. Good luck, sucker.'

I think any product so labeled should be resolutely shunned by one and all, not so much because of the possible unintended consequences of blasting things we consume with ionizing radiation or because I am some wacky anti-radiation luddite, but because to me it simply represents bad faith on the part of the seller to try and get away with such contemptible and contemptuous sleight-of-hand.

BTW, this process currently applies mostly to meat products, but is spreading to other things as well.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Timely Funny

This made me laugh out loud, if for no other reason than I just got a memory upgrade to install in my laptop.

Just Outta Beta

So, what...three months?...after I got new riding gear, I finally had the chance to give it a real test. This morning it was in the upper thirties, no big deal. Got to work snug as a bug, more or less. But sometime today we fast-forwarded right into the middle of November, with cold rain beginning midday under leaden skies. By the time I left work, it was raining steadily and the temperature had settled into the low forties with gusty winds.

I can happily say that my new Fieldsheer suit passed with flying colors. I rode about thirty minutes at interstate speeds in steady rain, with no leakage and nothing untoward to report but the occasional cold spot here or there—mostly on an elbow, where odds are I hadn't secured the vents properly.

With the Gerbing jacket cooking away underneath, I was comfortable and dry all the way home. As a bonus, neither the jacket nor the pants had their liners in place, so I suspect if the liners were in place I will be fine in precipitation down to freezing, or dry down into the twenties. Looking forward to this winter!

Addendum: 38 degrees this morning, steady rain. Adding the jacket liner is great. Warmer with negligible additional bulk or constriction. The balaclava goes over the jacket collar and seals very nicely. Unfortunately, gravity still makes water run down into my gloves, soaking them in short order. I can't feel my left fingers or thumbs fifteen minutes into my commute.

In which the Blogger discusses Star Trek

I have never taken the Star Trek universe very seriously. I am, absolutely, one of the generation who grew up on TOS and patiently sifted through the various movies over the years, then the various spawn of Gene Roddenberry's original idea.

Frankly, I will never forgive Roddenberry for his creating the undying lie of a space-based future for mankind, of an eternal and infinite extension of Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier, populated by a benevolent and multi-species club of earnest do-gooders and well-wishers. So much time and effort has been wasted on pointless manned spaceflight at the expense of potentially beneficial space-based science...

But recently I watched an episode of one of Roddenberry's bastard step-children, "Deep Space Nine," and found it peculiarly and deeply disturbing. Despite all the thinly-veiled sixties-specific cultural messages borne by TOS, their heavy-handed literalness defused their impact (e.g., "He's black on the right but I'm black ON THE LEFT!"). But this episode of DS9 had a resonance its writers may well wish had never developed.

The two-part episode, entitled "Past Tense (Parts I & II) originally aired in January 1995. It involves a 'return-to-the-past' McGuffin with the usual technobabble, wherein Captain Sisco (the awesomely intense Avery Brooks) and his companions return to a dystopian San Francisco of 2024.

Interestingly, this is not a 'alternate reality' San Francisco—it is the Earth of their past. The setting is a 'Sanctuary District,' a compound within the city wherein the unemployed, the mentally ill, the vaguely criminal, the disenfranchised and the miscellaneous 'other' are warehoused in a nightmare ghetto of abandoned buildings, makeshift shelter, filth, violence and deprivation.

The action takes place as 'Sanctuary A' simmers towards a violent eruption. The upheaval must take place; the world must take notice of the upheaval, so change can take place—the dramatic social change that ushers in the utopia leading to the formation of Star Fleet and the United Federation of Planets.

What I found chilling about this episode, about this concept, was at the time the screenplay was written (say, the early to mid-nineties) the writers essentially inserted an ellipsis between the present day and their imagined future, saying, in effect "bad things happen to get us there." At its airdate, that mental elision was a standard "willing suspension of disbelief" necessary to fully participate in a fictional world.

But watching the episode now, midway to the writer's hellish dystopia—fifteen years from broadcast and fifteen years from 2024—we can clearly and distinctly see every tiny tile laid down on the road that leads us to that awful future:

"The War on Drugs." Halliburton. Tasers. "The Patriot Act." Blackwater. Guantanamo. Sheriff Arpaio. "The Shock Doctrine." "The War on Terror." Torture. Paramilitaries. Endless wars.
The list goes on and on.

It would have been preposterous for the writers to have laid out such a path to the future in 1995; it would have shattered their credibility. And they had no such obligation to do so; the ellipsis, and the viewer's imaginations filled in the gap sufficiently. What disturbs me is what would have been preposterous in foresight seems perfectly understandable in hindsight. (I almost said 'perfectly reasonable in hindsight', but reasonable, it is not).

I fervently hope we are not committed to that path, and that these particular writers will appear as wildly off the mark in 2024 as many of their predecessors appeared when prognosticating the 1970s or 1990s. We need to recognize where we are now, and do whatever we can to change course before our lassitude leads us into a future we would have never wished upon our worst enemies.

Watch it if you can.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Two batches of beer bottled (Septemberfest, a.k.a. 'Old-Fashion Horse-Powered Sorghum Ale' and Autumn Brown Ale), nineteen gallons of cider pressed—seventeen gallons of cider fermenting. Not bad for one three-day weekend!

Yeah, Absolutely The Worst Ride Ever...

I left Millersburg late in the afternoon of an early December day in 1995. That morning had dawned sunny, clear and mild, but an encroaching front gradually diminished the winter sun until it no longer provided any warmth. The forecast called for a change in the weather, and I expected to stay well ahead of it. But as I finished packing my gear and loading Campaigner, I noticed it was getting a little bit chilly. Not only was the sun graying out, but the air temperature was dropping as well. I hastily unpacked a few more layers of clothes from the tankbag, suited up, and headed down the hill towards the Susquehanna.

It’s difficult, in retrospect, to recall how different it was making a 150-mile journey on Campaigner in those days than it is doing anything on Beast now. Leaving aside the respective dynamics of the two motorcycles as motorcycles—apples and oranges, to be sure—to ride Campaigner meant no protection from the wind whatsoever, no heated grips, no power for heated accessories, no antilock brakes. I don’t recall what I wore for that trip, but safe to assume my lower half was clad (inadequately) in long underwear, jeans, and thin, unlined leather chaps.

U.S. 22 hugs the Susquehanna River at it passes through several low mountains, the corduroy remains of an ancient syncline. The presence of the river on one side and the steep hills on the other served to funnel the rising wind as Campaigner and I made our way southeastward towards home. By the time we reached the wide superhighway west of Harrisburg, the rough winds dragged a heavy blanket of clouds across the sky and the winter twilight has come in earnest. At some point along the way, I stopped and put on my raingear—a thin layer of cold-stiffened vinyl, my last line of defense against the deepening cold. I was already cold, and had several hours of riding ahead of me.

The raingear helped me recover some heat by blocking the wind; occasionally, I warmed my hands one at a time on the engine. It is an imperfect fix; the warmth only briefly reached my palm and fingers, and in short order, is lost to the wind again. It was difficult to both warm my hands and maintain control of the bike.

I navigated around Harrisburg to U.S. 15 south, and began counting the miles. It was fully dark as I headed down the divided highway, the steady clacking of the concrete seams (a hallmark of PennDot's construction preferences) marking my transit in a numbing rhythm. The front's crosswinds became fierce and unpredictable. I tried to anticipate them as best I could, taking cues from the environment, but they seemed to come from all sides at once. I reduced my speed to compensate, but had to at least keep up with my fellow travelers or risk being run over. I recalled uncomfortably how invisible Campaigner was from behind, with just one tiny dim bulb for a taillight and no reflectors.

I had been riding for over an hour, with a windchill factor somewhere in the low teens. I was reluctant to move, to turn my head, to do anything that might expose me to the chilling air. I felt locked in place on Campaigner’s harsh, unforgiving saddle like an oversized action figure. And despite the steady clack-clack, clack-clack, it seemed the miles refused to disappear.

Then it began snowing—at first, the occasional flake, then flurries, then more serious squalls. The lanes turned white. As I reached the crest of one hill, a blast of wind drifted blowing snow across the road—and blew me into the next lane, nearly into the median. This got my attention.

Peering through my foggy visor into the whirling flakes illuminated by Campaigner's headlamp, I struggled to stay in my lane and keep my speed up—one strange effect of hypothermia is failure to notice things that are ordinarily routine, like how fast or slow you are going. I got off the highway at the next welcoming place I could see, a sprawling truckstop just off the exit. Pulling into a sheltered spot, I tried to get off and found that I couldn't. Not on the first try; not on the second try. On the third try, I had to swing the spring-loaded sidestand into place from the saddle, tilt the bike over to rest on the sidestand, then stiffly dismount without falling over or knocking the bike over.

Successfully disentangled from Campaigner after only a few minutes, I stumbled inside through the blowing snow and headed for the Men's room, where I ran warm water over my hands until the feeling returned—just a few minutes more. I sat down in a booth shivering, and began unlayering so I could absorb some of the restaurant's ambient warmth unfettered. A cup of coffee helped matters, and then a warm, glutinous bowl of cheese-potato soup (somewhere between mashed potatoes and cheeze-whiz.) After a half an hour of recovery time, I realized three things:
  1. I wasn't going to get much warmer anytime soon on my own.
  2. The weather wasn't going to improve anytime soon.
  3. I wasn't getting any nearer to home sitting there.

Somewhat grudgingly, I layered up again, trying to remember all the courier tricks I had learned over the years. I think I bought a newspaper to stuff inside my jacket for extra warmth (thanks, Tim!) then gassed up Campaigner and headed back into the flurries and the semis onto U.S. 15 south again.

I was able to go all of twenty or so miles before I had to stop again, this time to nurse another coffee in some anonymous fast-food shack just below the Mason-Dixon Line. But somewhere above Frederick, the weather broke and the snow stopped. Mentally, Frederick is just another suburb of D.C. —albeit one that is fifty miles or so away—so as far as I was concerned, I was in the home stretch. I wasn't going to stop again, and once I realized that, I think the air temperature climbed about ten degrees. Conditions improved, visibility got better, traffic got saner, and all things considered, the worst was past.

I vaguely recall having a big glass of wine when I got home, a long, long hot shower, and heaving a huge sigh of relief. I also recall an involuntary shudder, and a silent oath to never—NEVER—go through that again.

Damn. Makes me cold just thinking about it. HuHuHuHuHuHuHuHuHuHuH.

Weird Times

Columbus Day weekend was beautiful and classic—cool, damp, with tormented grey skies early Saturday, gradually giving way to blue skies and broken clouds by evening. Some chainsaw work in the wilderness helped me break a sweat and earn some soreness in the arms and back. By late in the day, a chill was in the air, and good company helped season the moment.

Sunday was sunny, cool and breezy, and after taking the dogs for a walk through the leaf-bespecked woods, we began preparing the eight bushels of Stayman, Arkansas Black and Ozark Gold apples for pressing into cider. The pressing took up all of Sunday afternoon until the sun was settling into the trees and the cool was gathering anew. We led our guests down the lane, disturbing three deer from the roadway, as we took the spent apple pulp to dump in the woods far from the house and gardens.

We ate a simple supper Sunday, and went to bed. Then, about an hour before dawn Monday morning, Schroeder woke us up with fierce, angry, ferocious barking; Carrie bolted awake and raced to the (closed) door, then found her way to the other end of the house and added her voice to the hue and cry. Lights went on all over the house, and we tried to see what the source of the commotion was.

Mary heard a noise at the west gate, where Schroeder was now barking; by the time she arrived there, all she heard was the sound of the fence below the chickenyard being disarrayed. When daylight arrived, we put the pieces together:
  • A Black bear raided our trash cans, hauling a plastic bag of trash from beside the pole barn to the east side of the house, where he tore the bag open and strewed its contents.
  • He proceeded south and crossed the fence into the back yard near the triple-trunk oak.
  • He crossed the backyard heading west, perhaps towards the trashcans where we store the chickenfeed.
  • Schroeder detected him somehow and went after him.
  • The bear bolted over the gate—what Mary heard—then headed towards the woods, not seeing the fence and netting over the chickenyard.
  • The bear made his way into the chickenyard, bending the fence down, then bounded over the fence at the west edge, inflicting some damage on the old fencing. (I know this because in best Gil Grissom-style, I closely peered at the broken fencing until I found a number of HAIR SAMPLES left behind by the perp—coarse, wiry black hairs distinctly unlike Schroeder's fur. )
  • Paw prints and other disturbances corroborate this theory.
Strangely, we didn't notice the trash bag until sometime late Monday morning. But all day, Carrie acted strangely, as though the incident had severely upset her equilibrium. She was very needy, and stayed close to us; she behaved as she does when she senses a storm approaching, whining randomly throughout the day without apparent stimulus. By evening, her behavior seemed very peculiar, pacing around the room and the house, repeatedly demanding attention from both of us, and wandering restlessly.
By the time we went to bed, her behavior began to disturb me. First of all, she refused to settle down, repeatedly demanding attention from Mary by gouging the bed in her inimitable fashion. When she did lie down, she would pop right back up again, insistently gouging the bed and waking us both up time and again.
I began to absorb her unsettledness. I wondered what she sensed. Was it just the bear? Time and again, I got up and looked out the windows to the woods and the yard, seeing nothing in the deep dark. Was Carrie sensing a storm approaching? I had heard about animals sensing impending disasters like earthquakes, and lay awake wondering if that was what was in store.
Then I noticed that Julia, the cat who kept us both awake with her relentless purring and need to be on top of someone, had not appeared. I could not remember seeing Julia since sometime in the afternoon, and she usually joined us at bedtime. Was Carrie anxious because of some fate she sensed had befallen Julia?
Now another line of anxiety began joining the chorus in my mind. I thought back over the day, trying to think if I had seen Julia in the evening. Did bears eat cats? Coyotes? Foxes? Owls? Julia was tiny, and would hardly make a meal for any kind of predator.
Whatever had bothered Carrie so deeply, was now my problem as well. Every sound was startling, every thought dark, every vision disturbing. Strand upon strand of worry began seeping in and weaving a grey cloak over my mind, ever keeping me from sleeping and building an edifice of troubles in my mind.
Around 1:15, with Carrie having finally given up and gone to sleep, I remembered the storage shed, far up the driveway. I had gone in during the day to get some boxes; could Julia have snuck in behind me and be stuck there? I lay awake pondering. Damn.
Nothing to do but check; I wasn't sleeping anyway. Flashlight in hand, I walked up the driveway in the silent darkness, the only sound that of gravel crunching under my slippers. It's a long way from the house to the shed, in the middle of the night, in the stillness, in the dark, alone, in a tee-shirt and pajama bottoms, with bears...
And no Julia. I came back to the house, worried, chilled, anxious, and got back into bed for a fitful few hours of sleep. Tossing and turning through aches and disjointed dreams, I arrived at morning far too soon for my preferences. On the bright side, Julia trotted into the kitchen as I got up, her collar bell jangling merrily, with nary a word of explanation for her absence, only her traditional monotone demand for breakfast. And no bear visitation, no earthquake, nothing to fulfill the discomfiting sense of foreboding that kept me awake through the night. Just another regular old day.
But I really hope the dogs scared the bear away for a long while. I don't think I can stand another couple of nights like that.