On riding into things

via

c. 1930s, motorcycle pace-setter, via

Last week I rode into a swarm of bees. I realised I was going to ride into them a fraction of a second too late. The bees were coming out of a tree growing on the side of the road. As I rode into the bees, the bees rode into me. Each of these tiny collisions was a tiny shock, like being burnt by a very tiny, very hot hasselback potato. Then I was out the other side, unstung, but – it felt to me – now with tiny bee imprints all over my arms and legs.

Then, on Sunday, I accidentally rode into a cycling event. Miramar Peninsula from Shelly Bay to Scorching Bay had been closed off to cars, and the road was teeming with racing bikes, granny bikes, trikes, scooters, tandem bikes, BMXs. The sun was blasting out, bells were ringing, everyone was grinning. It was truly corny, like a scene from an insurance ad. It was the best event I’ve ridden into. I belonged in that mistake. 

I haven’t ridden into a river or the sea, but a friend once told me about a woman he saw on his way to work. She had clearly ridden off the side of a bridge and into the harbour. A small crowd had gathered to watch as she and her bicycle were fished out by two policemen.

I’ve ridden into countless kerbs, road cones, potholes, and tunnels. Northerlies, southerlies, gales into which it was unwise to ride, and rainstorms. I’ve ridden into an opening car door, and I have lost control and ridden directly into a crop of trees. I’ve ridden (in a Go-Kart) into a barbed wire fence strung up with rabbit skins at the bottom of a rutted hill.

The thing about riding into things is (oh god, here it comes, the part where I have to try to pretend that all of this has wider relevance) that later, it feels so great to not be riding into anything in particular. Most of us are riding into something more often than we are not riding into anything. Riding into work. Into a party. Into an argument. Into your next birthday. Into town. Into darkness. Into the Year of the Horse. Into the sunset/the morning. Into history/the future.

I’ve been going for long rides recently, and most of the way I have a fair idea whenever I’m holding someone up or some driver or other is quietly cursing me. That’s just the way cycling in Wellington is, and I’ve given up thinking that it will change anytime soon. But there are a few stretches, such as between Island Bay and Lyall Bay, where you can break out into empty road, so for a few seconds you get to speed up and spread out on the road and it’s just you and the bay, and you can finally hear your own breath, its own roar of acceleration. I seem to travel at approximately 300 km/h before a car appears to right my perspective, and during that time I become dangerously happy. The happiness is too sharp, like being kicked in the shins. And it makes me feel invincible, all tough and leathery, which is strange because it’s been drummed into me that I should always be full of fear when on a bike. It also makes me ride a lot further than I’d planned. It’s one of the few times when I’m not actively riding into anything, other than wind (and the future, obviously).

You probably remember this excellent clip of New York cyclist Casey Neistat riding into things, but here it is again.

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How are you?

Desdemona: How is’t with you, my lord?
Othello: Well, my good lady.—(aside) Oh, hardness to dissemble!—
Happy birthday Edward Gorey (via)

Happy birthday Edward Gorey (via)

On Friday I got an email from an old friend I hadn’t been in touch with for a long while. His email began:

I won’t start by saying ‘how are you?’, because to me it always sounds a bit rushed and accusatory, when you come right out with it, out of the blue. I get a little uneasy when it’s done to me. You have to earn that ‘how are you’. And then, once you’ve earned it, you tend to use it less anyway.

Do you ever have the fear that, returning to human society, you have somehow missed out on something important, like a meeting, and people have been talking about you? You open the door, someone looks up from the crossword, they ask, ‘how are you?’

Anyway, how are you?

I like this a lot because it acknowledges the difficulty while using said difficulty to arrive at the crucial question, by which point, the question feels genuine. ‘How are you’ is often a mirage of a question. It looks for all the world as if somebody is asking how you are. But if you get too close, if you approach that question openly as if you’ve found some kind of solace – maybe you pour out a few daily grievances, maybe you describe why you wish you had done things differently all those years ago, maybe you list in detail the things your brain was whirring with when you couldn’t get to sleep last night, hence feeling wretched now – the question shimmers and breaks apart before your eyes, resolving itself into a blank face. A face that only ever wanted to say ‘Hello mate’ or ‘Where have you been?’ or ‘Just tell me you’re good and then we can both leave this kitchenette without speaking any more.’

I had a flatmate who had a ‘tactic’ for when he bumped into somebody who then asked him how he was. He would only tell them what he had been doing that day. ‘I’ve just been doing a load of washing and writing some emails. Now I’m on my way to the dairy to get some milk.’ He would do this while looking at one of the person’s ears. He would lose his train of thought if he looked at their eyes. The whole interaction was based on him not quite answering the question, but seeming to, just as the question itself doesn’t quite ask its own question, but seems to.

I think my old friend is right: it’s the people who have really earned the ‘how are you’, the people with whom you share the holy grail of comfortable silences, who don’t tend to ask it very often – with them, you can plunge straight into the business of what exactly is going on here. You gravitate towards what’s important. You don’t need the harness of how-are-you to help you get down that crazy slope.

I liked Alina Simone’s NYT piece about the differences between Russian and American responses to the question ‘How are you?’. Americans will answer ‘Fine’, she writes. But were you to answer ‘Fine’ to a Russian, they will think one of two things:

(1) you’ve been granted a heavenly reprieve from the wearisome grind that all but defines the human condition and as a result are experiencing a rare and sublime moment of fineness or (2) you are lying.

She describes being in an elevator with her Russian grandmother after asking that question. Her grandmother’s stock response:

“Terrible,” to which she might add, “Why? Because being old is terrible.” Beat. “And I am very old.”

I definitely veer towards more of a Russian response than an American one, but here in New Zealand I think we tend to weasel the information out of people with less direct questions, like ‘How’s things?’ or ‘How’s your day been?’ or ‘How you going?’ (That ‘going’ softens the existential nature of the question, doesn’t it – refocuses it on your progress through life. You’re going somewhere, not just loitering around, being.) Maybe as a result of this lifetime of fudging, if someone abruptly asks me ‘how or you’ I sometimes feel a bit trapped and put-upon. Like Father Dougal caught on the roundabout in his speeding milk float, it’s all too much, too soon.

But there is always a time when no other question will do. Somehow there must be a way to know when the question must be asked, and when the question has to ask exactly what it appears to.

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Questions currently circling

Hinemoana Baker is this year’s Writer in Residence at Victoria University’s IIML. As she described in her first blog post about it, she has an office and she gets paid to go in there and write. ‘There’s enough room to lie down. There are walls and windows and tui and today, a slightly damp guy with a leaf-blower.’

I loved a blog post she wrote yesterday that was simply a list of questions. Questions like:

Why, when official records pertaining to loved ones are locked in stacks or storage, does it somehow feel like the loved ones themselves are locked in there?

And why is it that when a question is written down it suddenly seems urgent? I want answers to all of these questions too. Anyway, her list kind of triggered something off for me, and I felt like writing one of my own. So, here are a few questions that I’ve noticed idly circling me for the last while. (Obviously, I am hoping that someone else will respond to this post, and someone else will respond to that post, so that ultimately a kind of Mexican wave of questions will form, not unlike that epic poem by Matthew Yeager.)

  • How is it that an inanimate object – like a sculpture of a bird, or a stuffed camel toy – can look full of such weird delight at being alive?
  • How does its maker know when they have achieved that expression?
  • When did the age that I consider ‘old’ change?
  • Why is the one childhood moment I consciously decided to remember – that is, thought to myself firmly, ‘I will remember this moment forever’ – the moment of my mother standing in the kitchen in her apron, holding a baking bowl and a spatula, having a coughing fit after eating some cake mix?
  • When was the last time I wrote a letter, before the one I wrote this week?
  • Why, when I see an old film with an animal in it (e.g. a monkey or dog), do I feel more wistful about the animal being dead now than the actors being dead now?
  • Why, when a friend begins telling me a story that they’ve told me a few times before, do I let them go on?
  • Does my old workmate Mark ever think of the time when I accidentally crushed him in the automatic doors when he was adjusting a window display?
  • Will I ever forgive myself?
  • Does the realisation that The Dead Poets Society was actually a terrible film diminish your experience of being moved by it as a 12-year-old? Does it diminish your experience of being moved by the experience of standing on your desk with your classmates, to imitate Mr Keating’s students in the movie?
  • Why are you all the way over there and why am I all the way over here?
  • Will I ever use an ordinary-sized spoon to eat with again?
  • How is it that when a seemingly intelligent, empathetic person says something cruel do they not seem to hear themselves?
  • Why do I sometimes earnestly consider constructing an anonymous space on the internet where I can ‘speak freely’?
  • Did I make that guy at the gym genuinely angry when I disagreed with his argument that water was a privilege and not a right, and that people who couldn’t afford to pay for it should die of thirst?
  • How did that guy’s day start out?
  • What were his parents like? What is he doing right now, that guy?
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Rejection mash-up

What can you do with some failures? Ground them into a fine paste then mash them together. These lines come from five (rightly) rejected poems.

Preservation
I have lost my coat. Like many coats that go on to be lost
it had a falling hem and several missing buttons.
No doubt we will make the same mistake.
Our pockets will tear our hands apart.
If only I could think, but that does not seem
to be the point either.
A woman smiles out of a long black coat,
the street wears a soft coat of fog.
They wear it for they wish others to know
they are here for the great air show.
The light is thinning the room’s hair.
Sorrow has brought them together.
The light coats a man waiting to cross
the road, coats his dog. Each of them recently
woke up from a dream and felt a voice
call from inside him. No one can trust
their own remembering.
A word may save us from saying the other thing.
Why put yourself through that, when you can say
something utterly else
and both of you know what it means? Beans.
I pull me into the long shadows
of my new sleeves.
I think my coat is keeping someone warm.
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The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs

Long shot dog on tree stump
Long shot wolf
Long shot prairie
Long shot dog runs and exits
Long shot deer
Long shot dog
Medium shot girl
Close-up shot little monkey.
– extract from shot list for The Man from Hell’s River (1922) in ‘The Dog Star’ by Susan Orlean

I found myself with some book vouchers recently, so I went and bought this book for myself as a special treat. It’s a collection of essays, short stories, poems, and cartoons about dogs, all from the New Yorker. It was eighty dollars. Eighty dollars! But look at it. Look at it.

BNYBOD

photo 1

photo 2

photo 1 photo 2 photo 3

There are other things I should be reading. But this is better than any of them. This is better than any other book. Here are the reasons.

1. It’s about the evolution of dogs, police dogs, running dogs, dogs in parks, dogs that chase people, disturbed dogs, bulldogs, loved dogs and unloved dogs, dog language, New York’s poop scoop law, barking dogs, a dog that was found ‘asleep on the job’ and threatened with arrest, obedience training, dogs on film, dog DNA, lost dogs, dog field trials, dogs bequeathed millions of dollars by their owners, and many, many other dog subjects.

2. The hugeness of the book reminds me of reading books as a kid. Those big collections of fairytales, or books with titles like ‘Fantastic Tales for Seven-Year-Olds’. There is something very comforting and satisfying about the sheer heft and variety and beauty of the book. It hits all the good old spots.

3. There are not as many sad stories about dogs dying as you might think.

4. It’s not all dogs. There are people. For example, there is a wonderful story by Callum Wink that opens: ‘Sid was a nude sleeper. Had been even since he was a little kid. To him, wearing clothes to bed seemed strangely redundant, like wearing underwear inside your underwear or something.’

5. Some of the cartoons are really funny.

Hahaha!

6. Delayed gratification: you have to get through Malcolm Gladwell’s foreword before you get to the good stuff. The foreword is not particularly bad; it’s just a bit annoying, in that particular Gladwellian way. It’s the way that everything is so tidily narrativised. Also, when he tells us that when he hears his neighbour’s dog whining,  his ‘heart breaks’, I don’t believe him.

7. I think about how much fun it must have been to make a book like this. Imagine the meetings, imagine the decision-making. ‘What can we put in this space?’ ‘How about that picture of the dog asking for forty thousand dollars?’ ‘I was hoping you’d say the one of the dog catching the martini glass.’ ‘Oh, my dog does that trick all the time!’ Etc. etc. I bet they were allowed dogs in the office as well.

Maybe there is something unhealthy about how much I am enjoying this book. I don’t even own a dog, though I did as a kid (a dachshund, which was, cruelly, called a rat by kids who ever saw me out walking it), and I don’t know when I’ll ever be in a good position to own one again. Landlords are non-dog-friendly, and the future’s too uncertain. In the meantime, I’m a guess I’d describe myself as a dog watcher. It’s not something I actively do – more a reflex. If there’s a dog nearby, I’ll be watching it.

I’m happy to see that a few Wellington pubs are becoming dog friendly, like the Rogue and Vagabond, and Goldings. Pubs are infinitely better with dogs in them, or standing at their peripheries.

Pub dog

Pub dog

The best time to go dog watching is late morning on a Sunday at the farmer’s market near the waterfront. The place trots and skitters with them: whippets, labs, Alsatians, Dalmatians, pugs, those scraggly things that I call sea dogs because they look like they’ve spent a lot of time running around in salty wind. Half sea-foam, half dog.

A sea dog on Sunday

Sea dog

So, I guess that’s all I wanted to talk about today. There are no complex truths to be revealed here. If you get a chance, take a look at The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.

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Visitation

If you swivel the map below around so that you can see the bright red, yellow, and green house, you’ll see a long driveway with a lone figure standing on it, holding a recycling bin, I think. (Weirdly, when I zoomed in I saw that the blurry figure resembles my mother as a young woman.) Our old house was at the top of the driveway. That’s our red letterbox. My brother JP once hit his head on it, somehow – I think I can remember him coming in the door with blood all down his face.

Me and my brothers, Neil and JP, went to visit our old house once. It was after school. My brothers were both in their high school uniforms; I was still in my primary school mufti. Neil was driving my mother’s white Nissan. It was very, very exciting.

We crept slowly up the driveway, past the Orams’s place (the red, yellow, and green house). The driveway was still just as steep, with crispy macrocarpa leaves still all over it. It went under some trees and then out into the clearing, and then the wooden house rose up in front of us. My parents called the house Toad Park, as if it was a house in a movie or a book. (However, they have also called every subsequent house Toad Park.) I saw the dark square grid in the triangle roof. That was supposedly the attic. Once JP and I tried to figure out how to get to it. I remember JP’s legs hanging from the trapdoor in my bedroom ceiling. The legs were kicking about and I could hear JP’s muffled yells from inside the roof.

The pear tree on the lawn was now a white-painted stump, a neat wound in the centre of the hill. The source of the crispy leaves, the macrocarpa, was still standing at the top of the ponga wall. Once I’d stood on the top of that wall holding a plastic New World bag in each arm, and jumped off, thinking I’d float softly to the ground. And once I’d stood on that wall and seen the neighbours’ boy – a blond kid called Matthew who always seemed to be howling – climbing in the tree that stood on the wall opposite mine. Then I’d seen him slip and fall straight down with a crack onto the driveway. I remember thinking how silent his falling was – fast but silent – until he hit the ground. And then it was silent again after he hit the ground.

(I was going to leave that hanging so you would wonder what had happened to him, for dramatic effect. But, I’ll be honest – he was fine. He’ll be around 26 by now. Maybe he has howling kids of his own who fall out of trees.)

The camellia tree was heavy with the same thick bitter leaves, and all around its roots in the same compost pile, there were the same rotting blooms. But something was different; the garden was different. There were visible emptinesses. Many of the plants were gone and the bush looked thinned out, contained, more like a patch of trees than a wild place. 

As our car crept around the bend in the driveway, we saw a person. My god! I’m getting a chill right now. In my memory the person is walking up from the bush, striding over the hill toward the house, in gumboots, with a wheelbarrow. But I’m not sure – they might have been walking down from the house shading their eyes. But I am sure that wherever they came from, the person turned their head towards us to look at us and presumably wonder what we were doing, and at that point we all started shouting. Neil put the car into reverse and we flatlined it back down the driveway. He did a spasmodic 3-point turn at the bend. JP was shouting, ‘GO GO GO.’ I had my hands over my eyes and was screaming.

We would never have thought about just knocking on the door and saying hello to whoever lived there now. First, that would be very weird and the person might say no. Second, it would be seeing too much. We had to be spies. We had to trespass and see only the edges. We hadn’t thought that someone might be wandering around because someone else lived there. But of course there’d be someone. Thinking about it now, I’m glad there was, because it made our old house someone else’s house, and forced the realisation – just for a moment – that it wasn’t ours. But then, after a while, it went back to being our old house. It was too difficult to find new words for ‘our old house’ or to see the house as one in a sequence of houses that we and then other people would live in. It was always ours just because it was first.

JP sometimes says ‘visitation’ instead of ‘visit’. So (this is when we are grown-ups) he’ll say something like: ‘Would you be around for a visitation this afternoon?’ I like to think that the person who saw us fleeing in the car thought of us as a strange visitation, our white Nissan like a big ghost swan, or something.

Anyway, as we were rushing down the driveway, I looked out the back window and saw the house falling back under the trees. That was the last I saw of it. We were out of the shade and flying down George Street, shouting and heading back to the other side of town. What a relief it was to get out of there. It was like we’d escaped some horrible punishment. I remember feeling ridiculously happy.

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Faces and nonface faces

‘The cost of missing a face is higher than the cost of declaring a nonface to be a face.’
Dr. Sinha of M.I.T., quoted in ‘Faces, Faces, Everywhere’ (NYT) 
Photo taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's Context Camera, January 2008. The unnamed crater is about 3 km across. (via NASA)

Photo taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Context Camera, January 2008. The unnamed crater is about 3 km across. (via NASA/JPL/MSSS)

I had this idea for trying to write a blog post every day for a month. For no reason, really, other than I’m curious to see what will happen – aside from the quality of these posts going rapidly downhill and becoming increasingly fragmented and diary-like and resentful, and aside from you stopping reading, maybe I’ll hit something new. Or maybe 90% of these posts will be about all of my perceived injustices while bike riding. But today, at least, I will ambitiously cobble together a few thoughts on smiley faces. 

A couple of weeks ago I was following a thread on Twitter without saying anything, something I do a lot. A New Zealand radio DJ had just made a racist comment (now deleted), and then started to defend herself to all of her challengers, who rightly called her out and/or ridiculed her. This was all pretty routine, but what I found unusual was that the DJ’s tweets were festooning with smiley faces. Rather than overtones of friendliness, or being on your side, or optimism, each of her smileys seemed hostile. More at the ‘homicidal clown’ end of the smile spectrum.

It was a jolt to see the smiley being repurposed in this way, and I started thinking about the evolution of the smiley face. I realised that a snide smiley is not that unusual, since obviously the smiley face has constantly mutated through the generations: it’s been adorned with hats, Hitler moustachesblood; it’s been stretched, worn by comic book villains like Boss Smiley and the Comedian (here’s Alan Moore stabbing a smiley-face cake), made to look drugged and dead, even depicted in place of Swastikas. Late last year an employee of the National Security Agency scribbled a celebratory smiley face on a post-it note that shows a diagram of how to hack the data centres of Yahoo and Google, enabling the NSA to gather screeds of user information. The smiley’s bland, fixed contentment is a kind of blank canvas for subversion. Considering all that, it seems more unusual that it’s ever been used to express joy or optimism or jokiness at all, and that it’s emerged out of all that tumult to depict, once again, just a smiley face.

The DJ had used the archetypal smiley emoticon. I’m talking about the parenthesis and the colon here – not even a nose, an unnecessary frill – together the perfect symbol for a smiling human face. Alongside emoji, it looks old-fashioned now. Almost shrivelled. But, somehow, it’s the very blankness of that parenthesis and colon that holds all the power, and that’s why I’ve always kind of liked it. The blankness allows the meaning of the smiley to constantly mutate. It echoes the fickleness and fluidity of the expressions on people’s faces and the way that we see different things in these expressions. In some ways, I guess the ho-hum symbol of the smiley creates as much distance as it does connection, because it lacks any complexity and nuance (something that emoji attempt to address, but often end up confusing, with their ‘pouty’ faces that actually look enraged and their ‘expressionless’ faces that actually look depressed). But, depending on who I’m writing an email to or who I’m reading one from, I sometimes feel like a smiley can convey genuine, wordless pleasure, or uncertainty, or transactional friendliness. It can almost take on the persona of the person I’m talking to. In some exchanges, its eyes seem weirdly lifelike.

This is an extreme example of how desperate I am to make meaning out of nothing. And of how readily we (I) project meaning, especially affection, onto symbols and objects, hoping that they will carry our signal faithfully or that we will find what we want to find. The name for perceiving meaning where there is none is pareidolia, a type of apophenia (seeing patterns in random data). There’s a story about a Latvian psychologist named Konstantins Raudive and his ‘electronic voice phenomena’. In 1965 he tried to contact the dead using a tape recorder and microphone. He’d set up the recorder for the day and then later would go over the audio, listening for voices. For months, he heard nothing. But soon, the more he listened and his ear ‘adjusted’, he heard whispers. He thought he heard an old girlfriend, and his mother too, though they spoke in different languages. But when the media came to investigate Raudive’s findings, they couldn’t hear anything. Later psychologists who tried the same methods found that everyone heard something different when they listened to the recorder. Disappointing. But a good demonstration of pareidolia.

Lately – I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s noticed – there’s been an explosion of interest in finding human faces in non-faces, i.e. inanimate objects, like floor mops and coat hooks and Iggy Pop’s torso (for our purposes today, inanimate). I bet people’s early encounters with the colon-parenthesis combo gave similar pangs of recognition and delight – a human face, shining out of functionality – and from then on it was impossible to see anything else. But I still wonder what’s given rise to this recent surge of interest in non-face faces. Why the competitive face-finding, which is really competitive apophenia? Imagine if it was because – this is completely fanciful and a massive stretch – we were all developing more empathy for faces that look different from our own. Imagine if it was because the regions of our brains that are highly attuned to faces – the regions that are sometimes triggered when we look at ink blots or rocky outcrops or buns or slices of toast or the moon – were becoming more sensitive, were evolving to recognise and accept more faces. The world would suddenly seem imbued with even more meaning.

The weird thing about the DJ’s smiley emoticon, though, was that I couldn’t really see it as a smile. I saw the functionality: a colon and a parenthesis. Like bits of wood with nails stuck in them.

Screen shot 2014-02-18 at 5.46.48 PM

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