Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Tampa to Jax


After a general hold off in fear of suck weather conditions I finally rocked exit from Tampa on the moto. I suppose it was a good start to my thirtieth year.

At the last sip of tea I twisted the throttle on the common road, glancing on occasion to the rear view mirror where the city grew smaller and smaller. Eventually I hit the familiar moto run, a network of roads that the homies and I attack on clear weekends. Strange to be on these roads alone. Like, who am I grazing this apex for? Where is the witness to my skills? Who will pull me from the gravel if I hit that dirt patch? Without my squad, I was confined to the content of my helmet and nowhere else. I noticed more of the scenery. Massive fields in which horses or cows lazily snacked on grass. The branches of wise oak trees weighed down by moss and wind. At the depths of small rolling hills, I felt subtle changes in temperature. I passed a lake for the first time and smelled the scent of a spurned friend. But there was no space to consider that guilt when I hit the interstate in pursuit of a BMW moto.

My head was thrashed by the wind since I could tuck no lower than my tank bag. I hadn't wanted to touch the interstate at all, but I was behind schedule, losing daylight and agreeable weather. I figured that maybe I could link up with a maroon Bimer, decked out with luggage and cruise control. He cleared the on-ramp before I even got a turn signal. Maybe if we rode together we could have a better time of highway traffic styles. I passed him and introduced myself. Then he took the lead. We rode for a while in a lonely formation. Long enough for me to guess his next lane change from his body language. Finally he told me that he would be getting off in a few exits. I wish I could have followed him his whole journey, but my own exit approached quickly. I waved goodbye and entered the land of the Gators.

I didn't stay long. I had no soreness from the journey so far and the last leg of the day was less than sixty miles. So I rocked the exit. I saluted a group of riders headed the other way and thought once again about how at home I felt beside the Bimer. Without a rider beside me I took comfort in the Broadcast.

Every few seconds, my phone checked with a satellite for my location. Then it sent the data to the internet and the info was displayed on an embedded map on this blog. Okay. Whosoever chose could see my location, speed and direction in something close to real time. It reminded me of radio.

A while back I would sit before a console of faders and buttons and broadcast a rather bootleg show to my college town. I spoke into the mic and played music. On occasion the phone would ring, but I rarely answered. I spoke out, like Cioran's insomniac, but no one could speak back. Much like my gps style. Much like this blog, come to think of it. It was a kind of one-way intimacy.

I think maybe more acts of communication are like a radio broadcast or a gps tracker than we would like to think. People speak out on their frequencies or raise a flare with a great yearning to be found. But no one tunes in. Or the lone cat who listens on the same wavelength is simply out of range. For some, it makes no difference to be in a squad of riders or the last vehicle on the road. The Bible had it wrong- a house on a hill can be hid. All we need is a crowd that doesn't care to inspect real estate.

I made it to Jax in darkness. I knocked on the door at my family's home. No one was there. Eh. The driveway was good enough for me to consider the first part of my trip done. My longest ride ever was a mere 214 miles. The Atlas leaned against his kickstand as though I hadn't traveled at all. Kind of like my birthday. Seemingly epic but basically unchanged.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Dreams, Peril, Clark Kent

In Cormac McCarthy's The Road, the main character awakens in a great wasteland from a nice dream. A vision of his wife or some significant lady figure, decked out in strange trappings of erotic beauty. It is the only break from the horror of his life but still he doesn't dig it. The text reads:

"He mistrusted all of that. He said the right dreams for a man in peril were dreams of peril and all else was the call of languor and death."

On the threshold of my moto adventure, I wonder if one can ever have a dream or an expectation that isn't ultimately the shipwrecking song of a Siren.

There are many styles that I need to uncover here in town. Calls that should have been made a long time ago. Errands. Life. But I am already gone, discovering new roads, checking into motels, filling my tank. I am already in a place where things are good. It is a fantasy that commits two sins, really. First, it makes an enemy out of my present. It draws my time down into boredom, which is probably the only evil in this postmodern age. Second, the peaceful vision of my adventure covers the challenge and purpose of the ride.

If I was driving somewhere, there would be no seriousness to report. I would hop in a car, turn on the radio, and rock the exit. But there is no safety from cold wind and road debris on the moto. There is no cabin in which I can stretch out, no passenger seat on which to clumsily spill french fries. Rain fall can fog my visor and put my visibility down to fuck nothing. I can be tossed onto the road by sand or dripped fluid from a lemontastic car. And let's not think about the cops. The excitement that I have for the roll out should be shrouded in a halo of dread. Perhaps I am having the wrong dreams, but I just can't help it. I want the road in just the way that McCarthy's protagonist did not.

There is an old argument that says Clark Kent is what Superman thinks about humanity. We are awkward and dim. And If we took to the skies, we wouldn't even have to wear a mask to hide our identities. We are so insignificant among our peers that they can't even see us, much less see us as capable of saving the planet. Yeah, Kent is not a mask that the man of steel wears, he is a cruel judgment reminding us just how much better than us he is. Days away from the exit, I am thinking that all there is in me is the rider and average everyday life is a mask that I long to fully remove. Yet another manifestation of the dream, I guess. 'Cause the rider can't save the world, life is only a mask for death and I can get faded by much more than kryptonite.

But whatever, now is life. Then the Atlas. Then, perhaps the revelation of a new life.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The (Modest) edge of exit.


My first liter bike, as the story goes, was called Prime. It was the first bike I ever owned of such displacement and signified my increasing seriousness as a moto rider. It was also only divisible by itself, I guess. The next bike was called X. The the engine on this machine rocked a crankshaft with a "cross plane" configuration. I also stood at an unexpected crossroad in my lifestyle. "X" also stands in for the unknown, whether it be an exciting ride or a world-rocking crash. So it goes. And thus we are brought to the Atlas.

My current bike is the make and model of the machine that got me thinking about the literbike style in the first place. At Miller Motorsports Park one year, I saw the demon Haga fight for places in a World Superbike round. He finished out in the top five, but the madness of the style was that he had broken his collarbone the day before. He raced through the pain of hastily implanted screws and titanium rods. He was committed to a degree that frightened me. Perhaps I could approach his style in the smallest of incraments. Like getting an R1 maybe.

I have seen Haga in the flesh. Or at least in the leather. But there is another rider, a more distant hero of mine who rocks the same make and model of my newest ride. Sanders is his name, and a few times now he has ridden the R1 around the world. On one trip he clocked 19,930 miles in 31 days 20 hours. The fastest man around Earth on a moto. In yo face, Jules Verne.

Yeah.

So these guys are the poles at the edge of my axis. The mad racer and the mad traveler. And now I roll on the wheels that they rode into legend. I can't ride that far. But at least I can make it to Jacksonville Beach.

Sanders called his world record trip the Journey Beyond Reason. Sounds offensive to philosophical ears, so I am going to rock a journey within reason, a jaunt across florida to last a week or so. I will hit up homies, strangers, and roads I have never travelled. Maybe I think about thangs and record my reflections. I will hit up many cities but there will be no interstates. I hope there will be no rain. But we all know what Fanon says about hope.

When I hit the road, I will put out a pulse, a broadcast of my location through GPS that can be tracked online. I wonder if such a beacon will provide comfort when the road gets lonely. Doubt it.

Yes.

The Atlas is a collection of maps. It is also the god that holds heaven and earth on his shoulders. It is also the topmost bone of the vertebrae. The lesson is not difficult to decipher. Know where you're going, hold shit down and protect your neck.

See you chumps when I get back.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Road Reflections 9: The Open


I often hear motorcyclists talk about the joy of the open road or the feeling of freedom one has when cruising a desolate interstate. These aren’t cats that I can talk to for very long.

The road is not open. It is, in fact, a concrete catalogue of constraints. It has borders that restrict more than the median or the double yellow line ever could and it will bite those who lack attention, luck, or self-control. The road is not your friend. And though it may be a means of travel, one could be justified in cursing it for bringing us to some of the sorry places we have been.

I speak harshly because me and the Black Yamaha still can’t put weight on our wrists. Because my man has a titanium rod in his femur and his nerve endings are on fire. Because somewhere in the city there is a beginner on a little Ninja who needs to be wary.

But the road is also the site where things that we cannot imagine transpire.

The other night I pulled onto a stretch of road beneath an overpass. I stood there with the Atlas, snapping shots, not thinking or imagining. Before I could set the shutter speed, the Jacket rolled up, lights flashing. I expected the usual shuck and jive, but he came upon me with an urgent question. Have I seen a girl on this road, young, barely clothed, in distress. No, I said, and he leapt into his squad car and took off. I stood with my camera until the officer’s panic infected me. Then I jumped on my bike and went searching the avenue, brights aglow. I rolled through office building parking lots and sleepy neighborhoods. Many U-turns and double-takes. No lost children, save for the baby Jesus surrounded by wise men standing on a few grassy lawns.

My wheels couldn’t help the missing and my mind wasn’t right for a dark corner. So I traveled home, remembering at last why people prayed and hoped.

On the next day I set myself to return to the streets. But the sky opened up a torrent and made me reconsider. For a moment I was thankful that the danger was so obvious. Sometimes the layers of sand are too difficult to see. Or the careless driver to difficult to predict. Or the lost child too difficult to find. Yeah, I was thankful for a moment that I wasn’t subject to the tyranny of the road. I would ride or die another day.

Looking out at the storm from my window, I heard an inline four flexing through the distance. I thought about the feeling of freedom that it is said motorcycles provide.

It is a myth of course. The freedom that is a feeling is a freedom that is not real. Like the beautiful vista that Hurricane Carter saw from his prison cell. It is a feeling crowned from the oppression of life, maybe. A feeling of escape, which, after all, is another myth. This is not to say, of course, that it is a feeling that I do not have when I am at the apex of a corner, ready to twist the throttle into oblivion. I feel it all serious. It’s just that it evaporates as soon as the kickstand comes down. Which makes one want to put the kickstand back up. Yeah, it is a feeling to which one can get addicted. And that might make it the opposite of freedom.

Anyway.

The roads are a danger. We can look to them for a feeling, or a destination, or a lost connection. But we should never put wheel to road without great care and just a bit of terror.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Self in Motion

Historians of psychology tell us that the self is contingent. That is, the idea of what it means to be a self is different, in different eras, places and times. Aeschylus’s self looks outward and finds its meaning in community. Augustine’s self is internal and searches every crevice of inner life for an authentic expression. And the modern or post modern self in America is empty.

Forces surrounding the continuous rise and crisis of capital have shown us that every attempt at meaning is essentially meaningless, that every great story or redeeming narrative from tradition is no better than any other. Everything that was once foundational has been redacted into the veneer of an ad campaign. The American Revolution? Are you talking about Chevrolet trucks?

Yes, this is the era of emptiness. And there is nothing to be done in such a jilted age other than buy stuff. The emptiness, so the story goes, can be filled up, for a time, by things that you can buy. Like self help books, trips to Disney, and motorcycles.

In the saddle of my newest machine, the Pharmacon Atlas, I think that maybe the jaded archaeologists of selfhood are right. The blight that tore at me during my convalescence was lifted a bit the moment I got on the bike for the first time. It was sleek, familiar and yet new, like people wish their lovers could be. It was rolling on spent rubber and in the buying of it I experienced a golden moment of happiness and bright possibility. Fill me up, object. I have missed you.

The engine was strong and it cared not that every muscle I used to ride a bike had atrophied since my wreck. I took it from dealership to home in absolute terror that every car, truck and lorry on the road would betray me and sideswipe me into oblivion. Every time I applied the brakes my wrist ached and when I got home I discovered it swollen beneath the brace. I should not have ridden it. Probably I should not have ridden it the days after as well. But what force can be more normative in this age than immediate jouissance?

Friday, October 30, 2009





From E.M. Cioran's On the Heights of Despair. It was the feelgood book of 1934.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Waiting for the Races


I spent a long chunk of life miffed at the notion of allegiance to a sports team. Thousands of fans screaming across a playing field, each burning with desire for a particular group of guys to run a ball into whatever place the other group of guys would like it to not be? Why did such a feeling arise in people? Perhaps it was an echo of the battlefield, a homie suggested to me once. Back when the stakes were high, those who were far from the trenches wanted the home army to literally bury the opposition. Maybe there is a serious need imbedded in culture for someone to fight on our behalf. Maybe sport is the metaphor of war. The idea was as compelling as it was unsatisfying. I guess I was a pacifist at the time.

So I continued to stroll the earth, an alien among Bulls, Bucs and Broncos. No jersey on my back and no poster on my bedroom wall. I thought I was forever locked out of the mass mind in the bleachers or the sick excitement of gameday. But it is foolish to preclude the possible.

Through the moto path I have come into my fandom. Tomorrow is the great game, the round on which the championship will be decided and I am going thick with anticipation. I don’t know how it happened that I began to invest in strangers a world away. It is an asymmetrical relation; I am fraction in the fanbase. I look upon these men but they, unlike Nietzsche’s abyss don’t look back upon me. So they aren’t traditional mirrors and Aristotle would tell me that they can’t ever be my friends. The investment that I have must be a kind of projection, a choice to pick someone out of the world and set a mirror upon them that I must always hold in place. So that when they win I am relieved and excited. And when they crash I can feel the heat from their leathers as they slide into the gravel trap.

But there are two. Two riders in whom I place myself. And these two are the only championship contenders. I am thus a house divided.

There is the man on the course, who has been trying for a very long time to win this. Who has seen victory taken from him by technicalities and other heartaches. His speed is relentless though it has not always been consistent. He rides close upon his opponents. They say that his bike is maddening to ride, for his settings are extreme on the side of fast turn in. He has always deserved his chances and now, after all of his struggle, he deserves to not have his momentum crushed. He deserves to win. They call him Nitro and upon his helmet there are white and red flames.

There is the rookie from nowhere. The lone star. As though from darkness he has come and his presence cannot be denied. He has been alongside the fastest of the fast since he put wheel to track. A smooth, consistent and unconventional style guides him to victory. In order to meet his challenge a rider has to find the power to dice with god. They call him Elbowz and upon his helmet is his totem, the skull of a bull.

At one point in the season I had a dream. I was riding. I wore a helmet that fit like it was adorned by the skull. But when I took it off, I saw that it was covered in flames. I don’t know who will win tomorrow. But someone has to. And whoever does, a part of me will be defeated. My saving grace is that it is the recovery from loss as well as the victory that makes us great.

So maybe my homeboy wasn’t that off with the war reference. It’s just that, for me, it is not a matter of standing up to a great rival. In the end, my jersey was doomed to represent two teams; I needed to hold up two mirrors to see myself clearly. It is a shame that one of them has to break.

I think next season I will return to pacifism.


Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Short Life of Pharmacon X


It is said that the movement of history is the transition from the immediate to the mediated. What the philosopher thinks is a direct connection with reality soon becomes a mere report from unreliable senses. The object of one’s love is finally shunned by the idea of love itself, with its cruel and unobtainable perfection. And Dorothy’s wonderful Wizard unfolds as a man among men, dense enough to hide the truth behind a damn curtain. We reach out for the real and grasp only appearance. So much the worse for the real, some say.

I know that when I turn the throttle on the bike I got the other day, it isn’t necessarily my hand that guides my speed. A signal is sent from the twist grip to a computer that takes a survey of the bike- the current rpm, air temperature, intake air pressure-and then tells the engine on my behalf to increase speed in accordance with these conditions. Gone is the cable that simply opens the throttle bodies. I know this. But I don’t feel it when I turn the handle grip and rocket down a straightaway. And because I don’t feel it, I pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

There is, of course, a great deal to which to give one’s attention on the 2009 Yamaha R1. There is the sound. Since the firing order of the pistons is unconventional, the bike produces a sound unlike all previous R1s. Some say it is like a twin or perhaps even a V8. It sounds to me like Neo’s last scream in the Matrix before awakening in the real world. As though the exhaust note was auto-tuned by T-Pain himself. It is a mystifying sound, one that temps me to not even put in my ear plugs. The engine note combines with the sound of the clutch and the powerful radiator fans and the brakes at work to form a kind of digital cacophony that brings the cyborg out of all of us.

While it still has the visual essence of the r1, it nevertheless has a serious look to it. Like a falcon diving toward its first meal in ages. Two giant exhaust pipes sit under the rear seat just above the wheel. Their heat while in motion makes me feel like Mephisto is just behind me, that each ride is a ride for my soul (which is probably the case.) And what an awesome ride it is.

I just wish I got to enjoy it for longer.

On a warm sunday afternoon, I was met by an SUV that pulled into my path as I cruised without anger or ambition. I applied as much brake as I could before my bike hit the vehicle and transfered the impact through the handlebars to my left wrist, breaking it instantly. I was then thrown nearly 20 feet until I came to an abrupt stop on the tarmac. I sprung up to my feet instinctively, but tumbled to the ground after putting weight on my left ankle proved to be unwise. I lay in the road looking back toward the wreckage of my machine, just visible at ground level through the wheels of the Blazer that halted my harmonious movement. Twisted metal and mangled plastic; an unfitting state for a Tuning Fork.

Almost as unfitting as the blood coming from somewhere inside my glove. Or the dull ache in my booty. Protective gear kept me free of road rash and other major injury. But there could be no doubt that muscle relaxers and gauze would play a role in my future. As the emergency medical personnel inducted me into the institution of the objectifying medical gaze, I heard the driver at fault exclaim to the police that he didn’t see me. Truly, I am an invisible man, I thought.

With a makeshift cast and 15 or so stitches, I left the ER mad disappointed that I would be unable to roll on two wheels for at least six weeks. Friends of mine, whose care I scarcely deserve, suggested that I perhaps I should acknowledge the fact that I was alive, which still gave me a theoretical lifetime to get down on my motorcycle style. Truths such as this are not always comforts, but I will take what I can get.

It is strange how quickly an event can change one’s course. On Friday I rolled out of the dealership on a new status. And on the third day it fell. A kind of Devil Ex Machina that cut through my precautions and safety measures, making even the concrete ground feel groundless. I suppose that a lot of people live in fear of such moments. Still others have no fear until the moment comes and harshly unsettles the world. Perhaps the management of this terror is the true test of being.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

...
We may find ourselves captives of fear or of nostalgia; lower than death or on its own level. Captives of fear, if this tonality merely perpetuates the void in which it occurs; and of nostalgia, if it converts the void to plenitude. According to our structure, we shall discern in death either a deficit or a surplus of being.
...
If fear controls us, it must distort our image of the world. The man who can neither master nor exploit his fear ultimately ceases to be himself, loses his identity, for fear is valuable only if one defends oneself against it; the man who surrenders to it can never recover, but must proceed, in all transactions with himself, from treason to treason until he smothers death itself beneath his fear of it.
...
Those who cannot benefit from their possibilities of nonexistence are strangers to themselves: puppets, objects "furnished" with a self, numbed by a neutral time that is neither duration nor eternity. To exist is to profit by our share of unreality, to be quickened by each contact with the void that is within.

-E.M. Cioran, The Temptation to Exist

Saturday, September 26, 2009

From total strangers to best friends
To best friends to brothers
From brothers to never calling him again
Their coffins descend
One flies to a place of peace
The other Lake of Fire, devils hauling you in
As one began one ends
The Earth still spins
We're hurt, tears in our shirt, spirit must transcend
What you think sleep is for?
A deeper cause
Preparing us
For the other side til the Reaper calls...

-Killah Priest, "Profits of Man"

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Motorcycle and the Mixing Board.

I didn’t quite wake up; it was more like I bled onto wakefulness from my troubled sleep, like when a scene in a movie takes forever to fade to the next. Long before my body had the power to move I felt the day and did not like it. Light dared to reach out from the spaces between the blinds in my bedroom window. The few clouds that couldn’t be bothered to rain themselves away the night before also neglected to block the sun’s invitation to rise and shine. Still, I eventually had to face the sky and all below it, so I wrestled myself out of the sleeping bag and arose, thinking, why did I sleep in this sleeping bag?

A dark tension followed me out of my plaid, cozy coffin. As if a nightmare that I couldn’t remember wanted me to keep its fear as a souvenir. A trembling hand set the mouse into motion across the morning computer screen. But I couldn’t commit to the world as revealed through pixels. Nor could I sit peacefully in front of Denrick’s painting. The boy wrapped in his cloak stared down upon me, forever locked in the penultimate moment of his ascension to manhood. I thought that it must be hard to be a painting as I put on the fast jacket, or, as my man calls it, the lab coat.

It fit more tightly than my other jackets and featured the mangled remains of insects that were fool enough to float above a busy road. The leather of its construction is stiff and the armor in its lining conforms perfectly to my limbs. I strapped on hard knee armor and slid my jeans over both them and my racing boots. Thoreau would certainly warn me to beware of the venture that required such clothing.

I closed the front door, accepted the muggy heat that was the late morning, and plunged my brain matter into a matte black helmet. After the hand clap that settles the gloves into place around my spindly fingers, I pressed the gray button on the blue machine that gives meaning to my style.

Once I walked into a forest with a park ranger. She pointed out edible plants, poison plants, succulents, plants that would soon flower, plants that would soon die. But when I turned my gaze upon nature without her, I saw only a mass of greenery. Another time I stared upon a motherboard with a programmer. He explained the interplay of transistors and the alternations of current that bring computers to life. But I saw only a maze of soldered metal and plastic. The more that the world contains, the more that lies in my periphery.

But at the machine, I hold the vocab that cuts meaning from the manifold. Where others feel only dull vibration, I sense clutch, fuel delivery, rpm. From the first contact with concrete I can feel whether I have enough air in my tires. Yes. The dirt that wafts up from the road into the crevices of the radiator is the desert of my real. It is no wonder that I miss it when I am gone.

On the exit from the house to the main road, I ran across a wide and unavoidable patch of sand. For a moment, the two wheels at my foundation dropped away from the ground, floating on a grainy abyss. It was like sure-footedly stepping off a high mountain cliff onto a cloud. But only for a moment. The rubber came back to the road on the right path, so I didn’t have to contemplate tragedy. On to the corners.

The motorcyclist, it is said, is concerned only with the present. Moving across the world at speed, he has no room for life outside of the road ahead. I wonder if this means that the moto is a source of clarity and meditative composure, or if it is just an opiate for the miserable motion of life. I wonder also if I would truly care either way how the answer to this question played out. Maybe I can’t care, I thought, before the light turned green and I accelerated past traffic to be the first into the sweeping turn that was the onramp.

I was also the first to cross faint lines crookedly etched into the lane below me. Nearly 20 feet long, they belonged to the bike and body of a friend of mine. He was headed for this very turn when a truck lurched forward into his path. His bike was struck and he went tumbling and came to a stop only when the road had taken the denim from his jeans. Leather and kevlar preserved his flesh but he sprained his wrist when his body was dashed against the road with great force.

I took such a tumble myself once. So I know that when he stood, he did not feel fully the pain that he was in. His brain, the story goes, inhibited the reports sent in by his nerves so that he could better deal with his immediate situation. His brain turned his pain down like the volume on an ipod jog wheel.

In many ways, that is what the bike was doing for me. It was the master fade on the mixing board that is my mind. Emotions born of a million doubts and fears faded beneath the surface as I approached the first corner of the day. But when I applied the brakes to set my entry speed for the turn, those demons reappeared. Like a gust of wind had blown back the veil of maya, giving me a glimpse of the real in all of its horrible beauty. My only escape was more speed. I let off the brakes and accelerated a bit, adjusting my body for the moment of turn in, the tipping point. I looked to the apex as my knee reached out for the ground and everything went quiet. Only one track remained, the howl of wind and engine that really counts as silence.

I stopped at a park and looked out over the water from the bench on a short boardwalk. Though I sat by still water, I could find no peace there. I grabbed my helmet and strolled back to the machine, its engine still hot from the trip. I have been here before, I thought. I wondered how many more times I would return.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Reflections on Travel 2

5. Such is the fate for those whom we derogatorily call ‘tourists.’ The tourist, as the story goes, is obsessed with the newness of an environment so long as a fitting record can be made of it. Most often, they take pictures of things for which pictures have already been taken, from the same angles, with the same lack of photographic skill. But, as taken by the tourist, they condition the truth of the journey. The photo then stands as a testament not to the environment, but to the presence of the tourist. With camera in tow, they move through a supposedly new environment that has been constructed just for the industry they have spawned. Most often, they remain within the designated tourist space, an economic space that is also a space of souvenirs, of tourist meanings. At the center of these spaces are the beacons of history, or art, or spectacle whose call they have answered. But they have come not to study, not to know, but to see. To become of a part of the community that has seen, as though this membership itself transcends the dullness of untravelled life.

6. But the distinction between the “tourist” and the true traveler often stems from an impossible presupposition: that one can get a “real” experience of a place. This notion of the real is, upon further examination, a kind of suggestion. “The real” prescribes a set of experiences, perceptions and understandings that we “real” travelers think one should get in a new place. When we say things like “come see the real Texas,” we are in fact just making recommendations about what elements of a place we think the traveler should go experience.

7. Thus, our questions concerning travel are inherently normative. In addition, the notion of an “authentic experience” is the result of a confusion about what types of experiences there can be. The “real” is merely the recommended, but is not experienced as such by the real traveller. At the heart of this deception is the traveler’s idea that there are authentic experiences. This notion is most often a unconscious extension of the material fact of authenticity. If a product of some sort is copied, such as a designer purse, the copy is necessarily inauthentic, that is, it does not find its origin in the production pipeline of the designer’s company. The authenticity of commercial objects thus gives way to the idea of the authenticity of experiences. But the “authentic” finds its legitimacy at least partially in the inauthenticity from which it must differentiate itself. The designer purse must have a seal of approval, which becomes a mark of its distinction, a sign that it is valued so highly that its valuers are willing to imitate it. The real traveler searches for a similar seal in his experiences, though he very often finds little evidence more than the absence of other tourists. If the markers are sufficient, the experience is deemed to be more “real” than that of the tourist. The traveler has failed to see that he has merely consumed a slightly different commodity than the tourists in the tourist square.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Reflections on Travel

1. What does it mean to travel? Specifically, what does it mean to travel to a place for the sake of its newness, for the pure experience of being there? What does it mean to seek out a thing in a different location? What does our sojourn do for mind and world?

2. The dead germans tell us that “inquiry is guided beforehand by what is sought.” Our desire to investigate a thing has at its roots a notion of what that thing is or at least what it might be like. These notions may not be explicit, but they provide a grid on which to place our future experiences. These sometimes implicit orientations and expectations are unsettled or undermined by what we take to be the truth of our experience. But often our activity of taking this meaning to be “the truth of our experience” is a dialectical adjustment of the old expectations that this so called truth has replaced. This adjustment brings a change in our expectations, which in turn alters the possibilities for our experience. If they were merely the first term in an ongoing hermeneutic process, our initial preconceptions would not be more problematic than those of anyone else. But the movement of life often forces us to suspend this process, leaving in its place an at least partially calcified receptivity to experiences. Thus, it is just as important for us to investigate our prior conceptions as it is to fend off the elements of life that limit new acts of perception.

3. The difference between expectation and experience is often distinctly perceived in the context of travel, in the distance between home and destination. Our ideas about places are woven out of endless currents of information. When these are places that we have yet to visit, we tend to take the phenomenon of “seeing for one’s self” as the test against which we measure our conceptions. “I hear that Fiji is such and such. I guess I will see it for myself.” Or “I can’t wait to see the the old church that I have read so much about.” The distant world is given over to us largely through media and other accounts. Since all accounts frame the world and all frames commit acts of emphasis and exclusion, we are prone to think of visiting a place as a kind of frame removal. This is why we take the accounts of those who have “been there” as more authoritative than those who merely convey secondary sources.

4. It is also why we endeavor to visit places that interest us. But in visiting, we often overlook what is often most apparent at home, that there is no such thing as frame removal. We experience all things from the frame that is our perception. If we do not condition our perceptions, we could travel to an entirely new place but remain in our usual world of meanings. We can visit a place in the sense of going without being there.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Religiousness and Atiak: Part Two

But meeting with Flo, the adwaka, wasn’t my first excursion into the currents of belief that ran through Atiak. Before that, I spent time with the local parish priest, the only other foreign resident of town, besides the Earth Birth homies. Such a figure is just returning to the scene out here. During the war, the catholic church pulled its representatives out so that they wouldn’t meet with bad fates. The return of a priest is a sign of stability, a token of the church’s renewed attention. It is therefore unfortunate that the priest is so unimpressive.

After meeting him for the first time, we went on a brief walk through Atiak, during which he said hello to people in the limited Acholi that he spoke. Before coming to the main road, we came upon a collection of huts whose doors all faced a clearing. On the ground sat a woman washing her face from a basin of water. She was bleeding profusely from her nose and her lips were swollen and bruised. A dozen children and a few women stood around her. The Priest asked someone in the crowd what happened. He received an answer then turn to me and Rachel, beckoning us to leave quickly. Rachel asked what happened. The woman had been beaten, he said.

Rachel pressed him quite harshly about why his best response to this event was to flee the scene. We were super outsiders, but he was literally Atiak’s supreme moral authority and he had come upon some seriously wrong shit. In Gulu, I saw the Nuns straight up remove children from abusive environments and send them to safer places. I have heard tales of Nuntastic confrontations in which the habit rockers cuss cats the fuck out for not acting right. So I expected a priest to be ready to kick in a door, to overturn the moneylenders’ table and send them crying out of the temple. Or at the rock bottom, to offer consolation to a woman who had just been beaten.

Instead, he told us that this is what African men were like. Presumably, he was excluding himself. He also told us that perhaps he would send a catechist to the scene to check on the woman and scold the husband. We asked him if he did this in the many times we saw him in the days that followed. We eventually just stopped asking.

I suppose, then, that it was my desire to complete an imperfect circle that brought me to mass on a subsequent sunday. The Church was a quaint structure, lacking the general extravagance of most catholic enclaves. Bullets from the war still sat within the brick and mortar of the outside wall. Pains of stained glass were missing from most windows. The simple benches that served as pews faced the altar, upon the wall of which hung a large statue of White Jesus in the absolute agony that was Roman execution. On the left front wall was a painting, a kind of close up of the Anointed One’s face. His eyes were turned upward as though he were in a kind of ecstasy. I found myself wondering what he might whisper to me if I could get close enough.

In front of the altar was a collection of drums and instruments I didn’t recognized. They were played by young people and their songs were just beautiful. Like they were playing to an audience of ghosts instead of the women and children that almost totally made up the crowd.

The Priest didn’t know enough of the language to address the church in Acholi. I don’t know if that was fortunate for me. He spoke the kind of sermon that I have heard pastors give on the radio quite a lot here. A sermon about the illegitimacy of other religions in the face of Christianity. He told his congregation to not consult witch doctors, to nourish themselves and find their answers only in the church. It occurred to me that most of the people in this town couldn’t read in any language; they couldn’t even crack a bible to determine things for themselves. All they had was this Priest.

A couple days later, on the radio I heard a woman reading the famed Pauline passage in which women are admonished to be “subordinate” to their husbands. The command was joined by simile to the relationship between the church and God. A few days after that I heard some women who had come for prenatal talking to Rachel about how there is nowhere for them to go if their husbands beat them. Once the dowry has been paid, they said, their families will no longer accept them. Their fathers will simply send them back. I have been told that it wasn’t always like this, that spousal abuse used to be a community issue and mad cats would be all up in your shit if you, the husband, abused your wife. Maybe this is true. But years of colonization, disease and war can change things. I guess I can’t expect a single papal emissary, who is after all a product of these forces, to make it better.

There is yet another encounter with the supernatural that I had in Atiak. On the night of a lunar eclipse, I pulled a card from a tarot deck. I flipped it over to discover that it’s face was completely blank. Olivia found this amusing. The forces that guide the tarot, she said, were telling me that I don’t need to be pulling cards. Whatever I am supposedly looking for, whatever answer I want, I already have well within my grasp. I laughed it off, but a slow torment followed me to sleep that night. I guess even the forces that one doesn’t believe in can hold great power. I can’t figure if that’s all the better or worse for belief.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Religiousness in Atiak: Part One

The term “witch doctor” falls with some dissonance upon modern ears. The witch is the figure that works magic or deals in witchcraft. She is the conduit of unseen and sometimes diabolical powers. But the doctor addresses only the seen. He sets out from the appearances and will craft ever new machinery to see deeper. He cuts the body into its meaning with a sharp gaze and brings health for which no sacrifice must be made. The merger of these terms feels like some contradiction, an insult of sorts to the doctor, whose profession we have learned to privilege against the superstitious confusion that accompanies the witch. The Acholi word over which the colonial power placed witch doctor sounds like something to the effect of ajwaka. The name of the ajwaka that I met was Flo.

She led us out of the coolish breeze of the afternoon into her hut. As we sat upon mats made from papyrus, she shooed away some stray chicks and laid a dried goat skin down in the middle of the floor. I had a feeling like maybe I was about to learn a secret, as though something had been kept from me for a long time but that now some kind of truth would be shared. We greeted her and I asked questions about her style.

She had been in the vocation for nearly 20 years, moving all across Uganda rocking her trade. Sometimes she was just rolling up on a new scene, sometimes she was fleeing the war and sometimes she was summoned by cats who felt her style. She hadn’t been in Atiak that long, but mad cats knew about her and she maintained ties with the town community leaders. Apparently, if ever cats rolled up on her talking things that were important to the town, she would let the authorities know about it. I couldn’t figure if that was a bit narcish or simply a version of community service.

I asked her how it is that she did what she did. She was like, let me show you my tools. She then pulled out a goat’s head and emptied from it an assortments of beads, coins and cowry shells. She handed me one in particular for closer inspection; upon it was the face of Queen Victoria. On the other side was knight-looking dude killing a dragonish creature. I tossed the coin back into her pile, where it came to rest by a bore’s tooth and a crucifix. I asked her about it and she assured me that she was a good catholic and she asks God to bless her work before she begins.

She said that when someone comes to her with a problem, she used these tools to figure out exactly what is wrong and what the solution is. The general style goes like this: she throws the beads upon the floor and begins a kind of communication with the spirits who tell her what needs to be done. Most often, the solution is to gather things from nature to make medicine. Sometimes, drumming and singing or animal sacrifices are necessary. There is a basic fee for the small jobs and the spirits will tell her what to charge if the task is great.

I asked her if the spirits of which she spoke were the jok. They were. She told me particular names of the jok and at some point in the list she told me of the jok rubanga. This spirit is responsible for afflicting people with hunchback, she said. It seemed that I had corroboration for p’Bitek Okot’s account; perhaps it was true after all that the early missionaries gave the name of the hunchback spirit to Jesus’ father. Despite an apparent research breakthrough, I found myself wishing that this were not the case; it would be a painful metaphor for the church’s disconnection from the people it claims to be serving. I asked her about the name and why it appeared to be the name that the catholics used for God. Either she did not have a clear answer or its clarity was lost between her and the TBA who translated for me. Perhaps I should have pursued the matter further. And perhaps there is no answer that reflects well on Papal authority.

I listened as she told me about people who she has helped. With the help of the jok, she has made barren women conceive. She has straightened out the hunchback brought on by Rubanga. I get the impression that she may have even made it rain on occasion. Take that, Fat Joe. She told us also that she had never been to a hospital or health unit, that any ailment that befalls her she cures with herbs or other means revealed to her by the jok. Once again I felt the mystifying connection between the supposedly supernatural and the physical. There are so many ways of putting the world together; it almost seems a sin to live one's entire life from a few limited grids.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Earth Birth Style


The other day I was laying in bed getting over a headache brought on by a rooster and a church service. I was brought back from the edge of sleep by Rachel, who walked in like, hey, do me a favor and hold this baby while I tend to its mother. Then she laid the infant against my chest and rocked exit. The baby was no more than two hours old; the remnant of the cord that bound it to its mama still hung from his belly button. It was a mellow creature, concerned only with sleeping and sucking on its fingers. If I moved at all or breathed too deeply, it would fling its limbs and make these noises that were just damn cute. It was a five pound ball of cuteness come to join me for a nap.

It is rare that the subject matter of a practice, once it has has been cleaned up, anyway, is so bloody adorable. But such is the Earth Birth style. They have averaged one birth a day since they have been here. Most of the births that they attend happen here at the compound, the site of all of their supplies and the best place to work with the TBAs who usually bring the birthing women in. On occasion, they get a phone call that brings them to a location out in the bush, sometimes miles away from the main road or the town center. Before they rolled up on the scene, there was only the maternity ward at the Atiak health unit to assist with births. It has maybe 6 beds and a staff of two nurse midwives. But Uganda has the third highest birth rate in the world and most of these births happen here in the north. When one considers also the war that waged in this region for 20 years, it becomes obvious that childbirth in Atiak has been in a prolonged state of crisis.

Of course, this problem has not escaped the notice of the government and NGOs. The past is filled with organized efforts to make things better. But these efforts have affected the scene either minimally or adversely. The wackness of these programs is derived from a general assumption of the unconditional goodness of western, hospital-based methods and training models. Even when they can potentially be effective, such programs need continued supplies of resources that this region simply does not have and won’t get any time soon. When the crisis of a particular area is declared “over,” the supposedly humanitarian attention it receives fades away. And when those streams dry up, people suffer from lack of care, just like they did before. This is why those Doctors need Borders.

Of course there are the attempts at training. But a problem with training programs is that they are one-sided. Perhaps the trainers presume the supremacy of their sources of knowledge. Perhaps they are forced to carry out a plan that was not drafted in the field. Whatever the reason, training programs, particularly those aimed at birth practices, have done more to eradicate the community’s ability to meet its own needs than help it. In the wake of World Vision, we find traditional birth attendants whose methods have earned them legal restrictions in their ability to attend births. The primary source of help has been trained out of its practices and pushed into obsolescence by the government.

But the birth rate looms in a country that has a host of other infrastructural problems. And Atiak is ground zero. Miles away from electricity, running water and a hospital, it feels the lack of care acutely. Rachel and Olivia want to shave some degrees off that angle.

The Earth Birth squad has carefully studied the previous styles. They have worked in sorry maternity wards and spoken with world vision officials. They have worked out theory in the halls of NYU and Rutgers and have rocked practice in New York and Brazil. The fruits of fundraising efforts have given them enough to properly start their program, to begin construction of a birth clinic in Atiak and conduct continuing workshops with the traditional birth attendants who want to get back in the game.

Until the clinic is built, the site of most of their work is at the contemporary compound in which the little baby slept in my arms. His arrival was attended by Olivia and a native TBA, Christine. By attending births together, they can share knowledge and observe one another’s practices. They talk about these practices at twice weekly meetings, where everyone learns about traditional styles and modern western practices that can be sustained. The point is to do whatever works in the context with the resources that are available. If you don’t have a clean razor, use the sawgrass to cut the cord. Since you don’t have pitocin, do nipple stimulation. Let her give birth in that position that works best for birthing the baby; there is no need to be confined to her back during labor. And so it goes. Find the most effective, sustainable practices and support them long enough for them to ride out with minimal external support.

Rachel returned to pick up the baby from me just as it appeared to be getting hungry. I brought it out to its mama, who began to give it booby snacks. In the great ideal, one day we won’t even be around to hold the little ones. I guess I gotta pinch their cheeks while I have the chance.

A Fractured Reflection: Limbo


Whenever I rock a sufficient exit from my home—or from my bike; not quite sure which—I get this dull sense of being displaced. Like maybe there is a psychic rubber band gently tugging on me, pulling me back to the spot where I sip tea. It accompanies the strange feeling that I get of being deep within earth at whatever place it is that I am visiting. Like my stepping off the plane or bus created a crater that I have sunk into. Its edges provide a kind of cover, a high wall against which I can rest and peep the shapes of new shadows. It occurs to me now that these complimentary feelings form a kind of limbo. It is a sense of being out there and nowhere, a feeling of suspension from my regular style. In this new place, the rules that normally guide my style find themselves attenuated or changed altogether.

Here in Atiak, I get such a feeling more so than anywhere else I have been. My purgatory is a respite from the anchoring statuses and responsibilities at home. It is a place of excitement and apprehension. But it isn’t a place of forgetfulness. Though I shovel rocks, record births and haul supplies, I dont really experience distractions. No text message summoning me to a hot spot. No motorcycle race to happily disrupt a workday. Even the movies on my computer seem deficient in their ability to slide me off into a dreamworld of magic. Yeah. On this scene, a thought sparked is a thought aflame and there isn’t much I can do to extinguish the conception. Not even go to sleep.

The Jewish homies say that dreams are one sixtieth prophecy. On this score, I wonder what fraction of my life is concerned with abandonment. Maybe I don’t wanna miss my next plane, maybe I don’t wanna step out on a great life project; I don’t really know. I know only that the dreams remind me that death can force the objects of our love to leave us. It is a reminder that few who have lived life need to get. Perhaps I have not yet lived.

Limbo is no more a place to get clear on things that any other site of reflection. It could be the place where you descend further into the icky depths of opacity. It could be the spot where you rock the eureka-like epiphany, sure. But to assume that it will be that, as the man said in No Country, is vanity.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Atiak Ambience


Despite an early morning torrent, the Atiak sand was mostly dried by the heat of the afternoon sun. I avoided the few puddles that remained on the road with a subtle push of the handle bars on the Yamaha DT125 I was riding. I was cruising pretty slowly, because I wasn’t rocking a helmet or gear and also I didn’t want to drop the bucket of placentas sitting between my legs. The container of maternal organs was the residue of a hectic set of days that were theoretically over. Their burial would mark a bit of chillness for the squad, who were headed to Gulu for a couple days of electricity and cold drinks. If we could fix the car.

I pulled up to the burial site and carefully dismounted the bike. This was the land on which the Earth Birth clinic would one day be built. It was bulldozed just a few days before and the dirt still bore the tracks of the ancient machine that leveled the earth. I met Louis, who was waiting for me, and we took the placentas and a poor quality hoe out to the edge of the land. I put on rubber gloves as he dug a small hole, then removed the top of the bucket and emptied its contents. Blood red membraneous flesh that had carried life for around 40 weeks slid onto the dirt.

It was just a few days before that I saw one of these up close for the first time. But such styles were a matter of basicness at the temporary compound, at which pregnant women rolled up for prenatal check ups and all out delivery. And because the only other spot for maternity care was the overstretched health unit, which was deeply understaffed, the Earth Birth squad and its affiliated native birth attendants constantly found themselves catching midnight babies. So the placenta bucket needed a lot of emptying.

I watched as Luis brought the earth down upon the umbilical status. It was a nutritious sacrifice to the soil and the remnant of human life that one could bury without grief or pain. It was like hitting two Invisible Children volunteers with one stone. Or birds or whatever. Luis said that he would stay on the land for a bit, rock a survey and add to his construction schemes. So I kick-started the yamaha and twisted the throttle. On the way back I breathed in some images of Atiak. People walking down the road holding jugs of well water, shovels and hoes, babies strapped to their backs. In an open field, barefoot school children played soccer. Women sat in front of huts selling okra, maize and ginger. In the church, a new parish priest from Tanzania sipped his beer. I waved at the police as I passed the checkpoint and parked the bike next to a dirty SUV with “peace in birth” printed across its back window. In just a little while, a mechanic would show up to get it in running order. We hoped.

On the way into the compound, I looked back at the bike I had borrowed. It had drum brakes. Next time, I would be sure to borrow a helmet.

Rubanga and Jok

The other day Luis was rocking construction of a retention pond outside of the temporary compound. We hired Francis to help. In addition to being the night watchmen for the town parish, Francis works construction. While he was working, I thumbed through a book he had brought with him. It was a catechism text, written in Acholi, with a picture of a Black Jesus on the cover. Well, it was clearly the regular white jesus painted brown, but you gotta start somewhere. Within its pages was written a name that surprised me.

When Francis finished work for the day, I asked him, what is this name, Rubanga? What does it mean? It means God, he said, the God that sent Jesus and such. Huh. I told him that there was a scholar, p’Bitek Okot, who said that once upon a time the Italian missionaries rolled up on the Acholi and began to ask them questions about who it was that created them. The Acholi could not understand what the white men meant by create, and eventually translated the word among themselves as “to mould”. Then they figured that the missionaries must be asking about how it is that some people get hunchback. So they told them; the jok rubanga molds us. The missionaries, at the start of their grand conversion schemes, figured that Rubanga was the holy father who created the Acholi.

Francis did not know what to make of this. He said that maybe it would be cool if I showed him the text in which this was written. He then told me about the difference between the jok and Rubanga, who is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. His english was pretty good, but I could not get clear on his own beliefs concerning this matter. At times, he seemed to say that he might call upon the jok if he needed something. At other times he seemed to say that the jok styles were not for him. But he did tell me of some rituals involving the jok and described the role that “witch doctors” have in this traditional Acholi style. Like yo, maybe if you get sick for a really long time and the hospitals don’t act right, we can take you to a witch doctor. This cat will ask for a fee maybe, then do some stuff and you will be healed. Or maybe there is a drought and the crops need rain. So the whole town might roll up to this one rock and sacrifice some good snacks to it. Then they leave, the rain comes and everything is all good. I remembered in a philosophy class back in the day the great master K. Wiredu told us that what we think of as African religion is really a deeply empirical venture. (Wiredu, incidentally, thinks that there is no coherent distinction between the natural and the supernatural. His argument for this is so simple it hurts.) So spirits or gods or whatever are always evoked for a specific purpose. And if the spirits don’t deliver, they get rejected. The spirit may lose power, people could stop believing in them and they could vanish altogether.

This is the impression that I got from Francis. He would say things like, yo, if you are rocking a religious style that looks nice, I might take it from you and practice it myself. He also said that Christianity and the traditional style of evoking the jok are really like bananas and rice. One does not seem to be better than another, but some people prefer one. I asked him if he knew anybody that preferred the jok style up to this day. He was like, yeah, of course, my grandfather. I will take you to see him.

That night the homies were all sitting , eating snacks and staring at the stars. The meager ipod speakers began to play Nina Simone. Sinnerman. It occured to me that Nina was singing about a utilitarian approach to religions. In a time of need, she ran to the river. Then she ran to the sea. She ran to the rock, like, what’s the matter with you rock? Don’t you see I need you? And, though he sent her to the devil, she ran to God last. Perhaps Nina was telling me about the death and birth of belief.

The next day Francis took me off the main road to a collection of huts at which his family stayed. He took me into a biggish dwelling in which an old man sat in a low chair next to a radio and a massive pot of water. This was Justin Otin, chairman of the Acholi Council for Traditional Culture. With Francis as a translator, we spoke at length about the traditional styles. Types of jok. What they are responsible for. Particular names of jok. The role of witch doctors. During our conversation, I thought more about the notion of the empirical emphasis in traditional religion. I remembered a few passages from my recent readings in colonialism. The medical missionary, says a scholar named Buchart, did a great deal in bringing about conversion because they were able to link care of the physical body with care of the soul. If a native cat rolled up with pain, the physician would give them something proper, heal them up, and the native would see this as a manifestation of european religious power. It was in the name of God that the physician rolled up on the scene, after all. So, while western cats don’t pay much attention to the fact that our oldest hospitals are founded by religious denominations, it is actually kind of a big deal here, since the health unit and hospital, that is, institutions of supposedly secular influence, played an important role in religious conversion.

From this perspective, it seemed to me that Christianity couldn’t not be the dominant religion here. There are crosses above the door in every hospital. And people go to the health unit just like they used to go to the witch doctor for cure of their ailments. As an institution of political, monetary and educational power, particular formations of churches, like the catholic church, rival governments. If one were to see this power as essentially religious, conversion would be the only sensible move.

Just as I began to wonder what would happen if a Christian in this region found his or her desires frustrated at the hospital or at church, Francis tells me that his grandfather knows a great deal of people who go to church but who practice the traditional styles in secret. He also says that there are a lot of cats who openly respect the traditional ways of belief much more than the church. I ask Justin if he himself thinks that Christianity is better than the traditional style that it replaced. He tells me that, if his son were to walk up in here with newborn twins, he wouldn’t take them to the church for their blessings.

I also ask them if there are any witch doctors in Atiak. They both laughed hard. There are a lot, Francis tells me. We passed one on the road on the way here.

Yeah. Now I have a date with a witch doctor. Naive quests for authenticity die hard.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Cities and Sin


Amsterdam and Las Vegas are to me, the same city. Amsterdam is more beautiful, of course. And if you are a 15th Century author with a manuscript that just screams excommunication, you can get your work published only in the Netherlandian metropolis. Though I think we all know who wins the Tom Jones comparison. Yeah, these are serious differences. But the sins. The sins of these cities are wasted on me, even as they call my name and ask me to get clear on what I am.

A while back, on a dark clear night, I hit the streets of Vegas on foot. From the outskirts, this is a quiet place under a large sky. But even from a distance, one gets the feeling that something is happening up ahead. There are lights that seem to never die, beacons for the adventurous. As I approached the style, I could hear music and voices. There is some golden distance where sounds stop feeling ghostly and begin to feel definite. Sometimes it is a mental distance, like what the hell was that? Oh, wait, it’s voices from downstairs. And sometimes it is a physical distance, like when one comes around a building or over a hill and that indistinct hum becomes a well-formed cacophany. (Just once I want to walk toward something and never cross that point. Though I wonder if I would keep walking.) And this is how it was with me. I heard the style and then I was upon it. A hotel connected to a casino. Cars out front. People carrying bags and babies toward the sliding glass entrance. Within it, the casino was riding out. Endless blackjack tables. A spot off in the cut with cats playing poker. A live band covering old hits in front of a packed dance floor.

I watched suave hands flip and slide playing cards. Chips exchanged hands. Expressions of enjoyment or disappointment or desperation graced each face. Sometimes all at once. I watched and though I was tempted, I could not join that dance. It does look like fun. But it also looks endless.

Homies often ask me why it is that I don’t drink. I usually say that I have a masochistic willingness to be sober. This is true to some extent. But I also have trouble envisioning its end. My cultural surroundings indicate a complicated relationship to alcohol. We think it is awesome, but drunk people kill people with their cars a lot. It can take the edge off a rough day but it is also the first term in many abusive relationships. Some cats rock it well and others really, really don’t. Maybe I am the kind of cat that doesn’t want to entertain the possibility of a question mark fate by taking a sip in leisure. Maybe I have already had some kind of insight into that fate.

The possibly corrosive substance that is wealth conditioned on chance seems equally dangerous. As does the seduction of the idea that, really, one can control elements of the game through research and practice. But this is the point where it becomes a matter of lifestyle. And I am sure many fall away before they uncover the meaning of the poker face. So I just watch. I meditate on the temptation, deny it and then I leave. I am some kind of voyeur of vices. Which makes Amsterdam a kind of paradise for me.

I rolled up in the town after midnight on a weekday. In just a few hours I had to return to the airport and complete the last leg of my journey to Uganda. Plenty of time to explore a new place. I rocked the exit from the Central train station and beheld an orgasm of architecture. Massive old churches and state buildings adorned with the kind of detail that would make you want to firebomb a strip mall. Major streets were also waterfronts, since a lake ran through the city on some Venice styles. The moonlight and the lights of the city reflected off its calm surface. Cars and taxis made their way down cobblestone roads. As did motorcycles, which took every chance they could to accelerate around traffic. But motor vehicles were far outnumbered by bicycles. There were thousands of them. In massive bicycle lots. Chained to lamp poles. Leaned up against walls in alleyways. This was a city for pedestrians, it seemed.

On the way to find snacks I heard mad languages. Dutch. French. Spanish. And English, which everyone seemed to be able to also speak. This place was NYC diverse and infinitely more beautiful. I ate snacks and wandered, following the ghostly murmur of the crowd. On every corner there was a coffee shop. And each one I could not enter for fear of a contact high. So I walked on, snacking on sweet pastries as I went. I knew that eventually I would pass through the fabled red light district. But I didn’t know what that meant until I came upon a window outlined by neon lights. Then I understood very well.

The alleyway glowed red from the lights that framed each glass door. A door that wasn’t curtained revealed a bedroom or a hallway and a woman who was the absolute embodiment of a very old masculine ideal. They looked out at the passing crowd and summoned people to their doors with unsettling gestures of invitation. It occurred to me that, really, there are two myths of the eternal feminine. There is the nurturing, man-needing, passive, emotional figure and then there is this, the completely available satisfier of masculine desire. Both are a kind of existential prison. The former will get you married to a super traditional dude and the latter will get you paid by a super traditional dude. Or anybody, really.

The end of the red light district was not the end of pastry-based snacks, so I ate more and kept strolling. Eventually, against all sense, I ran into some people I knew from Tampa. We walked the city until it was clear that it could offer us nothing more in the way of reflections on gender roles or delicious food items. It was late, after all. The Van Gogh museum was closed and the fantastical parks my friends spoke of were simply too far away. So I made my way back to the train station. I had another eight hours of flight ahead of me. On the way there I passed a Yamaha XJR 1300. It is a street bike sporting an oldish design that was quite beautiful. They don’t sell them in the States. Its tires, along with all of those on the bikes I had inspected since I stepped into the city, were worn to the edges. There was good riding to be had here. So much temptation, I thought.

Many hours later, I landed in Uganda.

Friday, July 31, 2009

A fractured reflection: journal-ish-tic.

A class that I was in once got swept up in a discussion about journalism and history. Some of us students were growing frustrated at the idea being discussed, that the way one chooses to write history is itself a confession of one’s theoretical or narrative commitments. One among us asked: but what about the brute fact that on some day in 1492 Columbus put his foot on some sand in a particular place. I mean, that is just a fact, I don’t have to have some ulterior motive to put that down. Yeah, sure, said the professor, there do appear to be facts. It does seem that things happened or didn't happen. But if there are facts, there are an infinite number of them. And you picking one event out of that abyss already shows your preferences for a particular kind of narrative, it indicates the kinds of commitments you have as a writer of history, maybe commitments that you don’t even know you have.

This classroom conversation comes to me now, as this great machine moves at speed over darkness and liquid. My thoughts keep me from joining the great sleep that has come over the cabin. Thoughts of the coming semester and its challenges. Thoughts of my bike, tucked away in the shed, awaiting my return. And Thoughts of history. Or at least the perspectives that give it form.
It is rare that one is greeted on a new scene by a blooming, buzzing confusion. The new world is given order by our desires and concerns. Or our receptivity to desires and concerns. And so it goes with the reports that we send back up to the ether. It’s not a new idea. It’s just sticking with me because I am stuck in a window seat and the last time I was in Uganda I stood alongside people who struck narratives out of facts that I would simply pass over. Or rocked interpretations of those facts that simply would not make a booty shake. (You see how I’m talking about “facts” like they’re unproblematic? Bad philosopher.) This is pretty much how it is everywhere unless one has a deeply homogenous and therefore boring circle of friends. But the thought is sitting heavy for some reason. There is apprehension.

I could use a bike ride right about now. Guess I gotta settle for watching a bike race.

Monday, July 27, 2009

On the Edge of Exit 2

Two days from now the homies will drop me off at the local airport. From there I will start a small journey that will conclude in Northern Uganda perhaps two days later. I will roll up to a spot that I have thought about often, to friends and problems that have been with me since I first met them. But I have to get there first. I have some long layovers in countries to which I have never been. And I must once again revisit a tedious stretch of the Great North Road before I can put down my backpack for the month that I will be gone. The great gauntlet that is transcontinental travel used to be much longer and more difficult than trains and airplanes and well suspended cars make things. But I still feel a bit intimidated by the trek.

At the end of the road is Atiak, where Rachel, Olivia and the traditional birth attendants that are the focus of Earth Birth are hard at work. I will join them in their labor and record their styles. I will also think about the vagaries of colonialism and religion.

In a way, I mourn the mythical preconceptions I brought with me to Africa on my first trip. That sense of wonder was a small sustenance during my travels. But my perhaps typical yearning for the non-western authenticity of the Motherland died slowly when I was last on that scene. I fly now with other assumptions and ideals, certainly. But they are not as transparent or hopeful. Philosophically, it is a style that I prefer. It adds more darkness to the sky, but lets me better attend to the stars that will be burning around me.

Yeah.

Two days. Maybe I should pack.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Track Day Flex


"I can't be fucked up with all that." This was my response to the question of whether i would enter the mock race happening in a few sessions. I was talking with a homie as he chilled under his tarp between his GSXR and his girlfriend. We were a few sessions into our track day at Jennings GP, my first track day with the R1, and it just didn't make sense for me to get on a starting grid with a squad of fast cats set on being the first to the bottleneck of turn 1. So far my lap times were just not that serious and anyway my bike was kind of broken. The linkage that connected the shift lever to the gearbox had snapped in two. I couldn't use the lever to shift, which effectively locked the transmission into 3rd gear. This was a fine gear in which to run the track, but starting from a dead stop on a crowded field in third gear seemed ridiculous.

On the other hand, it was perfectly good track time. And there was no rule saying that I had to race anybody. I could simply trail behind and do the same time attacks I had been doing. The race consisted of more laps than a normal session usually allows. To keep it as close to a regular session as possible, I could simply come into the pits early. That way, i could be free of the mania of trying to hit the finish line in front of somebody. i talked it over with the Green Ninja. He agreed with the plan and resolved to make it his own. And this is how we got ourselves on the grid.

It is called a mock race only because it is not official. A race license is not required, nor is membership in a racing league. These absences of formality take nothing away from the fact that one may pass on the inside line and the first person across the finish line can consider him or herself the winner. Ignoring this context, the Green Ninja and I departed from the pits and began our warm-up lap.

The Jennings GP track is 2.1 miles long, consisting of 14 turns, mostly lefts. Most corners have a lot of soft, grassy runoff for the bike and body of anyone who doesn't get a turn quite right. Track officials are posted all over keeping watch, ready to raise flags that communicate particular messages to riders on the track, such as 'caution, debris up ahead' or 'last lap before pitting in' or 'your bike is leaking shit, get off the track immediately'. In addition, there are control riders, experts who ride on the track at all times monitoring other riders and keeping pace. Such measures keep the place as safe as a racetrack can be. Only non-riders look upon the "speed limit, 180mph" sign with dread.

Bikes like mine were developed and tested on a track such as this. They were literally made to race; they wouldn't have headlights or turn signals if not for the Department of Transportation. So when I ended the warm up lap on the starting grid alongside other riders, engines revving, heads down, I felt myself in that continuum of development. Like I was a sentence in a great treatise on speed, technology and desire. Then came the green flag.

I twisted the throttle, let off the clutch and inch slowly forward like a reluctant swimmer inching toward cold water. I had forgotten that I was in third gear. I wouldn't have any speed at all for a few thousand more rpm. Immediately, I was passed on all side by a bunch of bikes. By the first corner, a fast left-hander, I was the last bike in the race. Half-way through the turn, i hit the power band and picked up speed. That's when I forgot.

For some reason, I forgot about all the things i normally fear when riding. I forgot to fear running up the back of another rider. I forgot to fear crashing. I forgot to fear the limits of my tires. What replaced all of this was a simple desire to pass as many riders as I could.

And this is what I did. I stalked cats, following them closely before coming around them and beating them to a turn. Perhaps they were not really trying to compete or were just slow. Perhaps they were sticking to the plan that I laid out for myself before this race began. It doesn't matter. Those bastards had to get passed. On the last turn before the front straight, i came around a black ninja and leaned right. At the apex of the turn I felt a vibration in my knee and heard an abrasive sound. It took me a moment to realize that it was the sound of the knee puck attached to my leathers as it scraped the ground. Aw shit, I thought. This thang done got serious.

I finished the race having passed three riders. The Green Ninja had passed more than that, since he began the race behind me and finished third overall. A podium finish. He had gone through the same transformation that I had. The Anarchist reported that we both had run our fastest times of the day so far. And were ready to it again.

It is interesting to me, the things that changed when I accepted the telos of the race. The meaning of the track and its riders changed for me. The caution that prevented me from passing people or drastically increasing speed dissolved. I still cared about these things, but they were tempered by my desire to get ahead. And that desire, or the way it changed the meaning of my world, made me faster. I now have much reflecting to do on the phenomenology of competition.

The next time I hit the track, i will have race tires and medical insurance.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Lawino, Philosophy and Confusion

TWAS mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew,
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
"Their colour is a diabolic die."
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.
-Phillis Wheatley

Nick,

Yo. I have set out to make some points, as usual, about your latest blog. But in order to make them I have had to induce or assume some things about certain beliefs that you might hold. If I make a claim about what (i think) you believe and get it wrong, please let me know so I can think differently. Once again we are running up against the limits of written communication.

Regarding the propagation of Jesus' racial identity, "Done a disservice" is a bit of an understatement. People who live under an image of a savior that does not resemble them are doomed to negatively evaluate themselves and maybe even their cultures for no good reason. This is true when the image of supreme value is basic, as the old school doll test has shown. It is certainly true of White Jesus. Still, I am glad you see my point.

Yeah. I don't hate science, but i don't really have much love for the processes of investigation that comprise the natural sciences. I don't share the same concerns as most scientific communities and I think very often the scope of their influence on society is much wider than it should be. Dr. Dawkins is probably a good case in point. I will say that Dawkins' acknowledgment of the possibility that space aliens left life matter on earth that eventually became us isn't ridiculous. It's just pathetic. Granted, I didn't see the interview with Dr. Stein. But "space aliens" is an answer given by a person who is convinced that good explanations must have empirical content. Meanwhile, when people like Dr. Stein or probably you ask the question of how did we get here, it is usually something much deeper than that. it is, quite simply, a question that most scientists don't really care to answer. And they shouldn't, in my humble non-scientific opinion, since they shouldn't be about assuming the existence of entities that they can't possibly prove and that don't expand their domains of empirical knowledge. And this would certainly include the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I will also note that wanting a particular kind of answer to such a question from a scientist, especially one that thinks God is a "delusion" or whatever his stance is, is ironically granting authority to him and his processes of investigation. Like, oh, if we can get the scientist to agree to the possibility of this, we can have more credibility. That is just the trap that I don't wanna get it when i think about other arenas of human action and i am sure that you don't want that either. Let's work together on this and reference scientific methods less.

What also strikes me about your concern with a scientist's unwillingness to consider God as a possible explanation is that it calls to light the old conflict between religion and rationality. It seems to me that you are subtly trying to pull the rules of rationality (scientific or otherwise) on your side in regard to justifying a belief in God and all that such a notion entails. This has been tried. A good deal of the work of philosophy from the medieval era on into the enlightenment was simply the quest of religious people to make religion "rational." Unfortunately, a good deal of the enlightenment period was the project of showing why this could not really ever happen. Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm-- rational-religious arguments from guys like these ultimately faced criticisms from Kant and others. One should never speak to definitively in matters of life and philosophy, but most of the cats I know are pretty sure Kant and his homies won. But then again, I mostly know cats who think like I do.

At the same time that you vie for the authority of reason, you demean it with an allusion to smoke, mirrors and confusion. You don't seem to care whether investigations into the nature of truth have come up with answers different from whatever you think is contained within the Bible. I am not sure, but I think this is because you regard most processes of reasoning that conclude contrary to your biblical interpretation to be bad processes. Not because you have investigated the correspondence or pragmatic or functional or coherence theories of truth and find them lacking, but because they don't have anything to say about the absoluteness that you seem to locate in Scripture. From this perspective, philosophy, along with indigenous belief systems, never had a chance to not be confusion, since the only way to not be confusion is to be Christian-y.

You said that I, too, seem to hold to a collection of books. I think you meant to say that I have authoritative sources of knowledge just as I believe you have. I hope to have shown in the foregoing why this analogy doesn't work. Books I read don't contain their own authority. They contain arguments that I can like or dislike, criticize or not. If the reasons are good enough for me, I roll. If they aren't I request more justification or toss it out altogether. The project of justification can go on for quite a while. Some philosophers say that all of reason, maybe our understandings of the world, are justification or interpretation all the way down. I might be talking to a straw man (for which I apologize) but i think that the possibility of such a regress is offensive to your sensibilities, since, once again, the authority of the Bible, for a lot of people with Biblical commitments, is quite final and, so long as we are not going to try to imitate science, seeks no justification outside of itself.

Which may bring us to your friend's point about being able to have a rational conversation with you. Your friend misspoke to be sure. You are plenty rational. But perhaps he thought that there was a point after which a discussion with you would stop. That he would run up against a wall of unreasoned belief, that is, faith, and not be able to say anything after that. It is a sensible fear poorly expressed by a guy who thinks aliens made the temples of ancient Maya. But that is not a problem for me. I don't want to stop you to suddenly become "rational" or believe in aliens or some such. I just want you to stop trying to convert people who have pre-existing systems of belief on the grounds that you hold your beliefs to be more awesome. Your beliefs are alright. But they turn suck when you turn colonial. And you turn colonial when you export them, it doesn't matter how gentle you think your hand is or how much you think you are merely presenting an option that they can simply choose or not choose for themselves. It is the coercive imposition of a perspective because of the colonial circumstances of your presence in the first place.

This weighs on me heavily because of the loss of history I sometimes feel as a black cat in america. Any project of doing a genealogy comes to a definite end before i can trace anything back to Africa. I think it is partly the fact that I can't do it that makes it significant, you know? So then i have to rely on echoes of that heritage. Of which there are many. But they are so faint because of this form that has cloaked everything, this religious form that ancestors down my bloodline quite definitely did not autonomously choose. They had it beat into them.

You seem to be resistant to the idea that there are forces over and above a person's autonomy that pushes them into adopting religious perspectives. I think maybe you should consider the weight of authority that comes from being the sovereign ruler of your own nation or even the comparatively more powerful and wealthy bearer of potentially life-saving communication technology. I don't doubt that people choose. Everybody in Henry VIII's kingdom chose to be Protestant. Kunte Kinte chose to change his name and religion. People that you convert choose to be Christian. But in each of these cases there is a serious power imbalance that tips the scales in such a way that your reference to full autonomous choice obscures the reality of tactics of coercion. Since all of these changes happen in the face of very powerful authorities who make it exceedingly difficult or impossible to hold on to previous ways of life and belief. Sometimes that authority is the sovereign. sometimes it is a whip-holding enslaver. And sometimes it is an economically superior missionary with this colonial history on his side.

So yeah, these ancestors that I can't know anything about, they had it beat into them. And they brought up kids in it who did not have the beating to remember. But I know it happened. And I just can't roll with Phillis Wheatley when she says that she is thankful for slavery because it was through the peculiar institution that we came to know the One True God. Though I kind of feel like you would have to implicitly be cool with this. You roll into a country whose history of belief depends exclusively on its previous domination at the hands of the British. Many Zambians are Christians because the British forced them to be so. Just like Ocol was trying to force Lawino. And it is this history of domination that is responsible for the warmness of the welcome of you and your religious perspective. By rocking the missionary aspect of your style over and above the technical capitalist element of your project, you simply continue the British colonial project of conversion. I know the happiness and thanks you experience make it hard to believe this. But Ocol's other wife was happy and thankful to be converted as well.

You said that you suspect people are threatened by the possibility of having to deal with God, since then they would have to account for themselves. I hope you don't think that that moral accountability (or accountability of any kind, really) is dependent on an appeal to God's existence. Because if you believed this you would also have to believe that I am fundamentally immoral, or at least amoral, since I make no reference to such a being in my own moral reflections. But I just can't imagine you thinking this of me or people like me. So perhaps you should consider the possibility that a person can live a morally good life without subscribing to the criteria that you need to fill in order to live such a life for yourself. Which means that I can be a good person without holding the metaphysical commitments that you hold. The commitments, then, would be supererogatory to my general goodness. I recognize that if you consider this, you would probably not experience the imperative to convert others to your style. Because you wouldn't be able to morally evaluate their life situations according to whether they believed in the same stuff you did. And this is pretty much exactly how I'd like you and everybody like you to be.

So this is what I am thinking right about now. It has been increasingly more difficult for me to put these thoughts into words. Which is probably a good thing.

Hope to hear from you soon, sucka.



Oh, here go some books for any who are checking our style to check out.

Nietzsche, The Antichrist and On the Genealogy of Morals.
Rabateau, Slave Religion
Spivak, Other Asias
Wiredu, Cultural Universals and Particulars
Jones, Is God a White Racist?
Cesaire, Discourse on Colonialism
Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and Colonized
Nelson, Ethics Without God