Quote: The Hills

I have one real talent in life. I wish it were a marketable skill. Give me any object, any system, and I can break it.

…I’ve been getting more and more into bicycle repair over the last year. No gasoline to explode. No electricity to knock me out. There’s something appealing about simple mechanics with infinite variety, about human hearts and muscles acting as engines. In a world that doesn’t make a lot of sense a lot of the time, I’ll take whatever I can, even if it’s Newtonian physics, brakes and cables, or a great new Shang-A-Lang song ringing in my head long after the album’s finished.

…Highland Park, the Los Angeles neighborhood I live in, is wrinkly. From above it looks like a blanket over some pretty big lumps… Several months ago, with the help from the Bike Oven, a local bike co-op, and advice from Charles, my dad’s friend who helps keep my dad out of trouble and on the road — I geared my bike for the hills. I didn’t rush the job. I made sure all the parts were compatible. It took a couple of months to get everything exact. Short test runs. Minor adjustments. No forcing of parts.

On Saturday I rode up hill after hill. The bike ran well. I’d learned something new and I was riding around on this new information. I could see downtown L.A. from up above.

On the following Monday, I heard the smallest of pings. I knew it couldn’t be good.

My rear derailler had pretzeled around my rear gears and snapped my frame. At the time I only suspected how bad it was. Two weeks of investigation later, I learned that I had “perfect stormed” my bike past its twenty-year-old frame’s capability. I’d done nothing wrong. I’d just superseded its design. I just have that knack.

Hands greasy, mind trying to figure out if I could ride home on one gear, hunched over to several inches off the ground, angry at myself for not bringing any tools, a man walked up to me.

“Hey you got a lighter?”

I flared my blackened hands out to him, looked at him, and said, “I’m having a very bad day.”

“Gotta cigarette?”

A couple months passed.
I learned a whole bunch mor about bike repair, dealt with the grief of a good idea snapping, and resuscitated an older frame, part by part.

Yesterday, I started back on those hills.

–Todd Taylor, in the punk magazine Razorcake

Learning today

I’m at the Cusp conference today. Learning about how we’ll have a trillion devices all talking to each other one day (and how a trillion seconds ago was 30,000 years ago), about how one pair of jeans requires 1400 gallons of water to produce, about how evolution favors flexibility and redundancy, how we’ve only added 7 years to the US life expectancy between 1960 and 2010 but added 30 years between 1880 and 1960, how we get 90 percent of our calories from just 30 crops, and how it’s possible to misjudge how far that mountain is — confusing a clear view with a short distance.

An open letter and musical chairs

Chairs and metaphors, Part One

An open note to the little girl this morning at Einstein’s Bagel, the one whose leg I nearly crushed:

So hi.

I was at Einstein’s getting a bagel and sitting at the tall table by the window, with the chairs so tall that my feet can’t touch the ground. (I’m sure you don’t understand the special, freeing appeal of this groundlessness now because your feet don’t touch the ground in most chairs.)

I was taking the last bite of my asiago bagel with sun-dried tomato cream cheese, staring out the window and swinging my dangling feet, when my chair moved underneath me — just slightly, like someone walking behind me had bumped into it. So I pushed my chair back a bit and started to stand. I was done with the bagel anyway, and it seemed like I was in traffic.

But then I saw it was you. Wee skinny girl in wee wire-rimmed glasses, with straw-colored blonde hair all the way down your back. You were attempting to climb into your tall chair by holding on to the back of my tall chair. And by backing up I’d almost sandwiched your teensy leg between the two chairs; or you could’ve fallen off entirely. (How old are you? Six or seven? That chair was taller than you!)

Your dad noticed. And said: “Say excuse me, don’t just move someone’s chair.”

But I knew why you’d done it. Because it’s harder to speak up. It’s easier to pretend that you can slip through the cracks, teeter and find your balance without disturbing anyone, be invisible and therefore uncritique-able, you can’t do anything wrong if you’re never there in the first place.

I’ve gone through life this way. On a grander scale. Slipping through the cracks, trying not to disturb anyone or anything. But the same thing happens — it’s worse, in the end, to stay quiet. Because you fall, or someone else crushes you and feels horrible, or at best you expend so much more effort. And you end up moving someone else’s chair anyway.

Chairs and metaphors, Part Two

Life is not an endless game of musical chairs, where it pays to stay put so you’ll always have a seat. Problem one: Someone will eventually come along and take your chair away; when it’s time to put away the chairs. Problem two: You are missing the plush velvet, the slippy-squeaky vinyl, the deliciously cold metal, the sumptuous silk, of all those other chairs. Or jobs, zip codes, lovers and ringtones.

Get up.

Get up get up get up.

The best moments

The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.

— Mihály Csíkszentmihályi

(For me, this summer: Underwear-swimming in cold lakes, long bike rides, scavenger hunt-induced madness, a fast, hilly drive through central New York nowhere.)

My other cafe is an umbrella

The Serbian cafe in Lincoln Square: extra-shiny black windows, the door’s open when it’s warm, inside’s dark and velvety and maybe a night club on the sly… At the round metal cafe tables out front, old men hold clinky-iced drinks and frosted-blonde women smoke lipsticked cigarettes.

Once when Amanda and I were in college, we took the El down to Lincoln Square to watch Being John Malkovitch at the Davis and then afterwards we wandered in and sat at a table. The sign outside said Cafe Umbrella. We wanted coffee and this seemed to be a coffee house. But something was wrong. The dark velvety inside, the cigarettes (indoors, then). Everyone stared at us. We could’ve walked into Starbucks naked and gotten less of a weird vibe. But we stayed. The waitress explained that this cafe was Serbian, did we want Serbian coffee? Sure, we said. And when it arrived, syrupy and full of grounds I knew we’d done one of those Chicago tricks, traveling by just stepping in off the street.

The coffee kicked us in the teeth but we wrote on a square white napkin how we’d never be married if married meant boring or old or the same.

And now here I am, still in Chicago, instead of moving every other minute like I used to. So instead of me changing places, things are changing around me.

The woman who waxes my eyebrows was mugged in Wicker Park; I read it in the news, but I can tell she’s different. She used to zen me out and make me wonder about her badass artsy life, with her one arm full of tattoos and her flexy waxy schedule. But she dyed her hair blonde and now her eyes dart around the room, and instead of that easy conversation she talks like a receptionist, and I worry about her, and about us, all of us, women finding our way through whatever ails us, small or large or in-between.

And finding our way toward whatever makes us whole. And finding our own definitions of boring, old, the same.

And even if you don’t try to change, you change anyway. And Cafe Umbrella isn’t there anymore, I don’t even know what it’s called, it’s changed so many times, but the old men out front still smoke cigarettes and stare at me when I pass.