Saturday, September 24, 2011

Homecoming

When I studied Greek, and in particular the Odyssey, one concept that always stuck out to me was νόστος, a Greek word meaning the return to one's home, usually after a long time away. As with most translations, this doesn't do the word justice. So much more is tied up in that word than just coming home: the longing for one's home, the comforts of home, the end of a long journey. For me it was always best summed up by book 13 of the Odyssey. After 20 years away from Ithaka, Odysseus is left on the shore of his homeland, and hidden by a mist brought by Athena to hide him from his enemies. At first Odysseus doesn't recognize the island, and when Athena, disguised a shepherd, tells him where he is, he doesn't believe her. Finally Athena reveals herself and lifts the mists, showing Odysseus the familiar landmarks of his home, and Odysseus falls to the ground and kisses the earth.

This is, to my mind, a perfect description of what it's like to come home after a long time away or a long ordeal. As I arrived in New Hampshire yesterday, I felt much like Odysseus. Somehow, the massive changes that I've been through put me in a reflective mood. As I made my way through the mists left by the recent rain, I tried to put myself back as I was 20 years ago, remembering how to get to the places I used to go, remembering driving to visit friends and visit school, seeing all those landmarks that are familiar but at the same time unfamiliar.

I'm also going to be attending my 20th high school reunion, and I went to visit the school and some of my former teachers today for the first time since my brother graduated in 1994. Again, so many things were familiar but at the same time unfamiliar. I watched as the school librarian, my former adviser, taught a group of freshmen the basics of evaluating sources, while another former teacher called out some rowdy students with the familiarly gruff but good-natured "Guys, it's really simple. Be quiet, or die." He turned to me afterwards and said with a grin, "See? Nothing changes." But then lamented that since the school had gone to all white boards he no longer had chalk to throw at the unruly kids.

The school has grown. My old haunts were all still there, but new buildings and additions made them all seem smaller and unfamiliar. However back behind the school I was still able to find the old path to the grove of hemlocks in a ravine that another adviser of mine had nicknamed "Socrates." Someone had added a rope line to mark the pathway, but I'm pretty sure that some of the logs preventing erosion along the bank are the same ones my friends and I cut and put in place more than 20 years ago.

So I have come home after my travels. It may have only been a year since I've been here, but it's been 17 years since I've been here in the Fall, it's been 20 years since I've seen many of my friends from high school, and it's the first time since moving away that I've been here on my own. So much has changed in this past year that I feel like a different person. This time it is my νόστος. I've awoken on my shore, and Athena has lifted the mist, and I will be restored.


Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering

Ten years ago we all received an unimaginable shock. Everyone responded to this differently, but for me there have always been two main outlets when I'm dealing with something that extreme: music and writing. After September 11, 2001 I tried to put what I was thinking and feeling into words, really just for myself. I've carried the result around in a portfolio ever since, and it seems fitting to share on the tenth anniversary.


New Phoenix

I saw them once before—
Atlasian pillars thrusting up against the dome
In the futility of concrete,
Pretending that the day begins
And ends because we said so.

So this is what we’ve wrought,
O Beautiful for Pilgrim’s Dreams—
The roar of our invention still echoes down the canyons.
Thine Alabaster Cities Gleam a little less
Now stained by human tears.

Who were we to tempt the sin of Babel?
The peoples of a thousand tongues
Thrown all together in one place
As though the color green were Word enough
To reunite the sons of Abram.

And now we think that all can be restored
 If we root out the devil in his hole.
One man could not bring all this pain,
And hurts of millions cannot be assuaged
By further torturing of one tormented soul.

Perhaps there is a larger frame:
Blanched faces dig for crimson under azure skies.
Why chase demons when the phoenix
Has risen from the ashes before us?
We have already won.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Car Free

One of the more interesting side-effects of the divorce is that I am now car free. The reactions I get when I tell people this are, frankly, kind of amusing. Almost always there’s some look of horror, an expression of sympathy, questions of how I can possibly survive without a car, etc., etc.

The way I ended up here is really very simple: we only had one car, she needed it, I didn’t. I was already riding my bike pretty much everywhere I needed to go. I have one bike with a crate and a trailer, so transporting groceries and so forth wouldn’t be much of a challenge; and in the worst case scenario, my new apartment is an easy walk from stores, restaurants, and a bus line. So really, it’s not that big a deal.

In fact, one of the most interesting things about being car free is how surprisingly easy it’s turning out to be. “But Nick,” you say, “sure it’s easy for you. You’re cycho!” Okay, I grant you that I already ride my bike a lot, but contrary to what some people tell me, you won’t “die” if you tried to do it yourself.

Take last weekend for example. That was the first time I did a big shopping trip by bike. There’s one store about 8 miles away that has a lot of things I need at really good prices. There’s also a Target en route, so I’d be able to knock out two stops on the same trip. I hooked up the trailer and set out at an easy pace around 9:00 in the morning.

One of the first things I realized that I’d have to stop doing if the bicycle was going to be my only means of transportation was treating every trip like a race. I was in no hurry: I had nowhere to be, it was a pleasant morning, and I had planned a route that took me through the residential streets of Upper Arlington. So I just pedaled along and enjoyed the scenery.

As I got further away from the 1950’s sections of Upper Arlington, I began to notice how the options for getting around became fewer and fewer until eventually I was in developments with no sidewalks, huge garages and parking lots, and wide boulevards that drivers treated like highways despite the 30 mph speed limits. Eventually these gave way to roads that hadn’t been improved since they were in a rural area, and now had to deal with huge amounts of traffic with no berm and no turning lanes. When I finally came to the major 4-lane road I had been dreading, I was pleased to see that there was at least a sidewalk. So for a change I broke the law and rode along the sidewalk. There were no pedestrians, and frankly it was in this one case safer than trying to mix it up with cars going 50 mph in both lanes.

Putting that aside for a moment, one of the most common reasons I hear from people why they don’t want to ride their bikes for transportation is a fear of cars. The trick to riding in traffic is simply confidence. You are allowed on the road, and no one except for psychopaths really want to cause you harm. So if the lane is too narrow for a car to pass safely, do what the law says and take over the whole lane. Ride right down the middle where everyone can see you and have to wait to pass you. If you do this, you will be very safe. The only trick is developing that confidence.

So I went through my shopping stops, loaded up the trailer with 28 lbs of cat litter, a 12-pack of coke, and 3 large grocery bags (with room to spare!) and headed towards home. I was grateful that it was (somewhat) downhill from there, but again, riding at an easy pace it really wasn’t a challenge. I made it home after a just about two hour trip, and since I hadn’t pushed myself I really wasn’t that tired. In fact, later that day I would run some more errands and finish having ridden about 35 miles.





Don’t get me wrong, a car is definitely easier. I have to put a lot of thought and planning into making my trips by bike. It’s not a simple thing to hop in the car and run back to the house if I forget something. I have to allow more time after I arrive to cool down and in some cases change clothes. And I have to pay more attention to the weather, so I can either wear the appropriate gear or (as was the case this morning) time my rides to avoid weather. But I can’t help thinking that’s a good thing: being more mindful our bodies’ needs, aware of our connection to nature, and taking more time with our daily tasks.

The bottom line is that living life without a car is a viable option. But the reactions I’ve gotten as I’ve told people that I no longer have a car underscore how much we as a society cannot imagine life without the car. A good thought experiment to demonstrate this is to ask someone how far it is to, say, Cleveland. Nine times out of ten the answer will be “about two and half hours.” The answer given is the time it takes to drive there, not the actual distance of 150 miles.

I think we’ve also begun to lose track of what distances actually mean. Take my big shopping trip again. I rode 8 miles one way, and it took me about 45 minutes at an easy pace. How long would it have taken me to drive that? Well, from past experience, about half that time. That’s right, half. So we’re making car payments of $200 a month, paying $70 a month on insurance, and spending $40 dollars to fill up the tank so we can cut the trip time in half?

I fully realize that this would not work for everyone. None of this changes that our society has become car-dependent, and as a result many people can only afford to live far away from their work. But with careful choices about where we live, and thought and planning about how we structure our lives, it is possible.