Friday, January 30, 2009

Why I'm still in Afghanistan...

I'm horribly out of shape. I pull all-nighters building wireless antennas, but every once in a while I remember why being out here working on this project is so important and so satisfying. I'm rather torn about having to leave here in a week, but there's a whole lot of nasty weather and a race partner that miss me, so I'll come back this time for real, I promise. Anyway...

Flying solo today out to Bagrami (Brandon and Said-Jalal went out yesterday and nearly linked, but has a peculiar technical issue they couldn't figure out on the fly), I had a golden opportunity to discuss some of the problems that face these boundary places with the people who live there every day. (Thanks to Nekibulah and most of his family, many of whom are teachers or otherwise associated with the local school).

"In Afghanistan, we have very little learning," he says. "Both teachers and students must work outside of school to get money, so it is difficult to focus on our studies."

In places like Bagrami, access to computers and the internet can be life-changing. Nekibulah's brother, for instance, is interested in medicine but has absolutely no access to any information on the subject. A simple google search for "health" had him excited in no time at all, and I was glad to watch the attending group devour a page on women's health (including sexual health) without even batting an eyelash. In contrast to his brother, Nekibulah was more interested in information about Afghanistan and Islam. The tension between traditional cultural values / religious beliefs and the desire for the opportunities of western (for lack of a better term) society is palpable in these moments of discovery. "Are there Muslims in America?" "When you have a guest in your house would you have tea together?" were questions asked with a note of apprehensiveness as if my response might deepen the inner conflict between old and new. On some level I can understand. Living peacefully in a close-knit community amidst beautiful fields cris-crossed by winding irrigation channels and dotted with wispy trees with a background of incredible mountain views sounds pretty darn good. One can only hope that Wikipedia will convince these new users the west isn't all bad before they find the porn.

(This post is excerpted from my other blog. If you want to read the long version, go HERE.)

All the photos HERE.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Resevoir Loop: Winter Edition

Yesterday's ride thoroughly trashed me.  The plan was hatched on Friday night over a few pitchers as a morning hangover remedy. **Note: this ride took place on Saturday.  Sunday, at 0 degrees, was a day for writing blog posts.**  It was to be a debaucherous event, complete with whiskey, platform pedals, jeans and probably more trash talking than riding.  The morning got the best of us and our plans went to pot.  I finally got my act together and rolled out shortly after 11:30 - sans whiskey, sans jeans, and sans friends.  Cringing at the cold winds, I asked myself why on earth was I doing this.

Though it was a relief to get free of the roads and the winds that froze the toes, the snow and woods offered their own harsh realities.  Riding was simply impossible at times and demoralizing like a seemingly endless cyclocross sandpit the remainder. Even the downhills took their toll, the half-frozen trails never fully gave you rest, but demanded an incessant attention to the tracks, an effort that I think tested my balance and focus like nothing before, and is largely responsible for my great fatigue.

Putting aside commentary on the difficulty of the day, it must be said that the riding was incredible.  The usually vicious and sometimes macabre tricks and turns of the Fells were all smoothed over by the snow.  Bombing down the harshest descents is a pleasant and peaceful experience, the snow providing a soft landing should one need to bail.  And who among men can deny the satisfaction of an afternoon in the woods on a pure winter day.

The home-brew tire chains had their maiden voyage on this ride.  While they did not solve the largest problem of the day,  punching through the soft-packed trail, they certainly bought the extra grip needed for conquest of the ascents and ice.  Though the chains earned their keep, the best advantage would have come from having the support of wider tires for that extra float.  There was at best an 8" wide section of semi-solid trail.  Venturing even an inch off of this window increased the work requirement by at least 100%.

But back to the chains.  Overall assessment: a worthwhile addition, though the design needs refinement.  I was worried that the paved roads to and from the Fells would wear through the stranded brake cable leaving a set of puncture ready wires strapped to my wheel.  This proved not to be the issue of the day, though that aspect should be considered for long term use.  Rather it was the loss of a wire terminator which left a two of the cables slapping the Yeti and me, though I was able to ride on by wrapping these around a spoke.  
While 300-count carbide studded tires may be excessive for the demands of the Resevoir Trail,  they are certainly simpler and have the added benefit (?) of encouraging one to ride on frozen lakes (I'm still at heart a West Coast boy - this business of venturing out onto frozen lakes doesn't sit right with me).  In short, the tire chains provide enough purchase to make getting up some of the steeper sections of the Fells possible, and at a cost of few dollars, old brake cables and two hours of labor, they should be considered a fine investment.  Grade report: interesting concept, utility recognized, economics satisfying, design is cumbersome and a bit unreliable = B- (if I were actually impartial I would give a C+).

Final philosophical extension: Some people choose to wear suspenders, others belts, and others let their pants hang low.  Some cyclists hit the trainer and measure their progress in speculation and Watts per kilogram per calorie, others hit the road and endure the thrashings of the winter to exorcise their weakness, and others attempt to live with the seasons establishing a harmony with their world.  Each of our stories is complex, mysterious and deep in its own way.  If we cannot always express our understanding in words, our actions often speak for us.  Our choices provide a commentary on our nature, our history and our intentions.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Back to my roots

With the recent snows I hung up the cycling shoes and dusted off the skiing boots.  I brought my cross country skis out east about four years ago, but had yet put them to use until last week. It a shame too, they're beauties of skis - 1996 Atomic Arc skate skis with foam core, dual composite base, and hot pink - a relic of my high school racing days.  I've since then parted with the purple tights, though perhaps picked up some other anachronisms.  It is a beautiful sport, something like a cross of running in its simplicity, fly-fishing in its grace of motion, and cycling in its nerd-satisfying tech.  Dual composite bases.

We've been skiing out at Great Brook Farm, a Massachusetts State Park just north of Concord.  It's hard to turn down a $60 season pass, even if they only have something like 15k of trails,but  they're good trails with a mix of hills and flats, woods and fields.  Every Tuesday and Thursday they have night skiing on their "Lantern Loop" until 9pm, and lanterns it is.  Their light does't shine far, but perhaps that's not the point, and the sky-glow from Boston is an effective full moon.

Six days of skiing in about two weeks.  Not bad. With all of the snow and slush, I figure this is about as good as my training is going to get, at least if I want to stay dry, clean and sane - it's 
either roll around on the road with slush being jammed up my shorts, or unholy hours on the trainer.  After a few years of intentional atrophy of my arms, the skiing should be a good start to developing the physique of the mountain biker, and a bit of upper body strength should serve well on 7 days of endurance racing.

Keith should be back soon, and it'll be time to start thinking of a proper training plan, all the more now that Keith and I closing our deal for the summer adventure....  Time to get focused.


Thursday, January 22, 2009

Shakira, Shakira!

After days of wiring, rigging, firewall ruling and gaff taping, there's a 4.5Mbps wireless pipe into Jalalabad, Afghanistan. We are very tired, there are many pictures, and doctors at the public hospital are downloading Shakira videos like there's no tomorrow (I'm seriously not kidding).

Standing around a bustling public hospital in the second largest afghan city is an interesting experience. First of all, there are ALWAYS hundreds of people just milling around--so many that there's a group prayer square in the middle of the courtyard:

There is also a remarkable amount of violence. I suppose the hospital is a good place to fight, given the ready access to medical attention, but still... In two days we witnessed two different incidents, not 10 feet away, where someone, for no apparent reason, started wailing on someone else, including an occasion where one guy started beating an old one-legged man with a small log, drawing this reaction from a pair of onlookers:

Despite the distractions, we did get everything rigged up (and later weatherproofed) in time to take a million pictures:
Day 1 Photos
Day 2 Photos
Day 3 Photos

Thursday, January 15, 2009

What a guy will do to get high.

As you avid readers may remember, the whole reason I'm wandering around the country with the highest airborne fecal coliform counts in the world is to experiment with using low-cost wireless networks as a connectivity solution for providing internet infrastructure in Afghanistan. Over the last couple days we've been trying to make links with little success, so today we went to poach the highest spot we could in JBad--the top of the public hospital water tower--for 4om of ladder-access-only goodness. To be fair, we weren't really poaching the tower, since we had the Director's permission, but being a bunch of foreiners standing around on top of the highest point in JBad squacking away on 2-way radios, (which might be illegal here...) we certainly felt like we were poaching. Long story short, in addition to drawing a reasonably sized audience, including a couple of ANP officers, we made contact with the FabLab 2.4mi away (about where the smog blots everything out in the photo) before my laptop lost its composure and we called it a day. We may not be able to replace the 40yr old samples in the pathology lab,
but at least they'll soon have 21st century bandwidth.

All the photos from today here.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Circa 1387

On the plane flying from Dubai to Kabul, an an American contractor told me "it's 1387 in Afghanistan".
"What," I said?
"The Muslim year is 1387, and when you get there, you won't be surprised"

It turns out the Muslim year is 1429, (the Persian year, which is what Afghanistan actually uses, is 1387) and in some places the 15th century is indeed not that far off. One of the things that I find most striking is how easily people here are completely isolated from the passage of time. An example:

We're staying just off the Kabul-Jalalabad highway (the main road), about 3km from Jalalabad, the second largest city in the country. Jalalbad is reasonably modern, with cars, some electricity and cellular service. About 1km behind us is the Kabul river. At this time of year it's about 50m across and not particularly energetic.

Directly across the river from us is a village of Kuchi nomads, who have been ironically settled on the bank of the river for about 17 years. The only bridge over the river is in Jbad, about 3k away, and in 17 years the only method they have devised to cross the river is this:
I suppose I shouldn't try to determine causation, as maybe their lack of reasonable river-crossing apparatus is the result of a small desire to cross the river with any frequency, but in any case jumping on one of these inner-tube rafts is like boarding a time machine into the world of subsistence farming, quiet living and age old values.
The communal prayer mat looks over twisting irrigated fields of winter wheat, tilled by wool-clad men with wooden wheeled wheelbarrows. The village water is hauled from a single well with a bucket on a rope, and the women are entirely hidden from sight, save for the girls curiously peeking over the ridge as we paddled away.
Despite the existence of a school almost directly across the river in the village of Bagrami, none of the Kuchi children have had any education. Behind the village, we investigated network of caves that have been used by nomads and fighters of various sorts for centuries...

The rest of the photos tell the story better than I can.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Circa 1984

I don't believe in souls or spirits, wishing on a shooting star, Joe Friel, or magic vests.  But there is something unusual about this particular vest, perhaps not quite magical... yet something powerful, hypnotic. It appeared out of the dust, rising to me as I lifted it from a box in my father's U-Store-It-Self-Storage locker. The blue swaths encompass a unity of purpose and peace with the moment.  The minimalist rainbow speaks to a mind in tune with the rhythms of the world without being offensively garish, yet is bold enough to stand alone in a crowd proclaiming a philosophy of personal comfort and the theory of time travel. In short, this vest signifies a menacing psychology.

I first learned of its great powers when returning from California.  Wearing proudly the vest I felt an ambiance of control - doors parted promptly before me, my water bottle didn't leak and soak the sandwich in my pack, and the lines of laden travelers moved along.  The unwavering humility of the green blaze professing the wisdom of the unity of mankind against tyranny and evil, the red blaze beckoning the ticketing agent to rebellion and the surrounding sea of blue singing a tranquility in the rightness of right action.  With a nod and a 'good day' the agent overlooked my 60 pound bag of earth moving machinery for an overstuffed and spiffy roll-along bursting its seams with 60 pounds of holiday knick-knacks, Russian vodka and black market DVDs.  

Just this very morning I was witness to the vest's magic of persuasion once again.  My co-conspirator and I descended upon the town of Westminster.  We called into the quiet, bearing news of Plan B.5, the manifestation of our will, the revolution of racing that will put MIT on the map with the X-Pot 3D collegiate cycling races (April 18th-19th 2009).  We hailed the Chief of Police and called out the Deputy of the Department of Public Works.  Confused and confounded by Paul's unnerving pinstripe button-up and then into submission by the intent stare of the vest's red and wolvish eyes, The Chief agreed to the courses,  suggesting even that we might close the roads during the final sprints and that we could probably do with one less officer.  In all honestly these were the best guys to work with.  Not only were they genuinely enthusiastic but they were confident and casual about the whole affair.  A breath of fresh air after the morale bruising from that soul-sucking briar of obfuscating excuses, the Massachusetts bureaucracy and its stooges.

I have to say, I felt pretty good about our performance today even if it was due to the vest.  It was a bit disappointing that the vest's time warping abilities weren't able to transport us the four minutes we needed to meet our Zipcar deadline.  But I shouldn't complain, four minutes over 25 years is asking for an accuracy of about 1/100,000th of 5%, which seems pretty unrealistic.  Though this vest brings its bearer certain powers, it seems there is at least a four minute window around the present moment in which I must fend for myself.  Such is the fate of mere mortals.

Monday, January 12, 2009

School Days

Yesterday the Fabfi Team went networking, you know, the social kind. We visited two prime spots, the village of Bagrami (4-5K people), a few hundred yards from the Taj, and Tutikas (less) across the river. Tutikas warrants its own post, so on to Bagrami...

For the record, not a lot of people roll around like we're doing here--no big guns, no body armor, no armored vehicles. The general sentiment on the ground here among most of the people we hang with is that's a lot of the reason why reconstruction is failing. You can't make friends with a poor farmer in sandals when you're decked out in full combat gear. The military doesn't leave the base in JBad unless they're in a 5 vehicle convoy, needless to say they're not making a lot of progress, but I digress...

Of the 5k people, about 2000 of them are in school--in a building with about a dozen rooms in a C. Some of the rooms have desks. I think they all have blackboards, but the fun ends there. Children go to school half a day so they can fit in twice as many students, and many of the teachers works second jobs (often tutoring) to supplement their meager teacher incomes. (not unlike the here...) This is one of the wealthier satellite villages around JBad.

Our purpose in visiting was to try to entice the teachers and students to come to the FabLab (site is under active development), but interest was mixed. The recurring response to the question of "what would you like to learn?" is "English and computers, so I can get a visa and get out of here", and we're trying very hard to be more than a computer lab if we can help it.

Being up close and personal with Afghans while wielding 7lbs of professional-grade camera equipment really brings out the cultural foibles of this place. Want to make a girl run? Point a lens at her. Women will turn away, boys will climb over each other to be framed right in front. It's it's like they have some sort of ESP for the camera frame (right).

they love cameras:

and they come in multiples of HOLY CRAP!
Too bad this is a war zone, huh? (click for big)

Full album (53 images) here.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Home-brew tire chains

Six inches of snow last night, pleasantly covering the blanket of ice compacted over the last week by the freeze and thaw cycles.  Not a great day for a road ride, slush all the way.  Poaching a mtb ride in the Fells however.... that could be good fun, but the lurking ice beneath gave me pause.  Without any studded tires in my armory, I decided to experiment with a device of my own concoction - bike chains.  Surely a chain system is inferior to the carbide studded tires, but at $50+ each, it's a considerable investment.  On a sheet of ice these things might not be worth the effort, but under the present conditions where the surface layer of snow might guide you most of the way, the chain might provide that extra bite needed to keep from spinning out.  Had I known it would take the remainder of the riding hours to complete I would have taken my chances with the ice.

That old pile of brake and shifter cables found the reason for their continued existence today.  My first version of the cables utilized a daisy chain of sorts, wrapping the cables around the rim.  After spending a good amount of time perfecting the weave so it laid snugly between the knobs, but still proud enough to grab the ice, I realized such a design would only be more trouble than it was worth should I get a flat.  A respectable chain solution needs to be quickly and easily removable.  The design I settled on is something similar to auto chains, though simplified in its lacing.  The pic here shows the final product.  It could probably use at least twice as many laces, but as a prototype it should do fine.

Parts list:
2 72" lengths of shifter/brake cable
30 6" lengths of brake cable
32 wire terminators

Surely there is a better solution than these wire terminators for joining the lengths, but as a first go it's quick and simple.
Using the wire terminators shown here, I laced the 6" lengths together in a zigzag pattern.  The guide wire which provides the tension for the chains will run through the eye of the terminator.
With the 30 6" lengths laced together, they can be slipped onto the shifter cables, which serve as the guide wire for the chains.   One end of the guide wire is terminated by the shifter bead, the other is capped with the remaining wire terminators.  The best way to do this is to run the free end through the same eye that keeps the bead, then add the terminator.   Tension can be kept on the system by snugging the terminated ends of the guide wires toward each other, which means that the guide wires should be threaded in opposite directions.

To cinch up the cables and keep them from slapping the frame I tied the cables down with zip-ties.  Though this defeats the purpose of making a removable chain system it's also a point for which there should be a simple solution.  I haven't tested these off road yet, won't do that till I get rid of the zip-ties.  An absurd amount of salt was dumped on the road today, so I didn't get a good test of their bite, but there should be a good freeze this week - more on that later.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Cultural Crossovers, Sort-of

I got my first glimpses of Jalalabad proper over the last two days, and it is every bit of the cluster- I thought it would be. Much was totally foreign, like the shoemaker sitting in a little pile of leather on the sidewalk making shoes, the deep open sewer troughs, or the storefronts selling nothing but mostly broken mirrors (talk about bad luck), but there were some things that we can all relate to, for instance the five 20-somethings sitting around the bike-shop in January with nothing to do while one guy does the day's only tune-up: the only difference here is that here there's five guys with nothing to do ALL YEAR in EVERY shop. There are so many people without jobs there's a running joke among security folk that collecting rocks is the national pastime. I asked Mehrab, our Afghan house manager, what they do with all the rocks and he just laughed... Anyway, with all that extra labor literally lying around your store, the need for streamlining the order fulfillment process is largely absent:

The mission of the day today was to find plywood. Given the obvious lack of Home Depot locations within driving distance, Mehrab and I set out to the market in the pickup (which happens to be heavily armored, not that it's really necessary in JBad). First we go to the money changing shop, which is fronted, at least, by a couple guys on the sidewalk with little 3'x2' display case style glass tables full of afghanis (the local bling). The guy from the table walks up to our ride, Murab slips him a Benjamin, and a couple of minutes later he comes back with roughly 5000 afghanis.

With cash in hand we search through a couple of shops specializing in 4'x8' sheets of whatever (mostly particle board and masonite) until we find a place that has what we need, but it's not at the shop, it's at the "warehouse", so a couple guys from the shop jump in the pickup with us and we roll off the main drag into this little walled courtyard about 10min drive away. To be honest, I wasn't super comfortable with this turn of events--one doesn't have to be a security operative to know that driving your armored truck into an enclosed space where the exit is easily blocked by one car is not exactly a superb strategic move--but who you know is a big deal out here and nobody screws with Mehrab so I figured we were good to go.

Thanks to some less-than-proper storage and the fact that, well, we're in Afghanistan, finding product that wasn't totally trashed was somewhat challenging. Our search eventually took us into a dingy half-open basement that we had to walk over a mountain of raw cotton to enter. (the cotton gin in the basement is pictured to the right. Sorry for the bad photo but I didn't want to screw up our deal by acting like a tourist) Once inside we sorted through about 50 sheets of ply in the dark to find 5 reasonble pieces. We then proceeded to watch as six, yes SIX guys clustered around the truck arguing about how best to load it. Meanwhile I got to meet one seriously doped out of his mind older Afghan who wanted to shake hands because he was presumably the boss, or father thereof, and I was the tall white dude (you get a lot of points for being the tall white dude). Sooner or later they all get sorted and I jump back in the truck with Mehrab and the two guys from before. We drive them back to the end of their street and pull over where Mehrab then starts to bargain, arriving ultimately at a price of 750 afghanis/sheet ($15), with which he was very satisfied (it can often cost $40, especially if you're from out of town).

...and now we have five sheets of plywood.

The story of a patchy beard

I have a patchy beard. Pretty much the only thing I can do about it is to not have a beard, but that strategy is not compatible with being lazy. For some reason, shaving is my most despised personal chore, perhaps because I don't fell like throwing down $15 for a Mach 5 package. I'd rather be lazy and cheap. I got around to trimming up my beard this morning and uncovered a mystery as ancient as the heavens themselves.

The largest region of shame is the barren track that goes from the middle of my right cheek down toward my neck . Shown below are two pics comparing my left and right sides. I wouldn't mention all of this if there weren't something inherently interesting about it all. You'll notice that there is a large red dot smack in the middle of my right cheek, a birth mark of sorts. This red dot seems to be the hair follicle eating Pac-man responsible for my barren streak. But this is pretty cool really, as long as it isn't cancerous or an alien spore, in that you can see that this mark migrated around during my foetal development, a stable genetic anomaly, like Jupiter's great storm. This of course, doesn't say anything about what the red mark is, or where originally it came from. I'll have to do a closer inspection later and see if I can track the path outside of my beard region.
image credit: [bic razor]

image credit: [jupiter]

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Chicken Wire, Lawlessness and the Sweet Smell of Opium

I was going to make this a long post, but there's too much on my plate at the moment to be screwing around with a blog, so here's the Clif's Notes version (more detail to come):
  • I'm in afghanistan
  • I'm working on this
  • I'm going to be here the entire month of January
...And this was the journey, including a 2hr 20min ride from Kabul to Jalalabad (there are effectively no laws here, ESPECIALLY on the roads. Lanes, speed limits, shoulders--all meaningless):


need a lane? Make one:Bombed out Jingle Bus:

Biker pow-wow:Home Sweet Taj:
See all the photos from today.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Bridges and Scales

For those of you who have been following this blog for a while, you've seen that my stories of late have been of a different nature. My thoughts turned toward a different light, my words molded more by emotion than deed. It has been hard to get out for even a short ride. When there has been free time, the motivation has often been absent, certainly not enough for a hill-climb session or daring escapade down to the river. We must have the right mind to do well. Perhaps if I had been stronger I might have been able to do it all. Perhaps next time around, weathered and tempered by these times, I will know how to manage the roots and rocks of life with more elegance and focus.

Most of my rides have been of the mental health variety, composed of equal parts tooling around and reflection. The majority of my time was spent on the the small dirt road network near my father's house, and then mostly repeating the one section of trail that has some decent tech. It's decent compared to nothing, which is most of the trails here, but a smooth ride for Boston's Middlesex Fells. I'd forgotten how tame the trails around Grass Valley are. In my memories, there were chasms, trolls under bridges, avalanches and mythic beasts to be bested. Like most things that require patience, attention and practice, it seemed a whole lot more difficult when I was younger. That's not to say I didn't try - I used to get torn up regularly, I'm just much more practiced at getting torn up now.

The practice on the tech section of the single-track has been fruitful. It's kind of like perfecting scales on a guitar or piano. If the Breck Epic trails are variations of the bridge-root-bridge theme, then I'm all set. I'll try to elaborate on the subtleties of this bit of trail that has been the focus of my attention for the last week or so. The section I'm describing is shown in the pic. The elevation does not come through so well, but it's an approximate 8 foot drop from the top of the far side to the bridge at the bottom. The second bridge is hidden behind the rise with the roots, and is considerably more narrow than the trail. As with many tech sections, there is little relation between the feel and flow of the ride in opposite directions.

Approaching this section from the point of vantage in the pic, there is about a 6 foot drop to the bridge. It's really a rather simple matter to cut to the left, scoot the roots, roll the hump, and jog to the right and across the bridge. The most difficult part of this section was in exiting the tech on the far side into the steep uphill ramp of about 4 feet. Often, I would feel the speed getting sucked out of my bike as I entered the part of the trail with the largest curvature. Riding this section gracefully essentially comes down to a smooth shift of weight. Standing off the saddle slightly entering the upward curvature, you can compress into the saddle as the ground begins to shove you upward. As simple as it is, there were only a handful of times I thought I really nailed this section. Perfection does not come easy.

Riding the section in reverse is in much more direct, no dodging roots. My main obstacle with this one was all mental. Sure you can just roll the roots and slam across the bridge. But like music, riding is not just about hitting the right notes, you have to feel the connections. I found my style with this section by first picturing my niece bouncing off the walls and floors absent of any fear of falling, cruising into the far drop with a good head of steam, taking a slow breath, rising off the saddle, launching off the root saying farewell to the ground and doubt, then feeling the weight of reality again, thrusting the legs down to land rear wheel first (is this technically a wheelie drop? I'm still not quite sure what I'm doing, though it feels pretty awesome, kind of like sex the first time), cruising to the top of the rise with a score of four exhilarated strokes.

I'm pretty sure I grew a day younger every time I rode this. By my reckoning, I left behind about two months on this section. Getting free of the ground, even if only momentarily, is true medicine. Some say cycling is a metaphor for life, and some nutty old Frenchmen say that life is a metaphor for le Tour. While one could draw a metaphor about my breaking free of the ground, the essence of this is a simple act of being, immersion in the moment, playing with and confronting fear.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Dylan, chess, and a business plan

Bob Dylan's latest album "Modern Times" captures the gritty and raw tales of the road in his classical style, though with a voice weathered and worn and references to blindness, canes, and scripture. His sometimes disregard of lyric metric comes off as the tired acceptance of an old man. Lines such as "my mule is sick and my horse is blind" and "they say whiskey will kill you, but I don't think it will" tell us that Dylan, or the personas of his songs, speak of a confrontation with fate. The accompaniment of the harmonica is minimal, with the solitary notes of an electric guitar more dominant, imbuing the album with an air of pointed and critical reflection. Even before the first lyrics of "Nettie Moore", the refrain tells his story - lingering regret of words unspoken, his loneliness offered as a tribute to a love lost.

This album has been the sound track of my story over these last few weeks. Given to me by my father for Christmas, it has been my background while I work at his house, and the rocks off which my thoughts cascade on my drives at night. It speaks to my father, perhaps as old men both he and Dylan share an understanding of battles won and lost and the pains of time. While the mastered version of "Nettie Moore" is superbly moving, his live performances offer an acute measure of the sands of time. I have tried through this album to learn something of what my father feels.

I spent the last two weeks removing the majority of my father's possessions from his apartment. It's been a combination of shoveling shit and an archaeological dig. Each of his 10,221 papers, receipts, pamphlets, letters, catalogs, musings and illegible scratchings were sorted and acted upon. It would have been much easier to bulldoze the lot and move on, as the goal of this effort was to recreate his living space in a way that is efficient and comfortable. Buy you cannot just dispense of someone's life. Each piece had a meaning, a story. A golden example of this is his 1977 edition of the "National Design Specification for Wood Construction: Structural Lumber, Glued Laminated Timber, Timber Pilings and Fastenings". While many other similar ones went to the big file cabinet in the sky, this one we kept for his shelves. Back in the 70's my parents put their efforts toward building houses in Oregon, and nearly lost their shirts doing so. They created beautiful houses. I can only remember faintly now the curved brickwork and carved timbers dressing the roof. In the mess I came across a card from my mother to my father for the Christmas of 1984, when I was still a tot living in Oregon. My father had gone south to seek work in California while my mother stayed back with myself and my sister with our house on the market. The picture here aptly describes our poverty.

Tonight we walked up the hill and watched the sun set, then returned to his house, made dinner and played a game of chess. Our words are few. When we speak, it is often of the projects we will work on, the businesses we might start, the hikes we want to make. I doubt if we will ever embark on any of these adventures together, but life is too short to be concerned only with the dreary details.

My experiences over the last few weeks have been mixed. It is the sadness of a classic tragedy, anger that he has passed on to us the burden of sifting the meaning from the noise, and a great satisfaction of spending this time with him. Being and doing have merged into one. Perhaps it is by sheer exhaustion of the effort, or by meeting squarely the tragedy of his fate, I am not sure. If I have a resolution this year, it has been said in my actions, - to be and do with purpose and generosity. These are good days, trying as they are.