Wednesday, June 29, 2011

What I've Been Doing

So, I've been pretty busy for someone without any real responsibilities, so here's a list of some of the shit I've been up to.

We are moving into Baltimore City! Not only that, it's to the best apartment in the world! This apartment is really huge, at least 1.5 times bigger than everything else we saw. The living room is painted the exact same color of mint green that I would have painted it, if I'd chosen the colors of my walls. The dining room is bright blue, and the bedroom is reddish fuchsia! The kitchen is a yellow which I can only describe as "kitcheny," which is apropos. There is a dogwood tree in the backyard (yes! in the city!) and a small plot of land which I might use for a garden. There are tomato cages which I'd like to use because tomatoes are one of the few vegetables I actually like and the only one that would grow well in a backyard garden. There is a basement where I can park my bike and where we can store excess books. We are almost certainly inheriting a fourth cat from our landlord for convoluted reasons to be explained later.

Needless to say, I am stoked. The last year has taught me a very valuable lesson: don't live in the suburbs. As a non-driver (and one who is increasingly uninterested in getting her license), I can't handle it: the monotony of only being able to shop at chain stores and eat at chain restaurants, the utter meanness of townies who assume you're a student, the impossibility of getting a job because interviewers assume you're unreliable simply because you don't drive. (I've never had to call into work because I had to take my legs into the shop. Just sayin'.) When we moved to Towson, we thought it would be a lot like State College, PA, which is also a college town of approximately 50,000 people. Except that it's a lot easier to get to a big city from Towson vs. State College. But State College is very walkable/bikeable, and to some extent so are smaller PA college towns like Indiana or, hell, even California (which is where I went to college), and I don't think I would have had a lot of problems making friends or getting a job there. Towson is more like Monroeville, except with two colleges lodged in its bowels like nuclear bombs in a mixed-metaphor word salad. Also that reference will not make sense to you if you're not from Pennsylvania. Sorry about that.

Working on short stories! I have two in the pipeline right now: one about evil cars, the other a Machine of Death story. I had been working on a novel in progress, but sort of abandoned it when my computer crashed and I lost the last five pages of writing. Maybe that doesn't sound too tragic, but it was only eleven pages overall. Perhaps it's for the best, I don't really have the attention span for novels. I've said it before: if I only ever write one novel in my life, that is totally fine with me.

One of our cats was turned into a lamp by an evil sorcerer:

Rob wouldn't let me put the sweater on her. "It's too hot, she'll roast."
So you can blame him for this picture not being as awesome as it
might have been. It would have been on for ONE MINUTE
and cats are hardy little critters. Simply elucidatin'.

Selling shit on Amazon. Now, it will be no surprise to people who have been to our house that we own A LOT OF BOOKS. (Although not an alot made out of books.) But we've been practicing Discardia, which means getting rid of many hundreds of our books. In the past, we'd always take the books to a used bookstore, which would maybe give us thirty bucks for four bags of books, if we were lucky. But then I had a brainstorm: why not Amazon? I've bought things off Amazon Marketplace in the past, because used CDs are usually much cheaper than new or digital download. Probably because hardly anyone keeps CDs anymore (although I do!). And yes, putting up hundreds of superfluous books is sometimes tedious, and sending them out is definitely tedious, but I've made several hundred dollars on there already, including over a hundred bucks for an out-of-print expansion board for Arkham Horror, the game of mind-numbingly banal Lovecraftian terror. While I don't want to bad-mouth my "customers," it constantly shocks me what people will buy, and for what prices. Granted, I am not into the mangas that the kids are reading right now, but $40 for a comic book? However, as this is the closest thing I have to a paying job right now, I am going to continue doing it until all the books are sold, or I get a real job doing something exactly as tedious for slightly more money.

(Aside: before beginning my extended period of unemployment, I don't think I realized how utterly useless I'd feel. I am someone who crashes and burns without a schedule, and while I do try to write lists to structure my days, it's easier to follow a schedule when it's imposed from without by someone who's paying you. I feel guilty for doing things that I don't consider my "job," i.e. putting items up on Amazon, going shopping for basic necessities, cleaning the house like a motherfuckin' adult. I don't consider writing my job even though I've been paid for it. It's hard for me to talk about this because it's such a first world problem; we can get along fine on Rob's income and I don't NEED to work. But I've realized that I WANT to, especially if I can get back into the only jobby thing I've ever been good at, medical research. Hello, Johns Hopkins University, soon to be within my reach/clutches.)

Riding my bike, natch. As cycling has turned out to be the loose focus of this blog, I feel obligated to mention that, yeah, still at it. Last night I abandoned my old, broken BSO in my front yard for the first taker, because even though I did have plans to fix it up and teach Rob to ride on it, we all know I wasn't going to do that before moving and it would have just become more moving clutter. Also, it would have been way too small for him, and also a girl's bike. I feel guilty about this, even though I know that's dumb. I'll probably feel better when I see a lady riding around on my old bike, all fixed up shiny and newish. But right now I feel like a consumerist jerk.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

In praise of "bike-shaped objects"

(Note to people who don't care about bikes: I will be writing a non-bike post soon. Maybe. The downside of having a potpourri blog like this is that sometimes I will get really obsessed with a single topic and talk about it to the exclusion of anything else. For weeks. But hey, it's not like you're paying for this thing and I only get like fifty hits a week, so, neener.)

Over on Lovely Bicycle, there is a post entitled A Handful of Rust: Bicycles as Waste that's engendered some pretty interesting discussions. I can agree with the gist of it: that ideally, every bicycle (or object in general) would be built to last, and we would place a higher priority on fixing the objects we own instead of buying new things. It is true, we should do these things. However, I think there is a tiny bit of elitism in the sentiment that "more expensive/handmade/vintage is better," plus the idea that anyone can afford a "good" (i.e. more expensive/handmade/vintage) bicycle if they're willing to save or hunt for it. No, not everyone can afford it, and no, they're not always better. Somebody below the poverty line, who bikes not because they want to but because they can't afford a car or can't get a license due to their legal status, isn't going to have an easy time pulling together even $300 for a low-end "real" bike. For them, a bicycle is not intended to be a thing of beauty, it's a form of transportation plain and simple, and I'd be a real jerk if I told someone who might be supporting a family on a few hundred dollars a month that they're doing it wrong by buying a cheap Walmart bike and replacing it every few years. Of course, not all people who buy the cheapest bikes are poor illegal immigrants... but at least SOME of them are, and they're the ones least likely to be able to change their ways. Any blanket condemnation of cheap-ass unrepairable bikes has to include at least a small caveat for those people who use these bikes not out of ignorance or wastefulness, but because it's the only option.

I also don't believe that there is a direct 1:1 relationship between the price of a bicycle and its quality. Granted, I haven't had much experience with different makes and models of bikes, but I DO ride a lower-end (though not department store level) comfort hybrid, and I've noticed that comfort bikes in general tend to get the short end of the stick in bike-blog-land. To which I wonder: why? Yes, a bike like mine won't get you speed, it won't go on the roughest trails, it is not as aesthetically pleasing as a Dutch bike. But as a general, all-purpose bike? It's great! I can take it a mile to the store, load it up with 20 lbs worth of stuff, and bring it home, and then ride some twenty miles on paved roads at a national park. It's slower than most of the other bikes at the park, sure, but it'll get me up all but the steepest hills, and that's more a fault of my still underdeveloped leg muscles than the bike. I've read some reviews (again, mostly from people whose tastes run to fancier road bikes) that these bikes cause back pain if ridden for a long period of time, but I've not had that happen yet, cross fingers. Some bike blogs, including Lovely Bicycle, say that it's better to get multiple bikes for multiple uses, and to that I agree... again in theory. But in reality, I don't have the space for a half-dozen bikes or more. I could say I wish I did, but I don't: me and Rob have been on a big decluttering kick lately in preparation of moving into a smaller place, and having multiple bicycles, however awesome and specialized, would interfere with this new less-stuff philosophy. So a bike that can "do it all, kinda" is the best option I have, and so far it's been a great bike. Although maybe I'm just one of the lucky ones for whom a comfort hybrid fits like a glove.

Department store bikes also serve an important purpose by allowing people who might be a little rusty on their biking skills (many adult bikers, myself included, had not ridden since childhood before taking it up again) to not make a huge initial investment in what might turn out to be an expensive piece of modern art, if they can't remember how to ride or dislike it for whatever reason. Of course, a bikeshare or rental program would serve this purpose just as well, or better. I would have only needed to use a bikeshare bike a couple of times before realizing, yeah, I like this, and spending the money on my Raleigh without buying a $70 BSO from Amazon first. The fact is, most people won't invest a lot of money in something they're not sure they're going to like, so a $100 crap bike isn't a lot to spend in order to realize that you enjoy biking and want to get a better bike in order to fully enjoy it.

Of course, there's labor concerns involved with these department store bikes, most of them being built in China with semi-slave labor. Then again many Dutch bikes are built in Eastern Europe with semi-slave labor that is only marginally less exploitative than the Chinese factories. My Raleigh was built in Vietnam and I'm almost certain it was built by slaves. See also: most cars. Unless you get your bike from a local builder--and I may do that for my next bike in five or ten years--you're almost certainly going to get something made by people working in substandard conditions. Keep in mind that a bike made with exploited labor is still better in a human rights sense than a car made with exploited labor, as that car also requires daily infusions of fuel, the extraction of which exploits additional thousands of people. Everything in life is a compromise.

Maybe "timeless" vintage bikes have a better chance of not winding up in the dump than blue-light specials, but maybe not. Some people on the thread mention that they have department store bikes that have lasted for years and been passed down. And some of the vintage bike-buying bloggers seem to get a new bike every year, which doesn't seem to me to be any less wasteful than the recurrent Walmart bike buyers, except that they'd probably donate or sell their old bikes instead of junking them. But when it comes down to it, consumerism is consumerism, and everyone is guilty of it, whether they're spending $200 on a new department store bike every few years or constantly upgrading a vintage bike to make it "perfect." How many replacement parts are made with slave labor, anyway?

My opinion? Find one or two bikes you like, pay what you're comfortable with, and run them into the ground. You're still supporting a lot of unseemly things, but not as much as if you were to keep replacing and upgrading, whether it's to a Walmart bike or a vintage bike. And remember that no amount of "bike waste" comes even remotely close to the environmental and social damage wrought by the car. This doesn't give one a pass to be needlessly wasteful, but it's an important bit of perspective.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Car That Farts Rainbows

An editorial in last week's Baltimore Sun got me to thinking. The story, for those not clicking: When aggressive government subsidies allowed Swedes to easily purchase electric hybrid cars, use of the cheap-to-run cars, and concurrent pollution, went up. The hypothesis is that if cars are cheaper to run, people (being morons) will take that as a green light to use them more. In fact, considering how normally environmentally conscious Swedes are, we could expect an even greater overuse in electric cars in America. If we overuse cars now when it's expensive, just you wait, rest of the world! We'll drive from here to the next block, just because we CAN. (Oh, shit, we already do that? Nevermind.)

This article made me wonder about whether I'd be so anti-car if fully electric cars became mainstream, and really did cost some ridiculously small amount of money per day to run, and didn't kill the environment. Say that they actually, in some science fiction twist, helped the environment. How much of my hatred of cars is due to the environment, and how much is due to the fact that I hate and suck at driving? The answer: it's almost all because I hate and suck at driving. If there were an electric car that was somehow better for the environment than my bicycle, thereby making me the awful polluter, I would continue to rail against cars and sprawl. My reasons for being an anti-car/pro-walking/biking advocate are not altruistic, but selfish. Ayn Rand did teach me something, after all!

Oh, there's other reasons to hate cars besides the damage they do to the environment. Truth be told, even before having this epiphany last night, the environment wasn't even in the top five list of why I hate cars. (Want the top five? Driving's boring, They're expensive, They're dangerous, Sprawl Sprawl Sprawl, Biking/walking helps me think in ways driving doesn't.) Maybe we'll render the Earth uninhabitable by 2100 through our own actions, but I'm not going to live that long! But meanwhile, I DO have to live in a world where you can't (in most places) get a job without a car, where walking or biking to the nearest grocery store can be a minefield, where your choice of transportation (and once I do get a license, not driving WILL be a choice for me) informs your life decisions instead of merely being the way you get from Point A to Point B.

The fact is, the way we live now--especially in the suburbs--is not healthy and it's not because of smog or obesity. It's because when you remove the place you work from the place you live and the place you play, it creates a fractured kind of existence. Hell, we even have a separate place to get exercise, instead of getting it just from our daily interactions with society. I'm not a spiritual person, but I'll be damned if this fracturing isn't at the root of a lot of what's wrong with the world and with our selves. And that's my high-horse bicycle advocacy moment for the day.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Stumbling Into Baltimore

Yesterday, with Rob away at Bi-Mon-Sci-Fi-Con I decided to haul ass to Starbucks and force myself to either finish the first edit on one of my short stories, or the first draft of another, so that I can finally have something for writing group this following week. But when I got to the Starbucks, I just didn't feel like getting off my bike. So, I didn't. Instead I went "exploring," which as previously noted is not usually a good idea for me. But this time, it paid off, as I found a safe route (as in, no highways) into Baltimore and was able to do some city riding for the first time ever.

And it is so much better, you guys. I didn't get sworn at, cut off, sideswiped, or told to get on the sidewalk once. It was almost surreal, how much better it is to bike in Baltimore City vs. BalCo/Towson. I rode on bike lanes for the first time. Saying it that way makes me sound like a hick, which, maybe I am. But I'm also a badass for daring to ride in the suburbs, so it evens out. You city riders have it so easy. And what's interesting is, Baltimore isn't considered a bike friendly city by most. I don't know where it falls in the rankings, but it's never spoken of in the same breathless tones as PDX or Boston or Minneapolis. Yet, I don't know what a city could possibly do to be better. Like, if this is just a "normal" or even "bike unfriendly" city, what the hell are they doing in Portland that's so great? (Then again, maybe I was just there at a really good time. It was Saturday afternoon after all, not rush hour.)

I'm growing to realize that one of the reasons I hate Baltimore County so very much is that, unless you have a car, there is no possible way to explore. There are parts of the county that are beautiful and would be biker/walker friendly, but they are separated by many miles of interstate highway. Yes, this is true for most places, including my old home of Pittsburgh. Once you get out of the city, if you don't have a car, forget it. But I haven't lived in a place like this since 2005, and I forgot how depressing it is, how constrained it makes me feel to only be able to visit the same half-dozen places over and over again (and yeah, I usually wind up only having a half-dozen "haunts" but at least I get to pick them!). I don't ever want to feel this way again. And in two months, I won't have to, because we're moving!

I forgot to take pictures, but I will rectify that on my next trip in (and there will be a next trip in, oh yes).

The moral of today's story is: I will do anything to avoid writing. Or maybe oh my god, is it August yet?!