Thursday, October 02, 2014

The Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living for a Human Being

The cool inky darkness of a late September morning slipped past me like motor oil as I plunged my pedals earthward, propelling myself up the moderate incline of the bridge to another borough.

I hate riding this bridge, yet it is a lifeline to most of the cycling events in New York City. This bridge has dual anxieties: at once, it is both a lonely ride this early in the morning, yet a ride to be terrified to share the roadway on. The bike and pedestrian path is very narrow and at its pinnacle, there's a very short fence. It would not take much to fall hundreds of feet into the icy maelstrom below.

This bridge, it creeps me out every time I cross it. Cross it, I must. It seems pointless to ride a subway for an hour to get to a starting line when a ten minute bike ride through Harlem serves the same purpose.

I'm lit up like a Christmas tree when I ride this time of the morning, in an hour that I can count on the fingers of one hand. It's quiet. It's peaceful. I ride slowly, deliberately feeling each millisecond of each pedal stroke, assessing how my legs feel. Sometimes, the bridge wins and I end up walking my bike part way across, a function of too much too soon before I've warmed up. Most times, my bike wins.

The noise and vibrations of the roadway transcend to the bike path, as the bridge is a major trucking thoroughfare. Sometimes, the chain link fences along the roadway will rattle as if a gangbanger dragged a 2x4 along the metal wires, a function of heavy wheels and metal bridge joints in the road bed.

And did I mention the stairs? There are stairs to climb or descend, depending on your point of view.

This year, I've had three bikes.

(You may recall a post from a few months back about my accident. That bike, Shadowfax, was totaled, so I replaced that boy with a new girl.) The blue girl, Tiamat, has not been on a ride yet. I only just purchased her and I've been busy with other things.

I made a choice this year to do the "touristycle" thing: all the NYC rides that attract people from all around the world: the Gran Fondo and Five Boro Bike tour, Escape New York and yes, the City Century.

In their own ways, each of these beat me, or more to the point, I let them beat me. The accident didn't help, to be sure. It's a little disconcerting when I realize how close I came to being dead, and never even saw it coming until it happened. I heard a screech, felt something smack me on the ass, and next thing I know, I've got a new bike. A split second, maybe a hundredth of a second, was all that stood between me and a grave. That threw me off any momentum I had built training to that point. That was what? The end of June? 

But more than that, I learned this year that I didn't even know myself that well. 

Its funny. I pride myself on my "nosce te ipsum", knowing myself. And I suppose I should have known that, once in these events, I would go flat out. That's who I am: I have two speeds -- full out, and fuller outer. 

So I burned out. I cracked hard on some hills. I finished them all but I forgot the first rule of riding which is to ride within yourself.

On the Fondo, I found myself racing the sweep wagon, the vehicle that organizers will send out along the route at a pace that should coincide with the slowest possible speed a rider can finish in the allotted time. That was a little embarrassing, particularly as it caught me just ahead of the finish line, but I guess they figured by the time they stopped me and loaded my bike, I could have been across the line on my own steam. My legs were jelly when it passed me, but when it passed me, I found the few strands of muscle fiber left and cranked my way over the finish.

But there was a lot more to the season than just these rides. I made several training rides that I'm very proud of, including the ride that saw my bike destroyed (if I had finished that ride cleanly, it would have topped out somewhere north of 85 miles and would have positioned me perfectly for a century). I did some other tours and rides that I completed, not just finished, in style. Beer at the finish is a powerful incentive. 

I saw some beautiful sunrises, and took some awesome photos. I met and chatted with hundreds of people, many of whom I've seen from time to time out on their bikes, too. I had a lot going on in my life, and though cycling has always been a way to put those aside, this year it almost became an encumbrance: gearing up, watching weather reports, maintaining my bikes, figuring out routes (that one, especially after the accident, was troubling). 

It's October now. The oily darkness smears across the sky earlier and lingers later now. I'll still ride, probably into December, but it will be once, maybe twice a week. I'll revel in the freedom even if it now means keeping one eye and one ear cocked to the rear.

And dream of next year.       

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Wages of Capitalism

Winston Churchill once famously said of Democracy, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others." Oddly, he also said, "The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries."

I say "oddly," because of Naomi Klein and her new book, This Changes Everything.

In it, Klein points out the inherent contradiction that capitalism will somehow solve a problem that capitalism created and that the ultimate solution to climate change will only come when a critical mass of people around the globe realize that the problem with capitalism is, well, it's capitalism. It's an economic system that relies on the basest of human urges to fuel it, thus guaranteeing its success at destroying civilization.

I suspect that there are going to be a series of books by Klein exploring this aspect of capitalism in other areas, but let me outline some of them for you.

1) Capitalism versus religion and morality -- This should pretty much be self-explanatory, of course. Religion is about the masses, and by definition, the masses tend to be poor. In a self-styled Christian society in particular, capitalism is going to be anathema to the message of religion.

But there are aspects of this conflict that need to be addressed. Like democracy, greed warps religion. Just look at Sunday television in any backwater flyover area. Watch the megachurches that care less about the soul of the viewer or audience and more about the pocketbook of the preacher. Capitalism has realized there's money to be made in religion, money that flows to the corporatocracy.

After all, those Sunday church shows, you don't think they're on because they generate ratings for the cable company, do you? They pay for air time, and pay a lot of money. Pastors like Joel Osteen and John Hagee have to instill fear (or desperate hope in Osteen's case) in their parishioners in order to get donations to afford those fees that ratchet up with each new contract. They are infomercials for God and the reason you see so many of them on so many channels is they make a lot of money for the television provider, and no other reason.

This is also why so many churches -- and not just megachurches but your local parish, too -- have abandoned all pretext of a separation of church and state and gone straight for the gut of Barack Obama: they need fear to get donations so they can afford to stay in business.

This isn't religion: this is capitalism turning religion into professional wrestling.

There's a built in army of sheep ready to devour this on their way to the slaughterhouse, too. In one respect, Marx was right that religion is the opiate of the people. It does make things a bit easier to accept your lot in life here when you have the carrot of everlasting happiness dangling in front of you while the mass beats your mule-ass with the stick of eternal damnation.

It makes it easy to scare people when they're already terrified. Just ask FOX News.

But even if you're an atheist, capitalism is anathema to a polite society. It encourages crime. It's right there in the speech that Gordon Gecko gives in Wall Street: " good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind."

2) Capitalism versus liberty -- I found it really ironic that a roar and cry went up when it was revealed that the US government was engaged in domestic spying on potentially all its citizens.

After all, we have already been paying for the privilege of that spying for decades now, but to a capitalist construct of a private corporation. Internet cookies are the prime example. but your credit card info has been recorded, data churned and analyzed so that marketers have gotten really good at not only guessing what you'd be interested in buying, but how and where you plan on using it.

Now, you can opt out of that spying, to a limited degree: don't shop online, don't use a credit card, don't join Facebook or Twitter, don't use an EZPass or a Metrocard, but you can't erase your image from all the private security cameras set up around the nation. You can't stop facial recognition software from identifying you when you're at a register, about to hand over a few bucks to buy a CD (remember, you can't download off iTunes).

You can't prevent your emails from being sifted (Gmail is notorious for that) for data and information. You can block cookies, but you can't stop your computer from sending out information to software and hardware providers for diagnostics.

All this is data and information that someone will pay a lot of money for in order to market to you. You're not free. You've never been free. It's all an illusion.

3) Capitalism versus democracy -- let's get right to the nub of Churchill's dichotomy. Democracy is a great form of government in that it's not the absolute worst. It has some very deep flaws that are systemic, mostly centering around the fact that the majority decides things.

That's fair, of course, in a society where information is perfect and cannot be bought and sold -- and there's your hint.

The Founders tried in their quaint little 18th Century manner to prevent that from happening, building checks and balances into the Constitution that preserved the rights of the minority to live in peace when most of their fellow Americans disagreed with them.

The Founders could never have foreseen a rapacious plutocracy that has greater devotion to their bank accounts than to the nation as a whole -- remember, this is a group of plutocrats who vowed their lives and fortunes to this new nation. They assumed anyone who came after would likewise feel the same sense of patriotism, or at least deep gratitude towards the nation that allowed them to "build that."

After all, if I can move billions of dollars oversees with the tap of an Enter key for a greater return than I can get at home, why would I care if that keystroke denies people outside my gates food or education or safety? Why would I bother even fixing the problems here since they don't affect me at all? My money, safely in China where people have it even worse off, is making more money there than it can here, and I can spend some of it to inoculate myself from the troubles outside my gate.

And that inoculation doesn't end with a higher fence or more security guards. It demands that I be pro-active and start expanding my buffers from society at large, because I sense the resentment around me. So maybe I buy a school board first, in order to make sure my children and grandchildren get the kind of schooling they should. And since I pay taxes, I should have a greater say in that education (buh bye democracy!) Next, there's the city council, since they maintain my water and sewer pipes, and in exchange I pay a high property tax. I ought to get a bigger say in how those taxes are spent (usually on education, but also on services like trash pickup and social services for people less fortunate than I. You know, "takers")

It used to be "one man, one vote" -- and even that was predicated on both gender and race, as well as property ownership (one of the great flaws of the Founders was limiting democracy at all).

It has gone from "one man, one vote," to "one dollar, one vote." And that is because of capitalism and its inherent pandering to the greed of people.

There's another quote in Wall Street that I'll end with. Also by Gordon Gecko. Keep in mind this takes place in the late 80s when you read it: "The richest one percent of this country owns half our country's wealth, five trillion dollars. One third of that comes from hard work, two thirds comes from inheritance, interest on interest accumulating to widows and idiot sons and what I do, stock and real estate speculation. It's bullshit. You got ninety percent of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing. I own. We make the rules, pal. The news, war, peace, famine, upheaval, the price per paper clip. We pick that rabbit out of the hat while everybody sits out there wondering how the hell we did it. Now you're not naive enough to think we're living in a democracy, are you buddy?"

And now keep in mind that movie is at the top of the hundred best list for nearly every stockbroker over the past thirty years.