Bicycle, 03

We never really did Father’s Day. It was after the school year ended, so I didn’t have to make all sorts of cute crafts for it. Because of this, I never quite remembered what day it was beyond “sometime in June.” I only recently realized it was always on a Sunday. I’m a little shaky on his birthday too. February 8th? February 12th?. My mom’s birthday was easy to remember–four days after mine. Dad’s birthday was never that big a deal. He hasn’t turned fifty yet. Maybe when he does we’ll do a big thing, like we did for Mom.

One of the reasons these events have been played down in our lives is that my dad worked his whole life. He was one of those dads. Not the kind that picks work over his family. He is the kind of man who works for his family.

When I was a kid, my dad would bike to work. I can pretend this had something to do with him wanting to take care of his body–something always important to him. We grew up kind of poor, but we still ate good food. Healthy food. I can pretend that he biked to save money, so he wouldn’t have to park in the city, because public transit didn’t like his work hours. During a portion of my life, he worked a night shift at Towers Perrin–now the publicly traded Towers Watson–maintaining early 90s’ computer servers. He was cool like that.

Dad loved his bike. It wasn’t until recently I began to care about bikes outside of wanting to be like my dad. I still remember his bike. The details. How tall it seemed when I was a kid. How impossibly large. My dad is about six-foot two. I have friends that tall, taller. A person who is six-two doesn’t seem like too much, but my dad is still just as tall to me as that large, white bike frame. He had mottled white, grey, and black tape wrapped around the curling handlebars. He had these grey shoes with blue laces that fascinated me. The bottoms had metal on them. I’d tried to walk around in them once and it was awful. They were also bigger than my face. These shoes locked into the pedals on his bike.

The seat was higher than the handlebars. The brakes and gear shifts were up front and fascinated me, as my bike had neither of these. The wheels were perfectly smooth. I used to touch them and spin them in disbelief. I’ve learned that this is a roadbike. My dad rode a roadbike around the streets of Philadelphia, to work after other people were already home.

On Friday, Mika showed me how to clean and lube the chain and gears on my bike. Saturday we rode up to Salem. I was told that the bike I’m riding needs the hubs overhauled if we’re going to keep taking weekend rides. I remember watching my dad do this. He would take the wheels off his bike and take apart the hubs. He would remove the metal ball bearings, soaking them in degreasing solutions. He’d clean the parts that encased them meticulously. He’d use toothbrushes and picks and q-tips. He used anything that would get the job done.

Sometimes he’d take the gears off and soak and clean them. Once they were degreased and dedirted, he would carefully oil them. He told me how you had to do this to keep them working. Otherwise, they’d get ruined.

I tell my dad about my bike rides now.

When we got back from Walden, one of the first people I told was my dad.

“I used to bike everywhere when I was your age,” he said.

When he was my age he had a sixth month old son.

I tell him about how far we’ve biked. How I’m doing. How I’m sore and changing. Later today, I’ll tell him about the ride to Salem and how hard the hills were. He’ll ask me something like if I gave up and walked the bike. Or if I’m hurt, sore, unable to walk. If I completed the ride. When I tell him how it all went okay, he’ll take a tone that says “of course” even though his words will say “that’s all that matters” or “good.”

As a child, I wanted to be just like my dad. All the time. Sometimes I was a little cruel to my mom about it and I feel bad for that. I wanted to be strong and powerful. I wanted to be able to fix things and make things work. I wanted to know about how the world around me worked. I wanted to be tall.

I gave up on those thoughts when I realized I was never going to be an engineer. That I didn’t have the patience for most physical activities. That I wasn’t especially good at math. That I’d stopped growing at five-foot seven. Now, I realize I am slowly turning into my father.(1) I have his values and his story. I have his strange meals consisting of things like kale and tofu, smoothies made with fruit and nutritive powders, and yogurt with peanutbutter in it. I have his elaborate meals that call for hours of preparation. I have his French House music playing. I have his forming self-identity that draws from family and an unrelenting desire to help them. I have his bike.

When I look at my bike, I remember my dad’s bike. I realize that what my bike is to me, his was to him.

(1) And my mother, but that’s something else entirely.

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Bicycle, 02

If you’ve talked to me at all in the past, oh, thirty hours, I’ve told you that I biked forty-one miles on Friday. I’m telling everyone who will listen. I’m proud of something I did–this doesn’t happen often. My friends here are being wonderful and patient. They do not seem genuinely impressed that I biked forty-one miles (as opposed to say, my friends in Philly), but there seems to be that good feeling like learning someone likes your favorite band–there’s a shared experience between the two of you. In this case, it’s an intense experience.

My bike here is black. It’s on loan from the co-op I’m living in. Both breaks work. The gears shift. E–neighbor–helped me tighten the brakes so they work even better. I have a bike pump available, so the tires are full. On the handlebars, there’s a plastic thing that the light I use for night riding slides into. There’s a backlight that lives on the back of my shirt or backpack after dark. The frame is just a little bit too big when it comes to getting on and off, but it’s perfect for riding.

I don’t like just the bike: I like the freedom it gives me. I like that bus schedules are meaningless. I like that I now have a new thing to talk to people about. I can talk about my bike, we can discuss bike routes, we can talk about places we’ve biked. When I put on my pants in the morning, I roll up the right leg to a space between my knee and just under my calf muscle. I keep finding small smears of grease on me, marking a leg or a sock, the cuff of my pants or my hands.

I’d been planning on biking the Minuteman Trail–eleven miles and an extra mile (or so) from here to the trail head. It transitioned to a bike ride to Walden Pond. Walden is sixteen point five miles away. RO had been there before and offered his company, so I wouldn’t have to go on the adventure alone.

We left in the early evening. The sun was low, but still present. The path was surprisingly crowded. It was warm. The Massachusetts sunsets have so far surprised me with their golds and pinks smudged across the sky as a natural afterthought. It was getting dark by the time we were off the trail and onto the road itself. Sixty-two leads you from the Minuteman to Walden Pond. We biked through small New England towns, quaint places that made me wish I was an older gay man. I wished I was into antiquing and staying at bed and breakfasts and belonged doing these things.

The last major uphill made me wonder why I had decided to bike sixteen point five miles. I cursed it. Walden Pond was closed by the time we got there–it closes at eight. We went down the path anyway. We walked our bikes along the final slope leading to the pond. We turned off the lights that shine halogen white. RO reached around me and turned off the blinking brake red light attached to the nape of my hockey jersey. The sounds of the road, already low, faded. A house by the pond was lit up. We weren’t supposed to be there. We spoke in hushed voices, as though that could protect us from the crime we were committing.

We locked our bikes up to the bike rack. RO knew where it was. He’d been there before. To me, Walden was this non-existent place. Even standing there, it belonged to the land of national attractions. It was a thing that existed in photographs and lists of places to see. In the stories people tell one another when they talk about their summers and deep, meaningful personal experiences.

We walked around the pond on a path, looking for a place to go down to the water. I’d taken my bike light and was using it as a flashlight. The pond water was high–it’s been a wet spring. When the path ran out, RO hopped the hand-made wire-and-post fence meant to keep people safe. I followed and he gave me a hand.

Things like hopping fences, climbing trees, and actually swimming in natural spaces are outside of my realm of experience. I grew up in a big, safe city. And by safe, I mean without natural fears. I was raised to understand people, not the dark. I have trouble getting over a fence unless it’s chain link. Hopping one always makes me feel small and pathetic. I felt more awkward than I ever did in my teens.

Eventually we settled on a spot and put the backpack we’d been sharing down. We sat on a rock and I turned off the flashlight. There were moments of mostly silence strung together. The noises of the road sounded like the animals–the bats, the birds, whatever they were, and the owls–calls and responses across the pond and the night.

RO felt the water and declared it warm enough to swim. I stood up and there was a pause. In essence, the whole point of going to Walden was to swim.

I’d met RO my first weekend in the area. The ritual behaviors here include a weekly trip to a local pub. It’s a wonderfully pretentious place that friends of mine from all over know. The pub has a story about a legal case where they fought hard for, and won, their liquor license. The food is okay, the beer selection is good enough, but the real worth comes from the dimly lit cave atmosphere of the basement bar. Everyone was nice, taking their respective turns in a disorganized fashion of talking to the new person. They introduced themselves and answered the basic questions, asking more to me.

We went to Walden my third weekend. The question hung in the air: What kind of relationship was this going to be? Were we going to be the kind of people who swam in Walden Pond together? These decisions are not only based around how you interact with a person, but how you want them to perceive you. Are you going to be the kind of person who goes in with your clothes on? Will you roll up your pants legs and wade? Will you strip down to your skivvies and jump? How will this affect who you are to each other and how you will know one another?

He slid down the rock and entered the water. There was no pause. The behavior was natural. I stood on the rock at the edge, my feet just wet. I was scared.

“I’m scared,” I said. He was patient and didn’t make fun of me. I went through the words and the reasons, trying to talk myself in and out of going in. Explaining my reasonings and hoping I would find the right justification that would make it okay.

“I watched a lot of X-Files as a kid.” Pause. “I like to swim. In pools. And the ocean. During the day. Lakes have monsters in them. Monsters!” Pause. Silence.

I slunk down into the water and pushed off out into the black. It was neither cold nor warm. RO congratulated me without irony. We listened to the sounds. We heard something moving in the woods. We heard what sounded like another person and that was, in and of itself, scarier than the idea of a monster. No one came.

I was afraid of losing track of where we were. I thought we’d swim too far away and be unable to find our stuff. I thought we’d lose the bike light or the keys to the lock. I thought my shoes would go missing. I thought I’d get pulled under by a monster.

I inched away, swimming in small circles that largely consisted of treading water and floating backwards with occasional hectic arm motions. Off to one side, light pollution bubbled on the horizon. The sky had more stars than I’d seen since leaving Arizona.

Walden became real.

We sat on the rock and shivered. RO put on a sweatshirt I had packed at the behest of a friend I’ve had since high school. Wet, we looked over the pond and at the sky from the frame of leaning trees in silence.

Biking back was a fight against myself. We went past a field so full of fireflies it looked as though the field itself, and not the things in it, was alive. They blinked on and off, calling to one another just as the birds and cars had. They called as people do in the night, to stave off loneliness and fulfill biological imperatives.

We ended up lost and biked an extra eight miles. Before we hit the Minuteman, I was so tired, I’d wondered if I would make it. We passed Spy Pond, right near the last stop along the Red Line–one stop away from where I live.

Carrying my bike up the steps to the apartment was the hardest part of the whole evening. My whole body hurt. I sat in a chair in the kitchen. I didn’t move for half an hour.

Tardis

“And I’ll just keep talking about stuff senselessly and you can just not care.” I say this, not to debase him, not to attack, but rather to comment in my self-deprecating manner about how I keep talking, filling silences for no necessary reason.

“I care,” N says. Simply.

And with that the moment changed in no visible way. The light continued to flick on and off periodically. He continued to rock back and forth in his swing in sync with me.

It’s easy to get lost in the spring in Pittsburgh. It’s easy to get lost in the moonlight moments without heavy jackets, sitting on swings with N. The spring in Pittsburgh appears when you’re not looking when suddenly you don’t need your winter coat or hat or gloves–things that are necessary in the winter. In the winter it’s easy to forget the spring even exists. It’s easy to forget that the snow will melt and the sun will come out again. That the summer will settle in. But in the early spring, on the swings with N, it’s easy to remember all of this.

It’s easy for the moments of spring and summer to flash through my mind with such rapid succession that they rather form a feeling than any sensory experience. Badminton as the afternoon becomes evening and how they never even made fun of me for being bad. Walking in the pouring rain. The sun. The heat. The light, sweet smells that rise from the yards–the olfactory tale of the East End–as flowers bloom and die and bloom again.

It’s easy for me to get lost in N. He’s a person I never knew as well as I wanted to, and liked far more than I ought to. I wanted to be close to him, to know him rather than simply about him. Him saying to me that he cares is all it takes to send me off my balance into a fall. My back facing the ground. I remember the springs and summers in the city. I remember the winter with N–the one winter we had together–and our friends.

It’s easy to forget the worst of spring and summer. The days of ruin. The days when you create problems for yourself, when you subject your future self to deal with bad decisions you make.

I acknowledge that who I was–who we all were–in Pittsburgh is a part of who I am now, but it’s not the same person. It’s at this moment, in this space, I remember why I am going where I am, and what I am trying to do. I remember why I am trying to do it. I am trying to do it for Pittsburgh, for that stupid child that left me such a mess to deal with now, for the days of ruin and the halcyon days in the spring and summer. For N.

IRC

RO stopped by. The night before he had said he hadn’t been over to the co-op since the previous fellow left. When he talks about the previous fellow in residence, he seems a little sad. They became close, or so it sounds. I can make a lot of rash mental extrapolations when he talks about what happened. When RO and his girlfriend broke up, the project said fellow was working on became an strong centerpiece of R’s life. He would go over to the co-op in the early evening and work through until morning. Like a war room or the overnight staff of a newspaper, they worked on something they thought was important, lone soldiers in the trenches of their cause while the rest of the world slept, unawares of what was being created.

On Monday, RO showed up at the co-op. It wasn’t the best time to arrive, and I felt bad about that. After a lazy breakfast–a breakfast like so many projects that started with a rush of excitement and settled into a quiet lull–people dispersed. Two people went to work. Several people crashed out for the day. I knew I had work to get done, and I had plans to go check out the Media Lab.

RO got himself upstairs, though I’m not quite sure how it happened. The door bell was notoriously bad and a key was needed to get into the building. However, he landed himself on the green couch that looked as if someone had made it out of clay and then dropped a book on it.

“Are you on the IRC?” he asked me.

The co-op has an IRC channel. IRCs popularity among geeks is something that has always astounded me. As instant messaging programs have developed into google chat, AIM, Yahoo chat, MSN, and others (my chat client offers no less than eighteen options for messaging services), IRC is still around and still used.

IRC uses a system of channels, which are like chat rooms. Or, to be more accurate, chat rooms are like channels. People connect to these cyber places that are denoted by a name and usually express some sort of share something–interest, geographic location, job. The co-op’s IRC channel seems to be a collection of residents, former residents, and friends. Associates. People who are some how part of this social circle that decided to converge under the name of the co-op. As I write this, there are fifty-three people logged onto the channel. I’ve met at least fourteen of them, including myself.

I told him no. To be honest, I was always a little afraid of IRC. I don’t tell people this. It fell into that land of terminals and connections that you needed to have some sort of secret knowledge of a coded language to connect. Sure, I used some IRC channels when I was in middle school, but I learned those code phrases through memorization rather than understanding of what each part did. Much like usenet groups, it was part of this time–in my mind anyway–of less visual usability. The direct connection aspect, the computer equivalent of a phone switch board, left me feeling intimidated and lost.

Of course I didn’t tell RO this. I wanted him to think I was cool.

I said something that seemed clever to me at the time and laughed off the fact I was not part of this secret IRC club. He insisted it was easy and offered to help me. In less than three minutes of poking around on Pidgin (the chat client I use), I was connected and listening in on a conversation part of me felt I was not cool enough to be hearing.

In working on Signal Boost, I occasionally find myself reexamining what I’m doing. I think it’s difficult to go into a non-fiction writing project, an ethnography project, a journalism project, and know exactly what it is you’re going to be getting out of it. I think it’s hard, and at least for an amateur like myself presumptuous, to say “I am going to write X,” where X is at least a semi-detailed account of your future content.

Because of this, and because I really am at an early point, I worry. I am uncertain and I consider things and play with ideas in hopes that I will, out of my vacuum thinking, derive something great and important. “Laboratory Life,” a book by Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, was a groundbreaking text on the sociology of science. In it, they make noises about “sensationalist” science journalism and sociology–the parts that focus on coffee conversations that lead brilliance and dirty lab secrets. I read books like “Methland,” by Nick Reding, that tells these tumbling chronicles of history, ideals, and people that somehow, by the end, create a cohesive something. The sort of books that thrive on educating across a broad spectrum of information and using episodes from the lives of people and places to act as points that the explanations and expositions connect.

I don’t really want to do either of these things.

For me, this is what it’s all about. It’s about RO meeting Mako on the subway. It’s about how RO became involved in the former resident’s project. It’s about how that led RO to the co-op on that Monday and how he connected me to a new part of the internet. It’s about sharing. It’s about enabling others to not just have access to these tools, but to understand how they work so they can use the tools on their own in the future. It’s about RO, teaching me how to log on to IRC using Pidgin, and promising to teach me how to do it from the Terminal some other time.

“Just in case you want to be really cool,” he told me.

Conversation

TS IMed me the other day. That’s usually how we talk now. We speak infrequently, but I still consider her–and the rest of our cadre from undergrad–my best friend. I think of her most days, in subtle passing ways and in quiet moments when memories float to the surface of my consciousness. I’ll feel bad for the times I let her down–emotionally reliving them when I don’t want to do so. I take comfort in good things that happened. I hope that there will be more.

I always hope that there will be more.

Lately, TS and I have mostly been talking about Signal Boost. She’ll IM me to comment on what I wrote or share some personal insight about her and FLOSS. The other day, she wanted to tell me I summed up her usage of software fairly accurately. She went on to tell me about her usage of statistical packages. I learned that the major proprietary one is better for when you’re dealing with millions of trials and humongous sets of data. When experiments are too big, the major proprietary package is better. There are some things you can do in it that you can’t do in R, the FLOSS she uses, but there are also things you can do in R that you can’t do in the other program. Either way, sometimes running experiments takes days. The proprietary package, she told me, is what you have to use in certain projects. With some experiments, when you get your procedure approved, you have to go through a review process. For statistics, the forms include the code you will use with the proprietary package for your particular experiment. She thinks this is because, in theory, someone could change how R works, but they cannot change how the proprietary package works.

As we talk, I ask the questions that I feel like I’m supposed to. I ask the questions you ask in class when someone is teaching you. I’m reminded of when I learned to play baseball and kept trying to find some academic understanding that would help me hit the ball. I felt a sort of helplessness when I realized I didn’t know what to say to my best friend.

I often find that when I examine my personal relationships, usually from outside of interactions, I can’t remember what we do or talk about. TS and I used to talk for hours–usually while other things happened. We’d talk about our days, or things that had happened. I’m not sure what else. Our friends. We gossiped. I wonder if without our shared experience of living together, or in the same place, we don’t have anything to talk about. I ask her questions about grad school, but now that’s her life so it doesn’t seem to be anything special to her. Stories come out as other things happen, little bits and pieces of how her PPL (Post Pitt Life) actually is–data she gives me with which I can try and find truths the same way she does with her statistical data.

When we talk, we default back to open source. She asks me about the project. I tell her. I share something about transparency or how I’m not sure if I should post something I’m writing. It’s not “finished” I think to myself. It’s personal. It’s more like my notes and less like a part of some big work, but I guess that’s what this blog is about–it’s a place for me to put everything and out of it draw a cohesive narrative. Or donations/work. Okay, not really. About the donations. I’ll gladly take work.

I recognize that people usually have a center point of their relationship, and individuals have a center point of their lives. When I was talking to my brother’s (now ex) girlfriend, we’d default to talking about him, since he was the center point of our relationship. She, however, defaulted to running and physical therapy–the center point of her life. That is to say, we had this shared experience of my brother, and she had this other thing that she used to define her life. I realize that for more people, FLOSX is our conversational default.

During undergrad, I always spent time with my cadre. Constantly. For years. We always talked, but I no longer remember what about. Somehow, for each of them, our relationships have become centered around FLOSX. Our default is long, rambling conversations where we essentially agree with one another or share knowledge. I learn things, and I ask questions, but I don’t know if we continue to do this because for us it’s what’s important, or because we’re losing what else is there.