my thoughts dried up so i wrote this instead

When you isolate yourself, you have no one else to blame when things go awry. There is some small comfort in this. It is possible to go days without talking to anyone. This can be a magical combination of your own self-imposed silence and a general indifference on the part of others. Together we can make it work. The woman in the alley enjoys screaming hateful words at her grandson but she is sweet as pie when I say hello. This dichotomy hurts my brain. The alley is loud in the summer. The ladies across the way gun their motorcycles at all hours. The level of their inconsideration for people living together in a confined space staggers me. Small children yell and sing and talk like adults. I brood at the kitchen table. If it weren’t for the swatch of overgrown vegetation threatening to engulf my porch, I would have to see, as well as hear, the denizens of the alley and that I could not bear. Meanwhile, in the plus column, the city installed four solar-powered compacting trash cans on a main street in the neighborhood. I was overjoyed to throw my dog’s poop in them. Then they took one away. It was the most conveniently located one. Why. On another street near my house the city erected an expensive-looking fence in the median. A few weeks later they removed it. Why. Every day I see the thousands of dollars I pay in property taxes hemorrhage out onto the streets in the form of Kafkaesque activities such as this. It pains me. I could make much better use of those thousands of dollars than by funding the erecting and dismantling of fences. Segueing into the employment realm, it’s summertime at work which results in a curious laissez faire attitude toward attendance. I like it but it confuses me. I am always suspicious of it. Yet there is a natural relaxed cadence I cannot ignore, and so I allow it to carry me in its wake. When I feel agitated, I look at the little pictures in the dictionary and this soothes me. Last night I had a pleasant time in dreamland, but I forgot most of it upon waking. I don’t like that. I need to remember my dreams or waking life seems vacant. Do you ever wonder about the nature of friendships? They are curious things. Coming and going, rarely staying. Sometimes they wane; sometimes they wither. Sometimes they fail over the stupidest things. And you wonder if it could have been avoided, but in reality if it was a strong friendship it should have been able to withstand most of the nonsense we manage to self-generate. Which then begs the question of why the friendship existed in the first place. Convenience, perhaps. Boredom. Desperation for human contact [see: possibility of going for days without speaking to anyone, as outlined above]. I have had many friendships through the years, for all of these listed reasons and more. Not many have lasted, but the tiny few that have are worth more than gold. The question is then, do I now need more friends? What purpose would they serve? It gets harder to make friends as you get older. It’s horrible but I find myself more judgmental than I used to be of people when considering them as potential friends. I am also perhaps even more guarded now. Friendship requires time and effort, both valuable resources that I don’t expend lightly. How can you know if it’s worth it. Most of the time I am content to be by myself. I also have a dog now. The ultimate friend. Always dependable, always happy to see you. Can’t go to the bathroom without your help, which is a little weird. Doesn’t talk, which is both good and bad. Sometimes I wish he’d talk, just a little. See, even though I am content by myself, I have this annoying urge to reach out sometimes. It’s irrepressible. Sometimes everything can’t be found in books. Or nature. Most things, yes. But not all. This is the curse of human nature. We are not 100% autonomous. And I am so restless. This incessant unease shadows my every move. The panic. The urge to drop out. The crushing confinement of your own mind. We’re all so spread out. Held together by weakening links. I trip over my own shallow roots and fall face-down in a mucky bog. Roll around and let the clay harden on your skin. Let it cover all that you see as wrong. It feels so good.

city biking: where fun meets frustration

© S. D. Stewart

Early self-portrait of the author with his first 10-speed.
Note: Film developed poorly by the author at the time in his school’s darkroom.

On the ride to work yesterday I ran into an acquaintance. We live in adjacent neighborhoods so I see him from time to time on my commute. I believe we first met years ago while I was volunteering at the bike collective. This morning we rode through the streets toward downtown, chatting and getting caught up, talking about our respective neighborhoods and dogs and the heat and how when dogs are hot they like to lie flat on the cool kitchen tile. We complained about the city’s well-intentioned but sometimes ineffective attempts at bike improvements. Case in point: the mini traffic circles on Guilford. What a failure they have been. Before they were even implemented I questioned their value. The circles replaced two four-way stop intersections on a section of road with light automotive traffic, with the idea being that cyclists shouldn’t have to stop at these low-traffic stop signs because it needlessly slows us down. Of course no cyclist ever came to a complete stop at them before, and anyone who thinks otherwise is delusional. But the idea with the traffic circle is that cyclists can just merge into the circle and continue merrily on their way. Sounds good so far, right? The only problem is that this is Baltimore and when you take a stop sign away, unless you replace it with a traffic signal or, say, a brick wall, the typical driver response is to then accelerate through the intersection as fast as possible without yielding to anyone. At least before, in theory, everyone had to come to a stop before proceeding through the intersection. Now there are just these wimpy Yield signs before the circles. “Yield” being a term largely absent from the lexicon of the average Baltimore driver. The other problem with circles is that they are only useful if you can see all oncoming traffic as you approach; if the coast looks clear, you don’t need to slow down quite as much and you can pass safely through the circle. This doesn’t work on city blocks stacked with rowhouses. You can’t see if traffic is coming until you are literally paused at the intersection. That’s why there were stop signs before! What good is a circle if you still have to get to the intesection before you can tell if traffic is coming??

To recap: what used to be two relatively safe intersections for cyclists to pass through with a minimal pause have now been “improved” to be two potential death traps requiring a complete stop to avoid being broadsided by motorists barreling down the cross streets. Thanks, city planners! As my friend joked this morning, that type of thing might work in Portland, Oregon where the concept of the considerate motorist is not yet a fossilized archetype, but this is Baltimore. It’s like the Wild West. No one follows traffic rules here. People routinely ride dirt bikes and four-wheelers on the street while doing wheelies (it’s actually quite impressive; here’s one video of about a thousand on YouTube [side note: watching those videos always makes me love Baltimore while simultaneously wanting to flee from it]).

While I am ranting, there is another problem on this stretch of road that was supposed to be corrected during this phase of “bike improvements.” Without getting into too many of the technical details of this particular section of the road, there was another cross street that previously did not have a stop sign. When approaching this mostly blind intersection, cyclists had to be extremely careful crossing through. While typically a low traffic cross street, it does get some use and particularly from city buses. As part of the bike improvements to this street, they installed a stop sign for the cross street. I was overjoyed until I saw that they had just tacked it onto an existing pole, not at the top of the pole where people can see it, but underneath TWO other signs!! Approaching motorists cannot see this sign because there is parking on that side of the street all the way up to the intersection, so the front parked car obscures the stop sign, which is only about 4 feet (1.2 meters) off the ground. This morning as I approached the intersection I watched a city bus blow right through the stop sign. This is a daily occurrence.

Finally, don’t even get me started on the dedicated bike lane they began feverishly constructing at the beginning of the year, only to mysteriously abandon work on several weeks later just when the project was nearly done. Long stretches of the lane remain riddled with ditches, effectively rendering it useless and forcing riders out into traffic on a road that used to be the safest one on this popular south-north commuter route.

As we rolled into downtown, my friend and I parted ways. I continued on my way to work, mulling over our conversation about some of the joys and pitfalls of cycling in the city. In my opinion, the best way to improve biking conditions in a city is to get more people out riding on the streets. That has happened exponentially in my time here. When I first arrived, riding in the city was still kind of a freakish activity, unless you were a bike messenger. Now there are hundreds of cyclists on the road during peak commuting hours. This is what will make it easier. Unfortunately to get this quantity of people on the road, a certain percentage of them need to be convinced that it’s already started to get safer and easier. That is where the city planning comes in to play. More bike lanes and bike racks increase convenience and safety. So I still applaud the city for what it’s done so far. I just wish the planners would put a little more thought into how they do things (note: if you’re going to half-assedly implement something, please just don’t do it at all…we’ll be fine, reallly), and whether what they’re planning is going to work right here, in Baltimore. Because it’s not just any city…it’s the home of Space Poe!

revoke my car privileges and drop me in a field somewhere, please

Rarely do I feel compelled to deconstruct my entire day in the space of a blog post, but today was um…special, shall we say? It started out normal enough. Armed with an unexpected day off, I crossed county lines with field glasses in hand to search for field birds. I had good intel on locations for breeding birds, and made haste for them. With windows rolled down, I heard the telltale robotic jingle-jangle of a Bobolink and navigated over to the shoulder. Out of the car in a flash, I first thought I’d been fooled by a nearby mockingbird attempting to hog the spotlight as usual, but then the bobolink himself flew overhead, tinkling and jingling to his heart’s content. He flew across the road and landed in a field, affording me adequate looks to get the day started off on the best foot. Nemesis bird comes home to roost! I moved on. I drove the country roads for about an hour and a half and found the birds to be generally cooperative. I saw and heard all my target birds for this trip. Meadowlarks were plentiful and I got a couple of stellar looks at them. Horned Larks were not as plentiful but I did spot a couple from a distance, and heard them elsewhere. I found a singing male Dickcissel perched on the exact section of power line where I found one last year…could it have been the same bird? In addition to these birds, I was also treated to great looks at several American Kestrels.

As I began to wind down my time, I returned once again to the site of the initial bobolink sighting to see if I could cop another look. As I navigated the car onto the opposite shoulder this time, the right front end suddenly sunk into a hidden ditch. When I got out of the car, I saw that the back left wheel was about 3 feet off the ground! As I assessed the seriousness of the situation, a man in a box truck drove up and offered assistance. We tried moving the car with him sitting in the hatch for balance (he was sorta stocky), but that didn’t work so he offered to seek out a farmer down the road with a chain, or failing that to call the sheriff’s office. While waiting around, I watched a bobolink groom himself while perched on a power line. Unfortunately my concern about the car impeded my joy at witnessing this scene. About 20 minutes later I was about to give up on Box Truck Man and call a tow truck when simultaneously the sheriff showed up and two country dudes in a big pick-up passed by and offered to pull me out. Within minutes they’d hooked a chain to the frame and pulled the car out. Country folks rule! I thanked them all profusely and decided to head back to the city after so much excitement.

I needed to pick Em El up and shuttle her downtown for a meeting but I had some extra time so I stopped to check on the birds at another favorite location. There I found expected Prairie Warbler and Hooded Warbler, although couldn’t get a visual on the latter. Many singing Field Sparrows, a perched Turkey Vulture (usually they’re circling endlessly overhead at this spot), a singing White-eyed Vireo, and other usual suspects rounded out the mix.

Once downtown I killed more time (die, time, die!) by finishing Darkness Visible and continuing with Paris Spleen, drinking espresso, and getting yelled at by a probably schizophrenic man. Somehow I think Baudelaire would’ve appreciated the scene. Unbeknownst to me, while all of this fun was taking place Em El’s car was being towed because I failed to read the red highlighted part of the parking meter that said No Parking Between 4-6 PM Mon-Fri. Yes, this is common knowledge to those who frequently drive and park in the city. However, I’m like a deer in the headlights when I get downtown behind the wheel of a car (really bad simile in this context, I know). I don’t know the rules, man! I’m a cyclist, for god’s sake. I haven’t owned a car since 1997 or something (if you’re curious, it was a Plymouth Valiant that sat in my driveway for a few years after I used it to move to Virginia [it looked like this, except crappier because it only cost $400]). Anyway, I guess the cycling gods were raining down holy fire and brimstone on me today for driving too much lately. Maybe I deserved it, but damn, those cycling gods are harsh. Of course, no thanks to The City of Baltimore, either, always taking and never giving!

As we waited in line to pay the obscene $272 required to get the car back, I attempted to lighten the mood by telling Em El that at least we can chalk this up as another quintessential Baltimore experience (along with other special things, such as becoming the victim of a crime and receiving wildly inaccurate water bills). After all, you haven’t really lived in Baltimore until you’ve waited 45 minutes in the tiny concrete bunker under the interstate overpass with all the other suckers preyed upon that day by the blood-sucking savages commonly known as tow-truck drivers.

As if all this wasn’t enough, immediately after Farley ate his dinner tonight he barfed it all up in various places around the house along with all the water he’d drank in the previous 30 minutes. By that time, I was about ready to hurl myself off the deck in search of sweet unconsciouness.

To sum up, my joy tonight is all tangled with misery and weariness.

Warning: Rant to follow

For some time now, and for various reasons not all of which I will mention here, my wrath toward Google has been festering. We have allowed Google to extend its insidious tentacles into our lives to the extent that I’m sure some people think they simply can’t live without it. Meanwhile, Google continues to make inroads with its efforts to ultimately manage all of the information entering and exiting our lives. Witness this, for example. Now don’t get me wrong; I use Google all the time. I have a Gmail account and I’m a fan of iGoogle for aggregating news and other RSS feeds. I just don’t want Google to rule the world, and I think it’s getting a little too cocky for its own good.

But this rant isn’t directed at Google as an entity; it’s directed at Google, the bossy search engine that acts as an enabler to the most ignorant of its users. By doing so, it in turn alienates its more intelligent users (you know, the ones who can actually spell and type, and who know what they’re looking for), and cripples its own value as an online finding aid. I’d like to illustrate my point with a pertinent example. For a long time, typing a compound word (e.g. sandpaper) without quotes into Google’s search box would produce only results with that exact word in them. Then Google started including results that included the two separate parts of the compound word (e.g. sand and paper, if they appeared next to each other). At that point, if you only wanted relevant hits with the compound word alone (not as two separate words), you had to enclose the word in double quotes. However, at some point last year (I think), Google decided to go one step further and always include hits that had the two separate parts of the compound word even if you enclosed the compound word in quotes when you searched it.

Now, this may not seem like a major issue at first glance. And with many compound words, it’s not, simply because the word itself is so common that it will dominate the relevancy ranking system, and the hits with the compound word split into two smaller words will appear few and far between, mostly in the deeper pages of the results list. However, in today’s world, idiomatic language aberrations constantly appear in everyday speech, despite the fact that they may not be “real” words. In addition, many company names, publication and book titles, and product names are nonstandard compound words. Take Paperchase, for example. It’s a UK stationery company. But The Paper Chase is also a movie. If you want to find results for the company Paperchase and not the movie, you can no longer just put quotes around it and search. If you do, you will also end up with references to the movie, in addition to other hits that have the words “paper” and “chase” next to each other (of which there are many, seeing as it’s a common idiom). You can try to work around this by eliminating words from your search using the minus sign, but then you risk losing relevant results. With this seemingly subtle change in its advanced search capabilities, Google is heavily influencing a person’s ability to find the limited list of relevant results they seek. This change may be useful for people who are sloppy typists and accidentally leave out a space in their query, but it destroys the relevancy ranking for queries that are meant to be just one compound word. [Note: it doesn’t matter if you type the quotes yourself, or if you type the word into the “this exact wording or phrase” box on the advanced search page. Either way, it ignores the quotes when executing the query. Interestingly, if you type the quotes around the word on the basic search screen and then switch to the Advanced Search page, it actually strips the quotes out! And if quotes are around the word on the basic search screen, it should show up in the “this exact wording or phrase” box when you switch to Advanced Search, but it doesn’t.]

I’m sure that Google’s motivation for this change is to help the user (while at the same time increasing ad revenue, since more search results equal more potential ad-clicks). But I find this change really annoying, and just another example of how Google enables people who are sloppy typists and/or don’t know how to spell or search to blissfully continue down that road. Where’s the motivation to be a better typist or to learn to spell correctly if Google automatically corrects all your errors? When I do a search with quotes, it’s because I want my results to be narrowed down in relevancy. By automatically assuming that I might have inadvertently left out a space between two words that also make a compound word, Google disallows me from narrowing down my results. So what if I had accidentally left out a space? I would’ve figured it out when I saw my search results, and then could’ve re-run my search. I would’ve lost a few seconds of time, but at least I would’ve had the opportunity to correct my mistake. By autocorrecting my compound word “mistake”, though, Google effectively shuts out the possibility of producing a truly relevant list of results, instead forcing me to weed them out on my own from the irrelevant ones. Why do you treat me like such a lazy idiot, Google? Don’t you think that if I was careful enough to put quotes around my search, I would’ve typed a space in my query if I wanted it there? Using Google’s search engine increasingly insults my intelligence. In my opinion, this dilution of advanced search capabilities in the interest of “convenience” only serves to decrease Google’s usefulness. It is also just another example of how obsessed the world is with “saving time” and making everything instantaneous and therefore more “efficient”, at the regrettable expense of quality craftsmanship, usefulness, long-term value, and countless other characteristics that have largely fallen by the wayside in our modern society. And as Google increases the ways in which it automatically anticipates and corrects our searches, it becomes that much easier for it to push us towards certain sites, thus shaping what information we consume without us even realizing it. If that’s not scary to you, then maybe you need to re-read 1984.

P.S. I also despise Google’s auto-suggestion feature for some of the same reasons (and others), but I’ll leave that rant for another time.

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