July 2009


My brother Ben, the youngest Lester brother (#5) and so always the baby, though he’s in his early twenties, started a blog a few months ago to practice essay writing for his medical school entrance exams, which he plans to take in a few years. It’s a cool project. He gives himself a strict half hour on each essay–from looking at the prompt to completion–and posts the result, whatever it is. I haven’t posted anything about it because he’s been writing  just for practice, not public consumption, and probably would be angry with me for directing traffic his way. But his latest post he calls “My First Real Blog,” a nice ranty rant about media spin and health care reform. He’s a paramedic (which he doesn’t say in the post) so he gets an inside view. He’s funny, sarcastic, and cynical (for a while his Myspace headline was “Saving the world, one abdominal pain at a time”) and it’s nice to read him being passionate.

The Fifth One

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I’m listening to a great Long Now Seminar by Nassim Taleb about probability in complex systems and it reminded me of a great idea. Nassim gives only what he calls “negative advice,” meaning advice about what not to do. He considers positive advice useless and laments that it’s so hard to find books called Ten Ways to Screw Up Your Life, or How I Lost a Million Dollars, compared to stuff like Ten Steps to Success.

There is a related publishing problem in psychology, and perhaps other sciences: If your idea doesn’t work out, you can’t get it published. Journals do not want to publish failed experiments. They just aren’t sexy. The problem is, at a typical alpha of .05, one in twenty experimental results will be flukes—just random happenings, not reliable, not indicative of anything real going on. Even with a more rigorous alpha of .01, you will get a false positive every 100 experiments you run, on average.

Research psychologists know this. They get a lot of training in statistics. They do not feel certain about their own results until the results have been replicated in other labs. But they rely on what is published for their input. For my honors thesis, for example, I was interested in how the effects of having power over others compares to having power over yourself.  So I read the literature on power and designed my experiment first to replicate the results of two experiments from a famous  paper which showed evidence for social power inhibiting perspective taking, and then to extend that research a little, by adding a “personal power” condition. Almost every paper on power mentions that social power inhibits perspective taking, and they all cite this famous paper to back them up. The author is prolific and well-respected, and rightfully so. He does really creative, interesting work.

Despite my considerable efforts to duplicate his methods, however, I replicated none of his results. “These are the flattest data I’ve ever seen,” said Sean, my advisor. That was a problem for my honors thesis, because the question I wanted to look at never came up—I had nothing to compare my personal power numbers to. I had a conversation with this famous psychologist later and found out that he had not been able to replicate his results either. Now flat data is not a problem for science; every researcher I’ve talked to about it has said something like, “Hmm! It didn’t replicate, huh? That’s really interesting!” The problem is, that information was already out there and I couldn’t get to it. This scientist knew about the problem, but I didn’t. Now I know about it, but no one outside of my lab will know, because no one will publish it. The next person who has my idea will make the same mistake, and the next.

The solution:

First, an idea either stolen or adapted from my advisor, a high quality psychology journal called Null Results in Psychology, with a mission to publish peer reviewed failures. It might be an online-only journal, because it would need to be big. If such a thing had existed a year ago, I could have run a standard check and saved myself a lot of trouble.

Second, another journal called Replicated Results in Psychology, which would be for publishing peer reviewed, successful replications of previous research. Or perhaps these two could be combined into one. It doesn’t matter.

Third, both of these journals could be attached to a database that compiled and cross-referenced replications and failed replications. Ideally, the strength of a theory or evidence is based on how well it predicts the future. In practice, however, this is only partly the case, and turns out to be true only in the long run. The weight carried by a theory or evidence has at least as much to do with the fame of the scientist who produced it. Everyone is waiting for and immediately reads their new stuff. There is a database which records how often a paper is cited, but the number of citations tells you only the relative fame of that paper. It doesn’t say whether the citations are supportive or critical. And most citations are not either—they are used to support the author’s thinking.

Easy access to null results, replicated results, and a database linking it all together could change the direction and the pace of progress in psychology. It could also make learning psychology more interesting. My professors were mostly very good about not just teaching theories. They presented (and had me memorize) the experimental methods and evidence that led to the formulation of the theories. Even so, I often wondered how soon and in what way these theories would seem quaint, like phlogiston or “the ether”–early evidence supported these ideas, too, after all.  I would have loved it if evidence could have been presented like, “OK, we’re starting to feel pretty good about these results, because these variations have been tried by 30 different labs, and 25 of them found the same thing.” I can imagine the groans of my fellow students and the cheers of my professors, which makes me think it’s a good idea.

It’s the middle of summer, in Eugene, Oregon, the place and time with the best weather I’ve ever seen, and that includes Maui, southern California, and the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s just really nice all the time. I’ve noticed, though, that people who live here don’t seem to appreciate it. We spend all winter griping about the cold and the rain and then most of the summer griping about the heat. The thing is, it never really gets cold or hot here. It only gets cold enough to snow a few times each winter. I lived with Max Orhai, who is from Montana, through my first winter here and he liked to say “You call this winter?” and walk around in T-shirts. And this week is projected to be blisteringly hot: in the mid 90s. (Canadians, 95F = 35C.) Where I grew up, in the Mojave desert, it doesn’t drop into the 90s until well after sundown, and it is a blessed relief.

I think part of it is that these moderately hot temperatures do not force us to learn to act appropriately during the heat of the day. 105F is like an oven if you’re trying to do yard work (without dousing yourself with the hose every fifteen minutes, at least), but it’s actually pretty pleasant sitting quietly under a tree, mostly unclad, with a cool drink. And each little breeze is a wonderful experience.

But we also acclimate. One summer in the Bay Area I remember hearing that people had died of heat stroke during a temperature spike that got into the low 90s. They weren’t just griping; their bodies got too hot. And I remember my first day on Maui: My friends and family took me on a wonderful, balmy, lightly clouded hike through the bamboo forest, complaining and apologizing the whole way about the weather. I had left Joshua Tree in February, with early mornings in the 20s (Canadians, 25F = -4C), and here it was in the low 60s and everyone was miserable but me. (Los Angeles is the same. When I visit my brother Ely, he will apologize about the weather if there is a wisp of cloud in the sky—this in the winter, when I probably haven’t seen the sun in weeks.) In six months, of course, I was the same way. I was embarrassed, but almost any variation in temperature was uncomfortable. 80F was oppressively hot and 60F had me shivering.

As for Eugenians, and maybe Pacific Northwesters, let’s get our act together. As I see it we have two options. 1) Admit that these 90+ degree days are perfectly normal around here, and are exactly what we were craving all winter and enjoy the heck out of them. 2) Admit that the only season we can actually enjoy in this region is spring, not because the weather is more pleasant, but because the ongoing dismal winter weather makes it easy to appreciate the occasional sun and relative warmth.

I wrote this essay for myself, two years ago, a spin-off of and companion piece to my paper on why people become vegetarian. It was the culmination of a lot of thinking and reading and trying different ways of eating. I like it but you may not, especially if you are on an abstinence diet right now. That may be because you are, like many vegetarians I’ve met, not like me: not driven to take things all the way, not terribly annoyed by things that don’t quite add up. Bless you. I might look down on you a little for what seems like lack of intellectual rigor, but mostly I’m envious of your relaxed way of being in the world. It sounds nice. I don’t recommend that you read this. Read something fun instead. On the other hand, you may be like me, an agnostic who found religion in a diet, ready to get uptight when someone tells me I might not actually be saved. I don’t recommend you read this, either, unless some part of you is dissatisfied with your religion and you are ready for some discomfort. For everyone else, or if you plan to read on anyway, or if you are a stickler for references, I recommend you also read “Vegetarianism and Reason” for context—personal, historical, demographic—and a good bibliography.

When I was in college in the San Francisco Bay area in my twenties, a close friend asked me how she could lose weight. Maybe it was because I was, as I always have been, such a slender person. At the time I thought it was because I’d read more about nutrition and diets than most people. My advice was, “Stop eating meat and dairy products.” I said that with confidence both that she could do it and that it would resolve any problems with she had with her body. I’d been vegan for a year or two and vegetarian for several years before that, was in great health, and never had the slightest problem maintaining those diets. My housemate, who’d overheard the conversation, was incredulous: “Why didn’t you suggest something that normal people are capable of, like cutting back on snacking?” That kind of advice had not occurred to me. I knew the answer and gave it to her. These days I’m much more circumspect. I know a lot more about nutrition and diets now than I did then, but am a lot less confident about that knowledge.

Abstinence diets and arguments

An abstinence diet is a way of eating that is defined by what you don’t eat. There are many varieties of this way of eating, but the arguments for engaging in them fall into two basic categories: ethical or ‘spiritual’ arguments, and health or ‘science’ arguments. Most Americans who stop eating meat, for example, do so because they believe they will be healthier, while most vegans do not consume or use animal products on ethical grounds. My own path was the opposite, but I followed the same two lines of thought: I became vegetarian on ethical grounds and vegan (and for several weeks ate only raw food) for health reasons. These two basic tracks led me, perhaps a little too neatly, to what I’ve come to see as my five rabbit holes—thought processes and behaviors that cannot be followed all the way.

The ethical track

While the health/‘science’ track has its own rabbit holes, genuine health-based arguments do not lead to vegetarianism or veganism. I do believe that a vegetarian or vegan diet with plenty of variety is miles better than the standard American donut-coffee-burger-fries-Coke diet, but read any of the thoughtful writers on the subject—Robbins, for example, in Diet for a New America—and you will see that the health-based arguments are really advocating a plant-based diet, not abstinence from meat. Ethical arguments, on the other hand, do lead, seamless and compelling, to vegetarianism and veganism. (Check out Fox’s Deep Vegetarianism, for a great example.) The problem is you cannot follow them all the way.

Rabbit hole #1: Non-violence

On the ethical track, you base your diet on the principle of non-violence. When you become an ethical vegetarian, it is because you have realized that animals are not all that different from humans, and decided that their suffering is important. In a way, you have been able to identify with and have compassion for all animals, instead of just humans. The next step is to see that any product that comes from an animal requires that animal to be coerced and caged. It no longer has freedom. When you come to identify with animals enough to condemn their slavery as well as their slaughter, you become an ethical vegan.

Not many people stay vegan for long. It’s hard to do, for many reasons. To do so requires a hard core dedication to a nonviolent lifestyle. By this point, your ethical thinking has gone beyond animals. You are concerned about the life of the planet, for example: You probably wash out and reuse plastic bags (if you use them at all), you bike when other people would drive, you start hopping freights for longer trips, or guilt trip yourself if you don’t. You probably get interested in libertarian philosophies like anarchism and compassion-based philosophies like Buddhism. This is no longer just a way of eating.

If you are one of these serious ethical vegans, you start to hear about the next step, fruitarianism. Chances are, you are not a serious ethical vegan, so this may seem like a huge, untenable leap. It is a leap that vegans usually do not make, either, for reasons I’ll get to in a minute, but it is something they will consider.

Most of us have inherited the “knowledge” that plants and animals exist on separate ethical continua. It’s easy and intuitive to think that way, but it turns out to be surprisingly difficult to argue: Plants behave radically different than we do. They move extremely slowly. They don’t seem to have emotions and they don’t even seem to feel sensations like we do. True, but animals also behave differently than we do, so this is a matter of degree. Does something being different from you mean you can kill it? If you are really serious about compassion, use this argument with great caution. It has been used to justify such evils as genocide, racism, sexism, and meat-eating. But we grow them. They exist in their current form because of us. Pretty weak. The same can be said of cows and slaves.

And so on.

We are probably right to think that the plants in our garden do not suffer the way animals suffer, but that does not mean that the death and mutilation of the plants that provide us with root, leaf, stem and flower foods are not a form of violence. The ethics of eating seeds is dubious, too, from that standpoint. We grind or chew them up and they are no longer able to serve their purpose of propagation. The only parts of plants that have been designed for eating are fruits. They are often brightly colored to attract our attention. They are often sweet. They are nutritious. This is all supposedly so that animals will eat the fruit and inadvertently spread the seeds. A true fruitarian eats only fruit that has fallen off of its parent plant. (I do not know if they also try to poop in useful places. They really should.) There are people who eat a fruitarian diet, too, though their numbers are so small (and presumably the time spent on the diet is so short) that the evidence for its efficacy is sparse and anecdotal. So, unless you try and love the fruitarian diet, your easy, morally convicted choices have been taken from you and you are left with a continuum of diet choices to make based on your level of comfort with violence to various creatures.

Rabbit hole #2: Transcendence

This is the “spiritual” or “ascetic” rabbit hole. I believe that many eating disorder based abstinence diets fall into this category, but look up orthorexia if you are interested in that. I’m more familiar with the diets based on the ascending spiritual tradition—most likely a misunderstanding of that tradition.

The basic idea is that human beings are perhaps part animal, but divine, immortal, non-material beings at our core, and that our job is twofold: Use meditation practices to strengthen our spiritual self, increasing our awareness and compassion until they extend to the entire universe, and at the same time, subdue our animal nature using such disciplines as celibacy and fasting.  Abstinence diets from vegetarianism all the way through to fruitarianism are quite appealing from this standpoint. They seem like permanent fasts, but come along with the promise of great health. The problem is, until you die, there is always somewhere purer to go, and fruitarianism is not the end of the line. There is also breatharianism, where you live on air and sunshine alone. I have never met a breatharian, but I’ve read about and heard of a few, including one in Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi. If you are on this track, consider that the Buddha went before you and then decided on the Middle Way. Be kind to your body and skip the asceticism!

The health track—Rabbit hole #3: Information overload

There are two major health and science related rabbit holes. The first has to do with information. There is so much ‘information’ out there about diet and human digestion! Most of it is pure metaphysics–assertions of Truth with only passionate belief to back it up. And metaphysics aside, without the blinkers of ethics it is very, very difficult to find an uncontested assertion about what foods are best to eat. If you dive in deep, the density and spin are quickly overwhelming. And that’s just at the macro-level, talking about stuff like apples and pooping. Human health also happens at the level of the quadrillions of chemical reactions that happen in your body every second, the way those reactions act as nodes in networks, and the networks of networks that emerge in the process. Vast amounts have been written in scholarly journals about it and we are still so far from figuring it all out. Furthermore, the folks at university labs studying intracellular protein transport and stuff like that are far removed from the questions you and I have about diet. They probably eat at McDonalds on their lunch break and don’t think twice about it.

Then there’s the question of human biochemical individuality. Are there foods that are good for me but bad for you? Probably, but this makes finding the ideal diet for you even more difficult and makes it less likely that a simple abstinence diet like veganism will be the answer.

Rabbit hole #4: The Fall

The second health and ‘science’ (read ‘metaphysics’) related rabbit hole is based on theories of human evolution. Veganism seems to be the jumping off spot for a huge number of diets. If you are vegan and still frustrated by ill health or low energy, what do you do? You will come across a diet whose argument is basically the myth of the Fall: “We were doing great until….” Raw foodism, which tends to mean “raw veganism,” is the most popular of these, maybe because it throws veganism a bone: You’ve got it all right except that you are destroying the nutrients in your food by heating it up! And, according to the format, all of humanity was doing great until we started using fire. Then, if the now raw vegan still feels bad, they may continue looking and come across the information that there is no evidence of any indigenous people who didn’t consume animal protein. It makes sense, now, that if you were an early human and came across a bird’s nest or frog or whatever, you would take advantage of that concentrated source of protein! This brings us to the multitude of what to the uninitiated seem like crazy diets, including Paleolithic (wild, raw plants and animals), Anopsology (anything raw except dairy + other rules), Essene (raw dairy and plants), Primal (raw meat, dairy and plants) and Traditional (only unprocessed foods, mostly raw, with raw meat and lots of raw dairy). Some of these diets include eating animal feces, too—raw, of course—and intentionally rotting the (raw) meat before eating it. This all makes perfect sense from the right jumping off spot! I’ve been there. I still have some interest in trying the Essene diet and I’m fascinated with some aspects of Anopsology, but I have yet to try them. They are so elaborate that it’s hard to imagine having, simultaneously, the money and the social support required to maintain them.

So, where does this leave us?—Rabbit hole #5: Epistemology

What can you really know about the food we eat and its effect on our body? We know what we have read about it. We know what has been said to us. Those paths lead us to the other rabbit holes. We also know, though, what foods we have actually eaten, what they looked, smelled and tasted like, and how we felt before and after eating them. Shouldn’t that, over the years, add up to a lot of perfectly legitimate and applicable information? Can’t you observe yourself like a science experiment?

Unfortunately, there are a couple of problems with that. First, there is no control group. In order to know the actual effects of the experiment, you need to be able to see what you would have felt like had you not eaten that slice of cheese or whatever. The subtleties of human sensation render our “experiments” dubious at best. You may find that every time you eat that slice of cheese you throw up. That’s pretty clear; you should probably stop eating that cheese. Unless, of course, you ate the cheese with other foods and you can’t really be sure it was the cheese and not the pickle, or maybe the combination of the cheese and the pickle, or maybe you just were trying to eat too early in the morning or late at night, or maybe it was because it was the cheese you always ate with your ex-girlfriend…. That gets to the second problem with our experiment, and probably the most important. How can you separate your physiological responses to foods from your psychological responses? They have the same feedback mechanisms: sensation. Do you feel good because the ice cream reminds you of nursing as an infant or because that ice cream is benefiting your body? Or because you are a sugar addict, getting your fix? Or is it because humans evolved a craving for sweetness and fat to survive in a calorie-scarce environment?

I’m sorry to say that you can’t know. You really can’t.

I’m assuming that if you’ve read this far, you are involved enough in this debate that is obvious to you that eating from your local food coop is better for you than from McDonalds, that turnips are better for you than twinkies, that eating a variety of foods is better for you than just a few, and that eating in ways that make you remarkably fat or thin are probably not good ideas. This is for you. This is the only advice I can give that I am completely confident of concerning diet: You can’t know what the best way for you to eat is. You have to guess. But when you guess and while you are guessing, you can also feel happy, comfortable, excited and flexible about your guesses and the fact that you are guessing. And, more important, enjoy your food! Savor how it looks and smells and tastes and feels in your mouth and stomach. Love your food and love your body every moment that they are interacting.

Thanks to my editors, Ce Rosenow, Grace Llewellyn, Joseph Kwiatkowski, and Reanna Alder.

My gift to many friends and family members last Christmas was four hours of labor. Most have still not taken me up on it. (Better get me before I start grad school!) I helped my brother Benjamin move a huge load of trash and I helped Grandpa Bob learn how to get on the internet. My friends Mo’ and Vangie pooled their hours and asked me to give their four year old son, Akira (known to friends as Zap, or Zapper), swimming lessons.

I didn’t learn to swim until I was nine because some dummy coerced me into putting my face under water when I was four. It freaked me out. When I did learn to swim it was by hanging out at a pool with my parents, playing with them and Ely, slowly testing my limits. So I teach swimming by playing with kids. I do not push past comfort zones. I appreciate how clearly Akira communicates his edge. If he gets a little scared, he has me take him to the side or he gets out for a minute, with no sense of embarrassment. He is a sweet kid. I love spending time with him. Already we have several games that he really likes: finding each heater jet in the shallow end, playing firehose with a pool noodle, having me tow him slowly around by a pool noodle (“OK, now go west… now north… Oh! That’s north?”), and today, pushing off the ladder to me. Today was our third lesson. These photos are from our second. There aren’t any action shots because I’m in the pool with him whenever he’s in water where he can’t touch–except the photo of him up to his lips. That may not look like an action shot, but that was him pushing himself to the limit.

 

Akira In the Car

Akira In the Car

Walking In 1

Walking In 1

Walking In 2

Walking In 2

At the Cold Pool

At the Cold Pool

Warm Pool 1

Warm Pool 1

Warm Pool 2

Warm Pool 2

Up To His Lips

Up To His Lips

Warm Pool 3

Warm Pool 3

Warm Pool 4

Warm Pool 4

My twenty-two year old truck broke down in Portland recently and it got me thinking about my dad. We’re close and he’s never that far from my thoughts, but he comes up especially during breakdowns. It’s his voice I hear in my head, “Hmm, it’s turning over but not starting, so the battery’s probably fine…probably fuel, maybe spark…check for anything dripping, check the plug wires, distributor cap, coil…” He was never a professional mechanic, though once he told me he wished he had been. That was one of the two times he’d said something like that to me. “That’s real work,” he said. “Something’s broken and you fix it.” (The other time he talked about being a park ranger when we visited Crater Lake. “Imagine living in places like this all the time!”) He’s been a working musician, studio engineer, and commercial photographer since I was born. That’s real work too, of course, but having done some of it myself, now, I know what he was talking about. With aesthetic work, it can almost always be better, you can always fuss more over it, you’re never quite sure how much is enough to make the current client happy, and you don’t want them to just be happy. You want them out in the community raving about you and how you went the extra mile and how the project turned out so much better than they ever imagined. You want that both because it turns down the heat on having to constantly hustle for new clients, and because you want to be proud of your own work, and this is your work, making other peoples’ art look and sound as good as possible. For a mechanic, you just have the right tools, know your shit, put an ad in the yellow pages, fix the cars that come in, and do it right. There is much less room for fussing and second guessing. If it came down to it, though, I doubt my dad would change much about his past. He’s a craftsman and artist and thinker. He is, as my mom often says, a genius at fixing things, and he does like to get his hands dirty, but he prefers fixing sound systems and soldering broken music gear to working on cars, and he much prefers for things not to break at all, so he can concentrate on the mix or master he’s working on.

Another reason I was thinking about him when my truck broke down was because I had to call a tow truck. If I had been home, in Eugene or in Joshua Tree, I would have called a friend with a tow chain to get it home and tried to fix the thing myself. In Joshua Tree, that friend would have been my dad. It’s something of a family tradition. I’ve only owned used cars, so I’ve broken down with some regularity over the years, and I know for a fact that my dad has towed me over 200 miles because one of the ten or so times was from Bakersfield down to Joshua Tree, when I cracked my block on the I-5, on a trip down from Eugene. It’s been continually surprising how slowly my reliance on my dad has diminished over the decades—the price, I suppose, of having such a reliable dad. The thing is, I was never aware of him relying on his dad at all, and I’ve known him since he was a lot younger than I am. There has also been a continual recession of ‘living up’ to my dad. It’s not that I get any outside pressure to be like him—he has scrupulously avoided that. It’s that there are a bunch of ways that I just assumed I would be more like him by the time I was an adult. A small but salient example: Will it ever be that when I tie something down in the back of my truck that there is no chance it will fly out a mile down the road? I know it’s possible. When my dad ties things down, they stay down.

Maybe living up to your dad is a mind trip that every son lives with—that someone further along than you always looks invincible and unreachable in important ways. There were ways, though, that I reminded myself of my dad when I broke this last time. Unlike me, he would have known that the distributor had gone. In fact, he likely would have known as soon as the truck started faltering a little, a couple weeks ago, and fixed it then, probably with a distributor he’d had laying around the shop for years just in case this happened. But even though I was more confused, I did remain calm and fully engaged in my environment. This is one remarkable element of my dad’s personality that took me a while to appreciate: Wherever he is, that is where he is. I mean if he’s in the shop, returning the tow trailer after towing me home from Sacramento for seven hours, he’s not in a hurry and he’s really interested in the guy who rented him the trailer, and probably knows his name, where he lives, and a decent amount of his history before he leaves. And from that day on he will probably not only remember him, but refer to him as “my friend Jim, who owns the towing company down Fox Trail.” It’s been a source of some boredom and occasional consternation for me over the years, because a trip to town for some plywood and a drill bit is likely to take a couple hours. I would be lurking in the background on those trips (unless he drew me out, usually by bragging about me) and eventually saying some version of “Let’s go, Dad.”

I reminded myself a lot of my dad, in Portland. The mechanic I found was not through the phone book, but through the guy running the gas station where I broke down. The tow truck driver I found through the mechanic. When the driver arrived, I asked for his name and shook his hand. I called him Valentino when we talked. I asked him if he took his kids on jobs with him when I saw the baby seat in the cab. By the time I’d paid him for the job, not long after, I knew that his older son was eight and hated homework but was great at soccer, that Valentino supported him in soccer even though he was a basketball player, that his younger son was four and came on jobs with him because they didn’t have baby sitters, that he moved from LA to Portland 12 years ago because the gangs were not as bad there. My dad would have loved the mechanic he took me to. He was a giant white guy in his 50s named Vale, hands easily three times the size of mine, with thick, oil-encrusted nails and skin. Works seven days a week, all day. (Lucky for me—I broke down at 5:30 pm on Saturday.) His shop wasn’t one of those clean, spacious places with uniformed men and a receptionist. It was tiny and cluttered with tools and parts and books and rags and stuff, staffed by Vale and his partner, his son. His daughter is nineteen and apparently brilliant, studying psychology on scholarship at OSU. He diagnosed my truck out loud to me, with us both leaning over the engine compartment. “Well, it’s getting fuel… Looks like you replaced the cap and rotor recently… Start it up so I can check the distributor.” It was late in the day, Saturday, and it looked like he couldn’t get the part until Monday or maybe Wednesday, but he had it running perfectly for my by noon on Sunday for $300.

This is what my dad knew instinctively and I was proud to see come out in myself: The people that you meet and know aren’t just interesting. They are your source of information, adventures, and luck. They are your community. It doesn’t matter if they share your beliefs or aesthetics. It doesn’t matter much that they live in a different city. That you are at the same place at the same time means that you share something with them and it’s almost weird not to find out what that is. I get it. Thanks, Dad.

Dad, Me, Mom

Dad, Me, Mom

I just had my first cool part of the day, a short ride at dusk around my new neighborhood in Eugene. They don’t regulate fireworks much here in Oregon, so they were going off all around me as I rode, which I was surprised to find primarily scary. As a kid I would have found it exciting fun but as an adult it is a bit too much like being in a war zone—loud and unpredictable. They are still startling me as I write. It seems strange to celebrate a war. Independence I get, but war… I think I might have sided with the Quakers during the revolutionary war. I did a bunch of reading about it a few years ago and it was not glorious. It was horrific and desperate—way too much starvation, disease, and getting shot for my delicate nature. I do appreciate how exuberantly Americans celebrate the 4th, though. They lose their cynicism to an unselfconscious enthusiasm that is refreshing.

The 4th of July has a special feeling for me, a kind of nice, quiet, lonely feeling. I seem to have more distinct, vivid memories from 4ths than any other holiday. They don’t run together like Christmases or Thanksgivings do.

The first fireworks show I remember was in Indiana, in the 70s. My brother Ely and I claimed the best fireworks for our own, like we did with lightning during storms. “Oooh, that one was mine! That was my favorite!” I remember being so impressed with the firework that lit everything up as bright as day.

I remember in high school going to fireworks with my friends from the summer youth theater play I was in (Grease—I was Kinickie) and being thrilled when Amber Dimmick, soon to be my girlfriend, chose to lay in the spot next to mine on the blanket, and then Thomas Boltken laid between us. That was 1988. 1993, fireworks by the Sacramento River in Redding with my soon to be ex-girlfriend, Deborah O’Connor. 1994, fireworks with John Given and his girlfriend in Davis, CA, wistful about how close they seemed. 1995, trying to impress Janice Whaley and Amber Dimmick by doing back handsprings after the fireworks in Yucca Valley, CA. 1997, lonely, watching Jack London Square’s fireworks from the steps of the Alameda Chevys after work, I consider asking the cute hostess there if I can put my arm around her. I didn’t, but I did decide to ask out Alicia Dlugosh, my future girlfriend. 2000, Chad Murdy and I, after a hike through the bamboo forest, watch fireworks from a beach just south of Kihei, on Maui, with two young, cute, Japanese women, who hardly speak. 2001, Aunt Ruth’s birthday and a fairly dangerous and extremely patriotic fireworks display by some enthusiastic kids, a crazy guy on a unicycle, and a dog chasing the sparks—all friends of the Pikes. “Normal people can be fun,” Maya and I decide afterwards. 2002, a long talk about music and theoretical physics, lying on the trampoline in Joshua Tree, under the stars, with John Given, after a long, very hot day recording “Plumb the Blue” for the first Abandon Ship album. 2003, playing the Dexter Lake fireworks with Abandon Ship and making friends with a super outgoing 5 year old blonde boy named Josh. 2005, watching both Eugene and Springfield fireworks from Kelly Butte, behind Suntop, I see that my brother Gabriel is holding hands with Jessica Parsons-Taylor. 2008, a walk with the throngs through Boston with newly married and moved Amos Blanton and Kara Lockridge, to a spectacular fireworks display over the (Charles?) river, which we thoroughly enjoy in spite of ourselves. They had a live orchestra and fireworks that looked like fractals.

I wonder if I will remember this 4th. I spent it by myself. Both of my housemates are gone. I could have arranged to be at Suntop or to spend the evening with Mo’ and Vangie and the kids, but I didn’t have the energy for it. I spent the day cleaning and arranging my new room and painting my switch plates. I watered and ate strawberries and greens from the garden. I had a fun dance practice with Elizabeth Johnson, a good phone conversation with my mom, two very pleasant video skypes with Reanna, and my first purely recreational bike ride along the Amazon canal, which runs right by my new place. It was a good day.