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Navel Gazing About Learning to Use Public Transportation

September 7, 2017 Leave a comment

So yesterday I used SEPTA for the first time. Route 40, starting at the corner of Lombard and 9th, disembarking the bus at 36th in West Philadelphia. I found myself outside of University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman Quadrangle.

In Michigan I didn’t live in a place that made public transportation practical. I got everywhere by by driving myself around. I have used public transportation in other cities: Chicago, New York, Paris, Washington, D.C., and Toronto. But I’ve never used it before in the city in which I live.

It’s seems like there’s some kind of unwritten rule about traveling on buses and on the subway. Don’t talk, don’t make eye contact. That could be me. Back home, in the Midwest, everyone was unbearably friendly. Meet someone on the street? Say hi. Maybe even give them a high five. All in good fun, right? I find the silence and public transportation introversion weird, especially because Anastasia says that Americans tend to be loud and garrulous.

It’s a small thing, but I think that this is a big step for me. Getting around without a car is actually a learning experience. Case in point: after dinner at Landmark Americana (in which I ate a scrumptious chicken dish), Anastasia and I had to get back home in the rain. Okay, so we took the Market Street subway line, the entrance of which was a short walk from the entrance of the restaurant.  We took the train to the 8th and Market Street stop, but to get home required a bit of a hike.

If I had my car I could have just driven from West Philadelphia to Queen Village, and then to our place in Bella Vista. And now that I think about it, I totally got the geography of the city wrong. Queen Village is past Bella Vista, where we live, when coming from West Philadelphia. Typically, Anastasia and I stroll over to Penn’s Landing, which is on the eastern side of the city. The gallery below are a few snapshots I took on a trip to the Delaware River.

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And this touches on why, for me, public transportation and walking is better than driving with a car. I am learning the layout of the city, the bus routes, and the boundaries of the neighborhoods in a way that I couldn’t if I were merely following the disembodied voice of my GPS. I am learning how to live in a city, and the learning curve is steeper than I thought. I wonder if there will ever come a time when living here becomes “ho-hum,” and I get so used to it that it fails to impress.

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If You Ever Need Anything…

August 7, 2017 Leave a comment

About a year ago I found an old phone of mine. A black Blackberry Style, the last flip phone I ever owned and one which I reluctantly traded-in for an accursed iPhone 5c. The blasted thing had to be replaced a few months after I got it because the battery shuffled off it’s mortal cathode and expanded, destroying its guts. I still use the replacement 5c that Apple sent, which is itself starting to fail now.

Anyway, a micro SD card occupied the slot for the Blackberry’s memory card, and it contained pictures and files that I thought lost. Among them I had stored a profoundly important message from my mother, sent to me in a vulnerable time. I received it shortly after I had returned to the University of Michigan after I had taken a medical leave, and I hadn’t yet regained firm footing.

The message itself boasts naught but silliness; it had a picture of a dog, morphed by the magic of digital jiggery-pokery to appear as if it could speak. A robotic voice translated the text of my mother’s message to speech: “Hi there, Joshua. I love you, honey. I’m always here for you. If you ever need anything I’m always here.” I downloaded the file onto the phone’s micro SD card and kept it with me for as long as I possessed the phone.

I lost track of it sometimes after the bedeviling iPhone replaced it, and I made peace with that loss. My grandfather likes to collect old electronics, so it may have found its place betwixt a vintage Motorola Digital Personal Communicator (aka, the Post-Reagan Grey Brick) and some forlorn rotary telephone. Strangely enough, I found it in its original packaging, wedged between a box for a Canon SLR tripod and a stack of old magazines in the computer room closet.

I essentially tore open the box, hoping to find the phone and micro SD card inside, like some mediocre pirate treasure. To my great relief, and no small amount of astonishment, I discovered both. I pulled the micro SD card from the phone, set it into an adapter, and plugged it into my XPS M1330. I crossed my fingers and uttered a chant to whichever passing deity cared to notice, hoping that the tired, worn computer would recognize the card.

Good fortune smiled upon me as the computer recognized the card, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Of course, the XPS had to ruin the moment and demand what in Hades it should do with the card. “Duh. Open it, you caliginous pile of replacement parts,” I said, perhaps a skosh more vicious than the laptop deserved. In fairness, it did call to mind the Ship of Theseus. I may have melted the motherboard once.

I downloaded the files onto my laptop and sorted through them, like I discovered an ancient archive. Old pictures of erstwhile friends and of my cousin during her toddler years. Pictures I had taken during my time at the University of Michigan and around Ann Arbor. Snapshots of a trip to Chicago and Ohio. I hadn’t realized that I had lost so much, and that loss swept over me like a wave. Old emotions boiled and churned, bubbling to the surface.

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I wonder why we hang on to those feelings, those long, dark winters within ourselves. The pictures inspired rumination of my mistakes, meditations on what I might have done differently, and regret over those that I had lost over the years. Happy memories, buried beneath the rubble of past false steps, only deepened the paroxysms. I stand in awe of a picture’s power to conjure our most powerful emotions, based on the movement of infinitesimal electrons and the translation of patterns of 0’s and 1’s into small squares of color arranged in very specific patterns. These two concepts don’t seem related in the slightest, yet when I see the arrangement of those squares into recognizable images the emotion is triggered.

That tangent illustrates an important truth: our minds, like the pictures we keep, are snapshots of the past. Neurons and chemical composition, not binary, store them. Our minds, however, often fail to accurately capture strands of past events. Emotions, evocative of everything from turmoil to peace, color our memories and bias us. We don’t truly get an exact rendering of reality, but a caricature of it. Pictures represent a paradox in that they both elucidate our memories and cloud them; we see a part of the whole and fill gaps with fiction or guesses.

When I found the file that my mother sent me I downloaded it. I didn’t have any media players capable of properly opening the extension, .32G. They could playback the video, but without sound. I decided to store the file in three locations (I love data redundancy, and you should too) and decided to put off finding a codec or a media player that could handle it. The file, stored in binary, resided in three hard drives, existing but simultaneously not existing. In my mind, pushed aside. In the drives, 0’s and 1’s that bore little relation to my memory of the content of the file.

It stayed in that limbo of existence and nonexistence until last night. I flipped through some old files and found it there and felt a mighty urge to see it. “If you ever need anything…” It lived in my mind, just on the edge of hearing. So I took to the internet, laid some waste with my superior google-fu, and installed VLC media player.

I pressed play and listened to the message spoken by a silly dog. My back straightened and I felt more resilient, as if it had staunched the flood of bad memories. I didn’t ruminate or obsess. The words galvanized me; inspired me to find a better context in which to put these old feelings and recollections. The memories were linked to a depression that had once gripped me very tightly, and that message was a bulwark against it.

I love you too, mom.

Closing Time

February 2, 2017 1 comment

Closing time–or close enough. Quiet. Like it is deserted. A stark contrast to the bustle and sound of a million conversations just an hour before. The clink of Mah Jongg tiles, gone. The loud and rambunctious creative writing club packed up and promised to meet in a week.

I always feel awkward about this time. How long can I stay? I think the quiet is a cue for me to put my books and pens away, too. It’s strange how we respond to such things. The urge to leave grows. Are the employees looking at me?

Or is it me imagining it to give me further cause to uproot myself and move on? I’m not really ready to go. I’d like to see how long I can push it before the cashier throws me nasty looks. But I see another person engrossed in a book check their phone for the time and begin to stir. I finish off my cold Earl Grey and move to put some of my mess away. Pack my book in my Star Trek messenger bag. My journal.

How is it that there’s a pressure for me to act without any positive force for me to undertake the action? It makes me wonder how much of our behavior is based off of these kinds of implanted and often subconscious cues. Humans like to think that they have free will–but is it really “free?” What do we even mean by free?

I’ve always thought that there was no escaping the cause-and-effect nature of the universe, even in our own actions. It’s hard to pinpoint how, though. I know it’s easy to give inanimate objects agency, and I know how tempting substance dualism is. Then I notice a change in the music played overhead and it seems louder and more energetic than it has been.

Or maybe I’m only perceiving that.

Either way, I think closing time is approaching and I see fewer people than when I wrote the first sentence. I feel compelled to leave even though I do not need to.

Cause and effect, I suppose.

Categories: Life, Musings, Navel Gazing Tags: ,

Red Ink

January 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Red Ink

I have a love / hate relationship with red ink. That seems really cliche, but the fact is that the red pen sits on the table in front me, and I imagine it is taunting me. See, the red pen is both critic and muse; a force for destruction and creation.

The pen sits on a stack of papers, themselves covered in red ink. Scribbles, symbols, lines, and words speak of the surgery I have performed on it. We don’t like tearing apart that which we destroy create. When I was younger, I built castles made of legos, and I dreaded the time I had to take them down. But that force of destruction is also a way to build.

First drafts suck; there’s no way around that. Typically they are nothing more than idea vomit on paper, at least for me. Sometimes my stories go through several revisions (I label these by letter, and the furthest along I’ve ever gotten in the alphabet so far is “H”). I have binders full of drafts–or rather–the dry bones of drafts that are covered in crimson.

I keep them because they’re instructive. I can learn from them, and I can see how my writing evolves over time. And I come to see that the red ink isn’t my enemy, it’s my tutor. Learning isn’t always a fun process. Often we are asked to unlearn things we thought were true, and more often demanded that we venture outside of our comfort zones.

Creativity is fragile, and it must be nurtured. But it is also prone to stagnation, so it must be challenged, not just by others but by ourselves. Maybe the things we create have no value to anyone but ourselves, but the act of creation itself demands change and growth.

An artist refines her techniques, life evolves from generation to generation, and humans learn from their mistakes. Creation and change are on the same coin, and maybe even the same side of that coin.

Musings on Writing in a Cafe

January 17, 2017 Leave a comment

I never really appreciated how sitting in a cafe can be conducive to the creative process before now. Before I saw them as loud, distracting things to avoid. But as I sit here, sipping Earl Grey and writing a book review, it strikes me how human it is. It seems to me that creative endeavors are human endeavors, and human endeavors are typically loud and annoying.

You could drown it all out by putting on headphones, but you miss isolated threads of conversation: “I was thinking…” and “That’s not how you…” What are they talking about, I wonder? The jazz music in the speakers overhead, the atonal beeps of the cash register, the whir of the cappuccino machine–the environment sings with activity, and the melody is alive and pulsing.

People talking, reading, studying–all with their own stories. So just look up and take it in from time to time.

Categories: Life, Musings, Writing Tags: , , ,