Opening Day for Baseball and Bicycling

Opening Day is upon us, and my friend and colleague Cyrus “Moondog” Nygerski, who wrote an annual baseball column for several small California newspapers in the 1980s and 90s, is once again picking the Red Sox to win the World Series come October. A man ahead of his time, Moondog has been right three times so far this century, and I have no reason not to get back on the bandwagon this year.

More importantly, the sun has crossed the celestial equator, the clocks have sprung forward, and my bicycle awaits its spring tune-up in anticipation of the Kenduskeag Canoe Race.

On the first warm day after the time change, I donned my cross-country skis for what may have been the season’s final outing on the trails behind the University of Maine. Hatless, I skied a long loop over packed snow melting into mini-rivers in the low spots. Later, as I sipped a beer in a local watering hole, one of my students came in with a baseball and two gloves, looking for someone to play catch. Both gloves were right-handed, unfortunately, and though it was warm enough to ride the bicycle home, it wasn’t ready. But: skiing, baseball, and bicycling in the same day strikes me as the essence of spring in Maine.

In my last post, I wrote that walking, bicycling, driving, and flying embody separate orders of magnitude, in terms of speed and perception. As orders of magnitude rise linearly, the difference between them escalates exponentially. Driving is four times faster than bicycling, but sixteen times faster than walking. Driving is also much more regulated, as it should be. Most of us are licensed to drive a car. You can apply for a pilot’s license, but I imagine that the process is an order of magnitude more difficult.

This concept also applies to baseball. Anyone can play in Little League, but by high school the competition gets a bit more serious. The curve steepens through semi-pro leagues, college ball, and the minors. At the major-league level there are fewer than a thousand jobs for the best ballplayers in the world. As Jim Bouton wrote in Ball Four: “The biggest jump in baseball is between the majors and triple-A. The minor leagues are all very minor.”

The jump between bicycling and driving a car is just as dramatic. Bicycling is closer to walking than it is to driving. No one blamed Stephen King for the accident that nearly killed him. He was walking along the side of a road reading a book, minding his own business, completely within his rights. Nobody said that King should have been paying more attention. Yet the victim is often blamed when a driver, distracted or otherwise, runs down a bicyclist.

As a bicyclist, it is my responsibility not to run down pedestrians. They are an order of magnitude slower and more vulnerable. I’m subject to more rules than they are, but to far fewer rules than the driver of an automobile. Again, this is as it should be.

The letter of the law says I’m supposed to come to a complete stop at every stop sign and red light. Nobody rides a bike that way, but the “Idaho stop” (allowing a bicyclist to yield, rather than stop) is illegal in most states. Yet some people want to go even further, requiring bicyclists to get licensed and pay excise tax, as if bicyclists were a danger to drivers, and not the reverse.

Since cars are an order of magnitude more powerful than bicycles, it stands to reason that the onus for safety falls primarily on the driver of the car. This does not give bicyclists carte blanche to ride any way that want to, but it does mean, for example, that drivers need to respect the three-foot rule and a bicyclist’s right to control a lane of traffic when necessary. Bicyclists aren’t absent of responsibility. It’s a good idea to wear bright-colored clothing, and it’s the law to use proper lighting at night.

But I balk at the suggestion that bicyclists be licensed and taxed, and so should the parents of every ten-year-old who wants to ride to the ice cream stand on a warm summer evening.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: it takes seconds, not minutes, out of a driver’s day to slow down for a bicyclist or a group of bicyclists, to wait for a safe place to pass. Given the order-of-magnitude inequalities involved, thinking up new rules for bicyclists is like invoking the infield fly rule in a picnic softball game. It misses the point.

We walk, bicycle, drive, and fly by orders of magnitude

One of the things that happened when I gave up car ownership was that I began to see my surroundings in a different way. I walked more, and on the street you see faces and encounter other human beings at close range in real time. You can even stop and have a conversation. You can certainly stop and smell the roses, or look in a store window, or anything else.

Walking is slower than bicycling, which is slower than a bus, which is slower than a car, and so on. But each successive system of propulsion gives up in intimacy what it gains in speed.

On foot, you are one with the land. You can see and hear and touch it. On a bicycle, you’re faster but a little less connected. In a car, you’re in your own private room that you can direct, and on a train, you’re in a public room you can’t. In an airplane, of course, you’re not on the land at all.

You’ve probably seen a variation of the video that zooms out from a woman’s hand into the Universe and then zooms back in, all the way to sub-atomic particles in the cells of her skin. The size of the picture increases or decreases by a factor of ten, an order of magnitude.

This is a phrase often misused by math-indifferent writers, and a concept often misunderstood. An order of magnitude is a step in an exponential series: 10, 100, 1,000. Exponential growth starts slowly but gets huge in a hurry. When you read that traffic has “increased exponentially,” smile and be thankful that it hasn’t. No one would be able to move.

I first learned of magnitude from the stars. The system is an overlay of modern astronomy on a framework devised by the ancient Greeks, who classified stars by brightness. Stellar magnitudes run in reverse: the lower the number, the brighter the star. Prominent stars are first-magnitude stars. A few very bright stars have negative magnitudes. The faintest stars on the edge of visibility are magnitude 6. Anything fainter requires a telescope. Each magnitude is approximately 2.512 times brighter than the one below it.*

Have I lost you yet? What do orders of magnitude have to do with cars and transportation?

Well, I was just thinking…

The base doesn’t have to be ten. Average human walking speed is about four miles per hour. Some people walk faster or slower, of course. But that’s what we’re built with: four miles an hour.

Multiply that by four, and you get the approximate speed of a bicycle: 16 mph. It’s possible to go much faster, but hills and age and obstacles will take a big bite out of your average speed.

At 16 mph you’ll miss things you would have noticed on foot. You’ll wave at the friend on the sidewalk instead of stopping for a word or two. Traffic demands more of your attention because you are on the road instead of alongside it. You can still stop and revert to walking any time you want. But it’s an order-of-magnitude distance – small, because the numbers are still low.

But multiply by four again, and you get the speed of a car on an unencumbered roadway: 64 mph, or nine miles an hour over the speed limit, a typical operating speed for a car.

It’s another order-of-magnitude step, but a much steeper one. You’re fortified in your own private bubble, and you consider it your private space even as you move it about in public. You’re restricted to the roads and parking lots, subject to many more rules. Your interaction with the land and the people on it is limited to the places you choose to stop. You communicate with your fellow drivers through gestures, some of them friendly.

Four times 64 equals 256, or 44. Both China and Japan have developed high-speed trains capable of speeds higher than 256 mph. In service, they operate at speeds of around 200-220 mph. I’ve never traveled on a train that fast, but the experience on a train is that of an observer, as the world scrolls by.

Multiply by four again and you’ve got the Concorde: 1,024 mph. Passenger planes fall somewhere between it and the bullet train. But any kind of flying strikes me as an order of magnitude above any kind of land transportation.

Next: How orders of magnitude (should) shape traffic laws.

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* – A star of magnitude 1 is 100 times brighter than a star of magnitude 6. The number 2.512 is an approximation of the 5th root of 100, so that (2.512)5 ≅ 100. Every five magnitudes means a 100-fold difference in brightness. In this way the old Greek system is preserved, and can be extended to extremely bright or faint celestial objects.

That’s one less car for a man, one long drive for mankind

You know who I like? I like Elon Musk.

Yeah, I know, he’s a car guy who dislikes public transportation. But it’s possible to disagree with and admire someone at the same time. And last week, he did about the coolest thing it’s possible to do with a car: fling it into space.

Musk’s own Tesla roadster, built by his car company, served as the payload for a test of the Falcon Heavy rocket, built by his other company, SpaceX, which hopes to land humans on Mars within the next 20 years. The car will travel in an elliptical orbit that will periodically cross the orbits of Earth and Mars. Buckled into the driver’s seat is a space-suited mannequin named Starman.

If nothing else, it means there’s one less car clogging up traffic on Earth.

The car could remain in space for millions of years. It’s already made the NASA catalogue of near-Earth objects. On the scale of cool, this doesn’t quite rise to the level of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” on the Voyager record, but it’s close.

Test rockets typically carry payloads like concrete or scrap metal, but I admire Musk’s sense of humor and instinct for self-promotion. And beyond the whimsy, the car will serve a real purpose. Perhaps, in the far-off future, commerce between Earth and Mars will be carried out using vessels in similar orbits.

Critics, as always, were quick to pounce. Writing in the U.S. edition of The Guardian, Nathan Robinson called the launch and its attendant publicity “utterly depressing.”

Robinson reaches for all the tropes we’ve heard since the Apollo program. How, he asks, can we justify expensive esoterica like launching a car into space when people all over the world are dying from war, preventable disease, and poverty? Although Musk is using primarily his own money to finance his forays into space, Robinson argues that his wealth is the result of intolerable “social inequalities.” He hauls out a poem titled “Whitey on the Moon,” written in 1970 by Gil-Scott Heron, just to throw race into the mix.

I am as concerned about social injustice as any liberal, but I am not buying this tired argument. What I find particularly loathsome is that it always seems to be singularly directed at space exploration. No one says that we shouldn’t build that new art museum or baseball stadium or interstate highway until we’ve solved the problems of poverty and human suffering. Why should space science have to continually defend itself against these kinds of objections?

When NASA launched the Cassini mission to Saturn in 1997, protesters gathered at the launch site, demanding that it be scrubbed. The reason? Cassini carried a small amount of plutonium, which would power it in the outer solar system. To get to Saturn, the spacecraft would use a “gravity assist” flyby of Earth two years after launch, passing within 720 miles of the surface. Critics worried that a mishap could potentially spill the plutonium into the upper atmosphere. But there was no mishap, and Cassini produced discoveries that vastly increased our knowledge of Saturn and its moons. I think it was worth the risk.

When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon in 1969, thousands of their countrymen were dying in our tragic and unnecessary intervention in Vietnam. Yet on that night, billions of people watched the electronic images of human beings walking on another world. The United States was, for that moment and in spite of its faults, an inspiration for the human race. It was possible to be against the war and in favor of going to the moon. Conscience practically demanded it.

If Musk’s car helps to pave the way for human colonization of Mars, even if only as an expensive publicity stunt, it will pay for itself may times over. It will also address, albeit indirectly, many of the problems that seem so vexing today. Space helps us see the world whole, and to realize, in Carl Sagan’s words, that for now, Earth is where we make our stand. Treat each other more kindly, and take care of the planet.

But Musk is also right that our long-term future is as a multi-planet species. And to demonstrate that it can be done, he’s launched his own car into an eternal commute between the orbits of Earth and Mars. That he undertakes the serious business of space with aplomb and élan is all the more reason to cheer him on.

Big Brother boards the bus in Bangor

 

The thing that set me off last week was a report of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents boarding a Concord Coach bus in Bangor and asking passengers to prove their citizenship. I learned of it through social media, via an article by Colin Woodard on the Portland Press Herald website. A later piece appeared in the Lewiston Sun-Journal. Our local Bangor Daily News had nothing.

I ride those buses all the time, and I’ve never been asked for my papers. I do have to show a photo ID when I buy my ticket, but not to a federal agent. That sort of thing is supposed to be illegal in the United States of America, according to the fourth amendment to the constitution. If you are unfamiliar with the fourth amendment, here it is:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

But when I shared Woodard’s piece on the Slower Traffic Facebook page, several readers chimed in to support the policy. “Make America Safe Again,” one wrote, with a surfeit of exclamation points. “Great policy.”

And then there was this, also excessively punctuated: “I have nothing to hide! I’m a legal citizen. Are you?”

Now this is funny, because you can find my great-great grandfather’s bearded face on any presidential calendar in America. We even have the same last name. Though I don’t go around advertising this, my antagonist was all too ready to pronounce me guilty until proven innocent. For all he knows I could have changed it from Gonzalez, or Garibaldi.

I wondered if he would be as sanguine about getting pulled over in his car when he was doing nothing wrong, just because the police were looking for undocumented immigrants. Boarding a bus as a ticketed passenger does not constitute “probable cause” for a search of your possessions, including your wallet, any more than driving a car does.

When I pointed this out, I was called a snowflake and told to go find a safe space. This is what the Twitter Presidency hath wrought. This is the way we communicate now. And it sucks.

The left is just as guilty of this as the right, by the way, and Slower Traffic is not and has never been a political blog. But I suppose that by its very nature, the act of giving up car ownership in early 21st century America is political. If I don’t want to see oil exploration near Penobscot Bay, the less I contribute to the demand, the better. I support spending tax dollars on public transportation and bicycle infrastructure. I’d like to bring passenger trains back to Rockland and Bangor. I advocate for policies that encourage walking neighborhoods and reflect the true cost of cars.

None of this makes me a Marxist.

But neither does support for oil drilling, or conservative policies in general, make one a bigot, racist, misogynist, Nazi, or any of the other epithets some of my friends on the left throw around far too frequently.

It seems so difficult to have a real conversation any more. Nobody thinks before they speak, and it’s all happening electronically. Instead of trying to engage each other on the challenging issues of our times, and maybe learn something in the process, we’re busy choosing up sides, and selecting the best pithy insults to throw at one another This is why I refused to use Twitter long before Trump took office, and refuse to use it still. It’s designed to engender misunderstanding and resentments. It encourages us to attribute the worst possible motives to those with whom we disagree.

Thanks to the Twit-in-Chief, it’s now acceptable for elected officials to post memes on the Internet calling their fellow Americans traitors and scumbags and pigs, and tacitly encouraging violence against journalists. Straw-man arguments abound, as both sides assume the worst about each other. I’m dismayed at how often, and how quickly, this turns into invective.

Twitter has become like the car culture. You don’t have to buy into it, but you still have to be careful not to get run over. And apparently you have to be prepared to waive your constitutional rights the minute you step on board a bus.

One person’s entertainment is another’s disaster

Years ago, I almost lost my Toyota Corolla to rising floodwaters in California. Someone came along with a chain in the nick of time and pulled me out. So I can empathize with the owners of the car-sicles caught in the Kennebec River last week, flooded and then frozen. It’s like seeing your boat driven onto the shore by a hurricane.

Still, there’s a part of me that enjoys a good natural disaster. It’s why I watch films like Twister and Titanic and The Perfect Storm. There’s a vicarious thrill to seeing nature wreak havoc with human infrastructure.

Cars are expensive and many people depend on them. This I understand. But in the winter, I’m especially happy not to own one. I like to go cross-country skiing in the streets of Bangor when there’s a big snowstorm, because I’m the most mobile thing out there amongst the slipping and sliding vehicles.

It’s a failure of empathy, I know, to take pleasure from another’s pain. Yet we slow down to gawk at car crashes, we cheer at football games and boxing matches, and we consume crime novels and dramas by the fistful.

Which brings me to the subject of lobsters. Switzerland has banned the preferred method of cooking them: boiling them alive. Switzerland is a landlocked country in the Alps, with a vanishingly small lobster population. But the few lobsters that go to the pot will now be stunned first, like cattle.

What do lobsters have to do with cars? Bear with me.

I’ve thought a lot about the ways we use and abuse animals. We eat them and enslave them and make sport of them, and a lucky few, mostly dogs and cats, but also horses and hamsters and parrots, become our friends. Most people feel some sort of empathy for animals, especially our “neighbor species,” as fellow creatures. But we don’t make them citizens, or until recently, assign them “rights.”

I eat meat. I love boiled lobster. I like bacon. But consider: a pig is just as intelligent as your dog, whom you wouldn’t dream of eating outside of an Antarctic expedition, and probably not even then. The difference between loving a dog and eating a pig is mostly a matter of cultural preference.

A reader once told me that I would reduce my carbon footprint more if I bought a car but became a vegetarian. I conceded his point. But environmentalism was not the primary reason that I stopped owning cars. My concern for the planet comes with a large helping of enlightened self-interest.

I’ve read Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser’s scathing overview of the meat industry, and watched Super Size Me, Morgan’s Spurlock’s experiment in eating nothing but McDonald’s for a month. The lesson seems to be that billions of burgers are bad for us, on both a societal and individual level.

So I was happy to read that recent hikes in the minimum wage have led to higher prices at fast food restaurants. Maybe if Whoppers and Big Macs cost more, fewer people will buy them, and the health of the American population will take a couple of ticks upward.

The principle is the same as charging for parking, or for driving during peak hours, as some cities in Europe do. It makes long-term sense to channel a portion of car traffic into public transportation and other alternatives. It also makes sense to use less farmland for meat than for crops that provide much more nutrition per acre.

Maine has a culture of hunting, and I’m not here to criticize anyone who hunts for food. But I had the experience as a child to come face to face with a young deer in a blueberry field. We locked eyes for several long seconds before we both bolted. I knew I had looked into another consciousness. I don’t sense that when I look at a lobster.

But is that, too, just a matter of degree? I’ve dunked hundreds of lobsters without a thought to their suffering. I’ll dunk many more. It doesn’t hurt that they look like large, tasty cockroaches. If they were adorable it might be more difficult.

And there’s that question of empathy again. How far does it go? Does it extend to a squirrel on your porch, or a mouse in your cupboard? If you can empathize with a lobster, why can’t you care for the feelings of a clam or an oyster?

I was musing about this when I boarded the bus to go to my annual physical checkup earlier this week. I opened the laptop and started noodling with the first few paragraphs of this post. My doctor gave me a clean bill of health, with one caveat: I should avoid red meat and pork.

My fellow mammals can rest a little easier tonight.

 

 

 

 

Don’t be like Carl Sagan

Don’t be like Dean Martin, or Carl Sagan, or Benazir Bhutto. Don’t die in the last weeks of the year. You will have already missed the deadline for the Year In Review retrospectives, and you won’t be in them next year, either. History forgets you in a hurry without publicity.

Sagan was just 62 when he died in 1996, four years younger than Tom Petty, whose recent passing seems so premature. I am a member of the Planetary Society, which Sagan co-founded in 1980 (with Bruce Morgan and Louis Friedman) to advocate for space exploration and space science. Sagan was among the first scientists to warn us about the dangers of carbon emissions from motor vehicles and industry, pointing to Venus, where surface temperatures are hot enough to melt lead, as an example of a “runaway greenhouse effect.”

Stephen Jay Gould was only sixty when he checked out, leaving behind a lifetime of paleontological research, provocative theories, and a trove of extraordinary essays for general audiences. To my everlasting regret, I did not discover the bulk of his writing until after his death in 2002. I could have been one of the thousands of his readers who sent him letters on the astonishing varieties of topics he addressed. These letters, Gould wrote in the introduction to Bully For Brontosaurus, his last published essay collection, gave him faith in the intellectual curiosity of the ordinary citizen.

Like Sagan, Gould had the facility to convey complex concepts in ordinary English. Also like Sagan, he delighted in making connections between seemingly disparate topics. Sagan’s interest in the possibility of extraterrestrial life took him deep into anthropology and geopolitics. Gould turned Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak into a meditation on “statistics and mythology,” and the human tendency to impart meaning to random patterns, much as we conjure constellations from the stars in the night sky.

Gould was fond of skewering popular perceptions, especially those with which he had some sympathy. For example, he took the environmental movement to task for the exaggeration that Earth is a fragile planet, threatened by human activity. It is our civilization, he wrote, not the Earth itself, that we endanger:

“We certainly cannot wipe out bacteria (they have been the modal organisms on Earth right from the start, and probably will be until the sun explodes); I doubt we can wreak much permanent havoc upon insects as a whole (whatever our power to destroy local populations and species). But we can surely eliminate our fragile selves – and our well-buffered Earth might then breathe a metaphorical sigh of relief at the ultimate failure of an interesting but dangerous experiment in consciousness. Global warming is worrisome because it will flood our cities (built so often at sea level as ports and harbors), and alter our agricultural patterns to the severe detriment of millions.

“Our planet is not fragile at its own time scale, and we, pitiful latecomers in the last microsecond of our planetary year, are stewards of nothing in the long run. Yet no political movement is more vital and timely than modern environmentalism – because we must save ourselves (and our neighbor species) from our own immediate folly.”*

I’ve always hated the movie Waterworld, because it’s preposterous: if all the ice on Earth melted, sea level would rise by about 250 feet. When Kevin Costner dives on submerged Los Angeles, he would see the San Gabriel Mountains and the foothills from the deck of his ship.

The world’s population of motor vehicles now numbers approximately 1.2 billion. The United States is by far the worst offender, with five vehicles for every six people. If the Chinese owned cars in the same proportion as we do, they would need a billion vehicles just for themselves.

The average weight of a car or light truck is 4,079 pounds. A gas-powered vehicle spews its weight in carbon compounds into the atmosphere each year. That means that our automotive infrastructure is annually pumping 4,894,800,000,000 (4.9 trillion) pounds of greenhouse gases into the clear blue sky. (And that’s not even counting the impact of the trucking industry, the byproducts of road construction, and vehicle manufacturing and disposal.) While these gases won’t turn our planet into Venus, they will continue to contribute to rising sea levels, acidification of the oceans, disruption of food supplies, and other life-threatening challenges.

This January marks eleven years since I last owned a car. I am under no delusion that I’m changing the world. But the world is changing, nonetheless.

 

* from Bully For Brontosaurus, copyright 1991 by Stephen Jay Gould.

I hear that train a-coming…

Amtrak will soon begin test runs to determine the feasibility of seasonal passenger train service to Rockland on the Downeaster, which now has its northern terminus in Brunswick. This is good news for anyone who has ever driven coastal Route 1 in the summer. It’s good news for all of us, really: a small sign that the Late Automobile Age is beginning to morph, however slowly, into something else.

No small city in Maine stands to benefit more from alternatives to the automobile than Rockland. It’s equidistant from almost everywhere. You can get there by car, bus, boat, plane, and until recently, train. If you don’t drive there, you can enjoy the city on foot without having to find a parking place.

The naysayers, predictably, will claim that it costs too much, that train service to Rockland is nothing more than a romantic pipe dream, subsidized by all for the enjoyment of a few. But trains, once established, have proven popular in many parts of the country. Of course trains are subsidized. So is every other form of transportation – cars, trucks, and highways most of all. I wish I didn’t have to keep pointing this out.

Most people drive because the market is rigged in favor of cars and drivers. There is money for parking lots but not train stations, road construction but not additional bus routes. Those of us who seek alternatives to owning a car face a phalanx of obstacles, not the least of which is the misguided view that public transportation is charity, or worse, welfare.

I’ve never seen this as a partisan issue, by the way. I know conservatives who love trains and liberals who love cars. Writers like trains, because you can write on them. The scenery changes every minute, and you can look at it instead of at the car in front of you. It’s a contemplative way to travel. Musicians tend to favor cars, with stereo systems and space for bulky instruments. And how else are you going to get to that Friday night gig in East Podunkville?

But those of us who want to ride a train to Rockland (or Bangor, or Bar Harbor, in the not-too-distant future) aren’t calling for the elimination of cars (except, perhaps, in parts of Acadia National Park, but that’s another argument for another time). Opponents of alternative transportation would force us all into cars. Studies in disparate places around the U.S. and the world have shown that a mixed-use transportation system, rather than a monolithic car-centric approach, is the most functional and cost-effective.

And what’s not to love about a train? Where would country music or American cinema be without trains? They’re woven into our national DNA.

Still, some people will find reasons to oppose just about anything. There were Americans who opposed the moon landing, the greatest thing this country has ever done, because they deemed it too expensive. How could we go to the moon when kids were starving and our cities were in flames and young men were dying in Vietnam? All those concerns were valid, and yet today I’m proud to be part of a civilization that landed on the moon. My parents were proud that their taxes helped pay for it. (If you’re gullible enough to believe the conspiracy theory that all the lunar missions were faked, don’t even talk to me.)

Expanding passenger rail service in Maine, while not on the scale of reaching for the moon, is nonetheless a worthy and doable investment. I don’t expect it to happen all at once, or everywhere I want it to, but Rockland, in both the short and long term, is realistic. I’ll ride that train, and so will a lot of other people. If they build it, we will come.

This Thanksgiving, what am I thankful for?

I’m thankful that I live in Maine, for one thing. I really don’t want to live anywhere else, though you might hear me grumble in the winter. But Maine is beautiful and livable and accessible. The Penobscot River watershed is connected to Penobscot Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, and the world.

I’m thankful that I’ve been able to carve out a decent life here over the past eleven years without owning an automobile. It’s done wonders for my health, my finances, and my attitude toward Maine winters.

I’m thankful for my lovely girlfriend Lisa, who reads this blog before I unleash it on the world, corrects my phrasing and trims my excesses, and often lends me her car.

I’m thankful to Arlo Guthrie for writing and performing “Alice’s Restaurant.”

I’m thankful for my large family and circle of friends. I’m especially thankful to my mom and stepdad for hosting Thanksgiving dinner annually at their beautiful home in Naskeag – to which we will drive.

I’m thankful to everyone who reads this blog, or shares it on social media, or posts comments and links. I’ve always seen this blog as a pebble tossed into the pond of a conversation we need to have about the larger American car culture. I’m thankful to be a small part of it.

I’m thankful that I no longer watch football.

I’m thankful to the turkeys who gave their lives for our tables, and to the people who did the dirty work of getting them there. I’m not sure I could kill and pluck a turkey, though I have no compunction about fishing to eat, or dunking a lobster’s head into a pot of boiling water. But I’m thankful to live in an industrialized world that spares me the choice of being a butcher or a vegetarian.

And I’m thankful to live in a society that still – for the moment – tolerates small hypocrisies. It’s the easiest thing in the world to accuse somebody of hypocrisy. We’re all hypocrites to some degree. I’m going to drive a car a hundred miles on Thanksgiving, and maybe a rambling song about an adventure with a VW microbus will come on the radio, and I’m going to buy gas and feed the worldwide fossil fuel industry. I’m going to be just like every American car owner – but only for a day.

I’m thankful that the Black Friday phenomenon seems to be losing some steam. I can’t think of much I’d less like to do than drive to a shopping mall and stand in line at oh-dark-thirty the morning after Thanksgiving.

I’m thankful for the University of Maine, where I work, and its ongoing contribution to public transportation in the greater Bangor area. I’m thankful for the Community Connector bus, which gets me to work, and for the voices on the new Bangor City Council advocating for longer bus hours.

I’m thankful that Bob Dylan and William Shatner are still with us.

I’m thankful that I live in interesting times, in a dynamic civilization that put people on the moon and may yet put them on Mars, all in one person’s lifetime. We are the first few generations of humans to escape the bonds of Earth and see it whole. From that vantage point, a global environmental awareness cannot help but emerge. I’m thankful that it’s already started to happen.

We could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and improve our quality of life in the process, if we would stop building, buying, and driving so many cars. That’s my pebble into the pond. I’ve managed to reduce the American car fleet by one. But I am thankful that there are other people out there, throwing pebbles, too.

Decision time in Bangor and Baseball

Let’s see… do I write about the Bangor City Council election, or the World Series? Which is more important?

Our local newspaper, the Bangor Daily News, seems impartial on that score. They didn’t send a reporter to the recent candidate forum, and I doubt they’re sending anyone to Los Angeles for Tuesday night’s Series opener, either.

I was gratified that the Community Connector bus system got a lot of love from the potential city councilors. Five of the six candidates for three seats showed up, and all expressed varying levels of support for extended bus hours.

I’m also happy that the Houston Astros eliminated the Yankees, even though a Dodgers-Yankees World Series would have had interesting historical implications.

If you don’t like baseball, I’m sorry for you. Stanley Cups and Super Bowls and whatever the other championships are called come and go, and I’m challenged to remember many of them, but I can mark my life by the World Series.

The last time the Yankees and Dodgers met in the Fall Classic, in 1981, the Yankees took a two game lead before Fernando Valenzuela, that year’s rookie of the year and Cy Young Award winner, gutted out a 5-4 complete-game victory that propelled the Dodgers to three more wins and the championship. The only other time the Astros made the Series, they were in the National League, and were swept by the White Sox in 2005.

As a little kid, the Dodgers were my first team, even before we moved to Maine during the 1967 Red Sox Impossible Dream season. The Dodgers had no hitting to speak of, but they had Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, and they won a lot of 1-0 games.

“Someone would beat out a hit, be sacrificed to second, steal third and score on the overthrow,” Koufax recalled in his autobiography (as told to Ed Linn). “Then we would gather the wagons into a circle around the dugout.”

This strategy came back to bite them in the 1966 World Series, when they scored two runs in the first three innings of the first game against the Orioles, and no runs at all for the next three games. The last two games were 1-0 losses decided by solo homers.

Within the next year, we’d moved to Maine, Sandy Koufax had retired, and the Red Sox had captured hearts all over New England, including mine. I didn’t pay attention to the Dodgers again until I lived in California, during the Tommy Lasorda years. I took my kids to their first big-league game at Dodger Stadium, traveling by train from Oceanside and then by bus to the ballpark, to see Valenzuela pitch on a Sunday afternoon.

It should come as no surprise that someone who remembers watching Sandy Koufax’s last game on a black and white TV is older, in some cases substantially so, than all of this year’s Bangor City Council candidates. Steve Harrison, who was not present at the October 18 forum, is the oldest of the group at 50.

The other five candidates expressed support for extended bus hours. Laura Supica has made later bus service a centerpiece of her campaign. Incumbent Ben Sprague, running for a third term, said, “It’s gonna happen.”

Whatever the outcome, this will surely be one of the youngest councils in years. I’m encouraged that a new generation of local politicians is embracing the idea of public transportation, walkable communities, and alternatives to the automobile.

Sprague seemed like the elder statesman of the bunch last week. I’m inclined to vote for him because of his intelligence and seriousness. Supica will likely get my second vote for supporting the bus system so ardently.

As for the others, I haven’t decided on my third vote. But I’m leery of anyone who can turn a question about sidewalks into a call for “social revolution.” Good grief.

I’m agnostic in this World Series, too, despite my loose history with the Dodgers. I revere Dave Roberts, their manager, for The Stolen Base Heard ‘Round the World in 2004. But he lost me as a manager when he pulled a rookie pitcher from a no-hitter in his first game. Did Dick Williams do that to Billy Rohr in 1967? Unthinkable.

The Astros, in baseball time, are a young franchise. They’re younger than I am. They have pitchers who can throw complete games. They have Jose Altuve, who is the shortest and may be the best player in the American League. It’s a team full of new faces. Perhaps this is their time.

 

He said his name was Columbus, and I just said ‘Good luck.’

In 2004, I published a historical novel titled The Lost Voyage of John Cabot. The book is a fictionalized account of Cabot’s return trip in 1498 to the “newfound land” in the North Atlantic he had discovered the previous summer, five years after Christopher Columbus made landfall in the Bahamas.

Columbus is a character in the story. He and Cabot were not only contemporaries, but also compatriots. Both hailed from the Italian seaport of Genoa. It is likely that they knew each other and were rivals. In my novel, Cabot confronts Columbus upon the latter’s return to Europe in 1493 and challenges his claim of finding a western route to Asia.

My timing as an author has seldom been good. I missed the 500th anniversary of the Cabot voyages, and by the time the book came out seven years later, the backlash against the European explorers (and exploiters) of North America was in full swing. Columbus Day has now become Indigenous Peoples Day, and we are encouraged to disparage the European explorers as enablers of genocide.

History is rarely that simple.

In the course of researching the book, I learned the European colonization of the Americas did not begin with one man or one voyage. The Greenland settlements of the tenth and eleventh centuries endured into the 1400s. Fishermen from Britain and northern Europe knew about the rich sea bottom off Newfoundland, and almost surely of the island itself, long before Cabot’s voyages. There’s evidence the Chinese beat Columbus to the Americas by several decades, but the discoveries were buried in the rubble of political upheaval.

Columbus was a pretty good con man, though. The Greek-Egyptian mathematician Eratosthenes came up with a more accurate estimate of the Earth’s circumference than the one Columbus sold to Ferdinand and Isabella nearly 1500 years later. And Columbus was a hard-bitten Christian at time when Christian Europe felt threatened by the incursion of Islam and the subsequent loss of overland trade routes.

Thus his dealings with the indigenous peoples of the Americas were informed by a similar kind of paranoia that runs through much of white America today. Through the lens of modern sensibilities, the actions of Columbus and his ilk indeed appear monstrous.

But let us remember for a moment that tyranny has been the history of most of humankind. Advances in the way we treat one another have never moved as fast as advances in technology. This is why we have an overabundance of nuclear weapons and a shortage of housing and health care facilities for the poor. Most of history has been laced with bigotry and bloodshed. Christopher Columbus may have been, by every modern judgment, an unsavory character, but he was hardly an outlier.

It is intellectually dishonest to lift a historical figure out of his own time and judge him by today’s moral standards. Hitler was a monster in his own time. Columbus is a monster in ours. There’s a world of difference.

Thomas Jefferson likely forced himself on one or more of his female slaves. Today that would make him a sexual predator. But he also wrote: “…governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” words that changed the world. Are we to vilify him in 2017 for his use of the word “men,” when he lived in a society where sexism was unquestioned? Do we disregard the brilliance of the Declaration of Independence because of the personal failings of the man who wrote it?

Don’t misunderstand me. I have no use for a celebration of the Columbus depicted in Samuel Eliot Morison’s fawning 1942 biography, Admiral of the Ocean Sea. I think the Cleveland Indians and the Washington Redskins should change their mascots. I don’t like public displays of the Confederate flag in its ugly, modern context.

But the European colonization of the Americas cannot be undone. Anywhere you go in the Western Hemisphere, you will hear people speaking French, English, Spanish or Portuguese: the languages of the colonizers. Similarly, you don’t have to be a Christian to be living in Anno Domini 2017. The approximate date of the birth of Jesus is a common frame of reference for the world we live in now.

When we try to sanitize history, we put ourselves in the company of the Taliban and the Soviet communists, blowing up statues and airbrushing photographs. It’s easy for me, a white male American, to downplay historical grievances. But that is not my intent here. Our imperfect past should inform us in our daily struggle toward a more kind and just future for all.