Month: October 2013

Cars Are Not Human

Last week I wrapped up this year’s bicycle commuting season. Usually it’s the end of October, but I’m going out of town next week so Friday was the day.

My workplace is about 15 km. (9 miles) from where I live. Since 1998 I have commuted by bike 2 or 3 days per week. In the stellar year 2001, it was 4 days more often than not, but lately 2 days has become the norm, due to physical limitations and fear.

My route involves side streets, main streets and a very nice bike trail. Biking to work is in many ways a win-win-win situation — I get exercise, I get to work, and it costs me nothing but time (my bike has long paid for itself and maintenance is ridiculously cheap). No need to pay for a gym membership and add workouts to my schedule.

But (the inevitable “but”) there is a downside. For about 1/3 of my route, I travel on regular roads with regular traffic. In 16 years I’ve had only one relatively minor accident, in which I was going through an intersection on a green light and was hit by a sun-blinded, left-turning driver. Fortunately, he was starting from a dead stop so wasn’t going very fast. Scrapes and bruises were all I sustained, and I didn’t even lose time from work because the accident happened on a Friday. But ever since then, I have had to force myself to ride, a mind-over-instinct exercise which is stressful in itself.

Something I’ve noticed as I share the road with motor vehicle drivers — behind the wheel, people are different from when they’re walking around without their metal carapaces. As I wait for traffic lights to change and watch cars whizzing by, the drivers look less than human, especially if they are wearing sunglasses. There is something robot-like about them. The faces are often expressionless or grim. Intent on getting somewhere as fast as possible, these folks do not look happy. Encased in their two-ton machines, they look frightening.

“The cars don’t want to slow down.” How often do we hear a sentence like this, which endows motor vehicles with sentience? That in itself is frightening. Cars are constructions of metal, glass and plastic. They don’t have desires. It’s the people driving them, the fallible humans with emotions and impulses, that determine what the cars do. It’s the guy who’s had a bad day at work, or the woman who’s late picking up her kids and no groceries in the house. These bundles of anxiety, whizzing along at speed, sometimes “multitasking” with their cell phones, are what my defenseless bod is sharing the road with. Most of the time I can live with these facts, but sometimes they get to me. Equating cars with people is a bad trend. Everyone should be a pedestrian or cyclist some of the time, or take public transit. Look your fellow humans in the eye, smile at them, and remember that we are (mostly) members of the same species. Then remember that again when you’re driving a car.

Right now, I’m happy that bike commuting season is over until March.


Trees in the House

Of Henry Mitchell’s collected “Earthman” columns, some of the funniest are about bringing tropical potted plants into the house for the winter. He couldn’t bring the plants in until the rugs had been sent out for cleaning and returned, quite an operation in itself. Inevitably, plant-lugging was left until a severe cold snap threatened, whereupon the job was done by flashlight, with dogs getting in the way and guests expected for dinner. Which guests had to share the living room with large, neck-tickling, leaf-dropping plants. And sometimes things went seriously wrong, as when a bucket containing a palm tree in muddy soil went bumping down a flight of stairs, disgorging its contents all the way.

I have only one large plant that needs to be lugged in and out in spring and autumn — a jade plant whose trunk is six inches in diameter at the base, and which stands almost five feet tall. Today we brought it in, using a handy device called a Potlifter, a set of adjustable straps and handles designed specifically to make carrying large potted plants quite easy for two reasonably fit people. Since the straps are permanently adjusted for the jade plant’s pot, it took hardly any time to strap it in and carry it to its winter location.

October 13, 2013

The jade plant is an inside/outside tenant, but I also have three quite large plants that stay inside year round, and I’m beginning to wonder whether they should be evicted. Two are weeping figs (Ficus benjamina), one plain, one variegated; the other is a young rubber plant (Ficus elastica). Right now it’s about five feet tall, but in another year or so it will be scraping the ceiling. Previous specimens, once topped, did not branch gracefully but ended up resembling leafy gibbets. One grew sideways in an amazing manner and was finally dispatched. Before doing it in, I air-layered the present plant, doing so only because the original (the “ur plant”) was acquired by my mother in Pittsburgh more than 50 years ago. The present manifestation has therefore acquired a kind of numinous aura. If I kill this last scion, what kind of bad karma will I create? As for the weepers, I would happily give them away (assuming anyone would want them), but I rather like their pots and would want to keep them. Niggardly, I know, which is why the two continue to occupy a good portion of my living room, shedding leaves at regular intervals. (I wonder if that’s why they’re called “weeping’).

It’s ironic that I have similar situations outside and inside — big trees. One day, the axe will fall. One day.

Gardening is Like Writing (and vice versa)

While cleaning up the debris from a recent windstorm, I thought, “This is sort of like editing — removing elements that obscure the beauties of the garden, analogous to deleting superfluous prose that obscures the niceties of plot and character.”

So are there other similarities?

Scads of them: both are acts of creation, both involve a certain artistry, faith, hope, hard work and luck. Different types of gardens (herb, vegetable, rose and rock gardens, for example) are analogous to fiction genres such as mystery, fantasy and romance. Planning and planting a garden is very like starting to write a novel. There is an intention but the conclusion is by no means guaranteed. Bad weather and the gardener’s lack of skill can prevent a happy outcome; in writing, the same results from the writer’s lack of skill and consequent lapse in enthusiasm. The metaphors of pruning and weeding as editing are obvious.

The difference is that a garden consists of living things. A failed garden is not a barren one; it’s just taken over by opportunistic plants, a.k.a. weeds. A failed novel is just a static text file or unvisited pile of paper. (The paper may eventually turn into a kind of compost heap, but that’s another issue).

That’s the most important difference between the two, I think. A gardener works in the whirl of the natural world. Weather, bugs, birds, deer, squirrels and raccoons leave their marks. Plants grow with incredible vigor or die unexpectedly. The garden changes in ways unintended by the gardener. Out there, I know I am not working alone. In the writing room, there’s just me and my imagination. If I don’t spin something up from the black well, there is no progress. Yes, sometimes my characters have wills of their own. Sometimes dialogue writes itself. Sometimes the plot goes off in an unexpected direction. Writing in the white heat of obsession is an amazing experience. But I have to be present and willing to work, or nothing happens.

Gardening is real. There is nothing more real than dirt under the fingernails and the scent of lilies on a July evening. Virtual gardening is an impossibility; you have to get away from the screen. And writing, I’m coming to realize, is the same, for me anyway. In order to create original, long-form prose, I need hours of off-screen time, but achieving it is a lot harder than stepping out the door and picking up a spade, rake or set of clippers. I don’t know how to kindle the spark of obsession that makes writing the first priority.

Then there’s the question of success. Can a writer claim to be successful if no one reads or appreciates their work? I don’t think so. But I don’t care what anyone thinks of my garden. People do say nice things about it, and I like that, but if no one saw it or commented on it, I wouldn’t care. As long as I see beauty there at regular intervals, and healthy plants going through their annual cycles, I know I have success as a gardener. But in the absence of positive signals from others about my writing, it’s really hard to convince myself that I’m a good writer. And there is no simple way to elicit those positive signals. If you give someone a basket of vine-ripened, homegrown tomatoes, they are apt to thank you and praise your generosity. A 500 page novel, on the other hand, is a gift that demands, and does not always result in squeals of delight.

I was a gardener before I became a writer, and I will be a gardener as long as I am physically able, but I’m not sure I’ll always be a writer. The garden wins in the end.