Being good at gratitude

Gratitude is one of the few spiritual/happiness practices that comes naturally to me, plus I love food and cooking, so naturally Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It feels appropriate for Thanksgiving to arrive now, because I’ve been in an almost constant state of gratitude lately. Recently I tweeted:

It seemed a little arrogant to claim to absolutely be the luckiest girl in the world (I do have a little Canadian modesty in me, albeit not much) but I do feel that way lately. Even my small sadnesses reveal my luck: I’m a little sad I can’t be in three places at once today, but so happy that I know I have three places I could be. I’m grateful for my given family (and my sister-in-law who recently joined it), my long-time sweetie, and my friend-family. Friends are the family you can choose, and I couldn’t have chosen better.

I’m also lucky to have a job, a kitty, and an apartment I love. I’m lucky to belong to a passionate community of active transportation and urbanism advocates who are also, in large part, great friends and acquaintances. I’m lucky to live in a city of responsive government (how many people can say their city’s chief signals engineer answers their emails personally?).

None of these things is perfect. The active transportation community could stand to be more inclusive (and seems to be working on it). Portland city government has its problems, both small and large (institutional paralysis, police treatment of the mentally ill). My apartment could stand to be about three feet longer and have more kitchen counter space and another closet. Having a kitty means I worry when I travel and have to arrange for catsitting (prompting another dose of gratefulness for my friends). Thanksgiving even has its own issues, from distorted history and cultural appropriation to turkey suffering.

I can’t help seeing and acknowledging the imperfections as well as the glories; my brain seems to be built for realism and problem-solving. But that itself makes my appreciation both sweeter and more poignant. I try to cultivate a true thankfulness for what I actually have, not some airbrushed version of it. And recognizing that there are problems, and that so many people don’t have what they need and want, redoubles my lifetime commitment to making the world just a little better.

What if your design rider is wrong?

Tonight at the 20s Bikeway SAC meeting, the PBOT Project Manager was giving the group some perspective and background. One thing he mentioned was the concept of the ‘design rider’.

Surveys in Portland have shows that the population roughly breaks down into four categories: people who will ride anywhere, anytime (~1%); people who are enthusiastic riders and tolerant of mixing with auto traffic on smaller streets, but don’t feel comfortable on big fast roads (~8-12%); people who would like to ride (more) on the street, but don’t feel comfortable doing so because of safety concerns (~50%); and people who probably won’t ride, even if it’s an attractive option (~35%). Also known as the strong and fearless, the enthusiastic and confident, the interested but concerned, and the no way, no how. Cute, huh?

Let’s imagine that this classification is valid. I have some quarrels with it, and others have proposed equally reasonable but completely different ways to divide up bicyclists, so this is not a given, but I have another point that I want to focus on.

Portland has pretty much gotten the enthused and confident going, because there are pretty decent bikeways and connections throughout most of the city — a mix of low-traffic routes with bike lanes on larger roads and various treatments at critical connection points. Great, but where do we go from here if we want to reach our 2030 Bike Plan goal of 25% of trips being by bike? You can’t accomplish that with only 10% or so of people riding.

Obviously, we go to the “interested but concerned”, since “no way no hows” are unlikely to care what we do. So new bikeway projects are intended to focus on designing bikeways for the “interested but concerned”. Like the “P-vehicle” for engineers, the interested but concerned rider is the “design vehicle” or “design rider”. Their main concern is greater safety, and they don’t feel very comfortable mixing with cars. The general thrust of a project aimed at this kind of attitude, as described tonight, is that it should involve low-traffic streets wherever possible, and separated facilities if it’s not possible. There’s still a stated principle that the route should be direct and provide good access, but there’s a lot of focus on side-street routes.

Not coincidentally, I think, this is:

  • already a mechanism that Portland is big on;
  • cheaper than doing main-street bikeway treatments;
  • politically far easier than handling issues relating to repurposing the constrained space on main streets. (Which, I’ll grant, Portland has a much bigger problem with than most cities, because of our narrow streets.)

You can’t completely avoid main streets, because there are pinch points and major destinations, but even in those areas, side street options are a major focus. We had at least six side-street alternates presented to us tonight over a 9.5-mile route, and it would have been more except that there are existing bike lanes in some areas.

Here’s the question I want to pose: what if this design rider, who wants side street routes, is, like the P-vehicle, actually just a construct of the engineers? What if that rider doesn’t really want side street bike routes? What if they just want safe bike routes that are separated from car traffic, and can’t imagine any other kind of separated route because they hardly ever see one? What if they were asked, originally, “Would you rather ride on a side street than a main street?” with no mention of any changes to either one, and they naturally thought of existing streets? A What if they would really want properly-designed physically separated in-road bike facilities (cycletracks) if they had ever seen one in action? I’ve had this particular conversion experience myself. I used to be very skeptical of downtown cycletracks. “We don’t need those, riding in the lane downtown is fine.” Then I went to Vancouver, and I was like “What the heck was I thinking? These are awesome. We totally need them.”

Thinking in terms of “Where would I put a side-street bikeway to get people through this area?” is almost inevitable once you’ve spent any amount of time in Portland, because you’re used to them, and they are pretty pleasant as things go. I certainly enjoy and make use of them myself, and there are rational arguments for them (less pollution, more shade, quieter, more comfortable for groups and kids, consider them Portland’s narrow main streets’ ‘extra lanes’). But there is another paradigm, one that comes with its own advantages — automatic wayfinding, easy access to destinations, through roads, directness, optimal topography (usually), options that persist beyond the dense grid network of the inner eastside. What if we were discussing a cycletrack on 30th/33rd? 39th? 15th? Broadway (NE or SW)? Hawthorne? It is possible to create a bicycle network by adding bikeways to main streets. And maybe, if you asked people who might ride if they liked the option, and showed them pictures and interactive demos of it, they would say: Yes, that sounds great! I just never knew it was possible.

Because reasons.

I suddenly noticed recently that there’s an interesting construction developing right under my nose. In fact, I’ve used it, without thinking “This sounds like a new syntactical development.” (Like you do.)

“I can’t because reasons.”

“I want this because reasons.”

This is actually two developments in one. The first one is “because of reasons”, from Pardon Me by Three Word Phrase [NSFW]. This is more of a semantic development: you can use “reasons” as a substitute for explaining your reasoning, either because it’s obvious or because maybe it’s complicated or you don’t want to explain (as in the comic).

The second is a syntactic development: you can place a noun phrase after “because”, sans “of”. There aren’t any formal, detailed analyses of this that I can find, but a few other people have made an attempt to describe it linguistically. These descriptions are fairly inadequate, so I decided to break out the big guns: The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Huddleston and Pullum), hereinafter CGEL.

Edit: The phrase has been discussed on Language Log (thank you Lauren, for finding this when I missed it!), but a detailed analysis wasn’t offered, and the phrase seems to have several distinct origins and to be catching on in Swedish as well. All the more reason to think about it more clearly.

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How I am, and am not, a hipster

(For the purposes of this discussion, a hipster is someone who likes things and considers them good until/unless they become popular and/or mainstream, at which point they become ashamed of liking them or declare them “sold out”, “over”, etc.)

I don’t think I’m a hipster most of the time. (No one does, right?) I tend to get devoted to things late rather than being on the forefront of a trend (The Decemberists are awesome? Who knew?!), and stay devoted to things even if they’re popular. On the other hand, when was the last time I liked something really popular? (Okay, that one Lady Gaga song was pretty cool, but then I forgot to check out the rest.) I tend to focus my energy on liking things that aren’t so well known. I like to think of myself as someone who’s eclectic, drawing together my own little collections of cool things from different places, enthusing about things that no one really knows about except their devoted fans — not even hipsters. You might say I’m actually such a hipster that I even out-hipster the hipsters.

Take diet. Ever since I became mostly vegetarian in college (speaking of things that are both “so over” and incredibly trendy), I’ve been looking for cookbooks that I like. Over the years I’ve found some good ones — early on, Almost Vegetarian, then Vegan With a Vengeance and Isa’s other cookbooks, Yellow Rose Recipes, The Mediterranean Vegan Kitchen, The Real Food Daily Cookbook. But I hadn’t found a great fit until recently, when I found myself cooking constantly out of a trio of cookbooks I mostly discovered through blogs, and bought in the last few years: Smitten Kitchen, Super Natural Every Day, and The Sprouted Kitchen.  I realized that I have a cooking style, and those cookbooks (and another one I just received as a gift, Plenty) really match my style. There are other people out there cooking and eating like me. I’m not super eclectic and wacky, bringing together things from all over. I just have this style, and someone else thought of it first, and is doing it better. I’m still adapting their recipe lists for my taste (and mostly skipping the meat when it shows up), but they constantly produce recipes that I get incredibly excited about, that I wonder where they’ve been all my life, or why I didn’t think of them.

But here’s the proof that I’m not a hipster: I’m really excited about that!

Breakfast sets the tone for the day

Recently, for about nine months, I think, I’ve been eating the same breakfast most days: 1/3 cup hot multigrain cereal with 1 large stalk (or 2 small stalks) finely chopped kale, topped with a fried egg over easy and sprinkled with pepper and nutritional yeast, accompanied by Harney & Sons Formosa Oolong tea. The cereal mix sounds really strange to a lot of people — even if they’re on board with the egg, the kale is pretty out there (or vice versa). But I love it. The egg yolk melts into the cereal mix, and the kale and nutritional yeast add complexity, texture, and richness. The tea (which my brother introduced me to) has a great flavor, mild enough to drink without sugar or milk but still nutty and strong, and is hard to overbrew, which is perfect since I’m usually focused on timing the cereal, kale, and egg sequence.

When I sit down on the sofa with my bowl of cereal and my tea, and I break the yolk and taste that first bite before the yolk gets mixed in, hot and rich, and sip my tea, I try to enjoy it fully, and think about how lucky I am to get my favorite food and tea every morning, sitting on my couch with my cat. It sets a tone for the day of enjoying the small things, which is my favorite way to feel happier.

The kinds of conversations on the Internet that recur and recur and never end

  • How people arrange their financial accounts with their significant other.
  • What kind of car people drive and why they like it or hate it.
  • What personality type people are in some system, and whether that system rocks/sucks/is scientifically valid/is total bullshit.
  • [Added 9/22] What kind of houseware people own, or wish they owned, or have inherited, or how little they care about any of this.

This list to be added to the next time I end up in one of these.

I hate everything about this menu.

Multnomah County Library (which I do love, sincerely) redesigned their website recently. The redesign was much-needed and a lot of things have improved, but this menu, I absolutely hate.

Borrowing menu

They managed to pack so many wrong things into one little menu!

  • The title is unecessarily long, strangely cased, and punctuated.
  • The title has a drop arrow next to it. The drop arrow, in case you were wondering, doesn’t do anything.
  • There are only three things you can do, and each one, for some reason, has its own heading and section.
  • Each of the first two headings is followed by a link that is almost identical both in wording and in color.
  • The last heading is “other” which is the most useless heading ever. It screams “We were supposed to have a header, because we have them, but we don’t need one.”

Every time I go on there I try to click the headings. Because they look the same. As the links! Argh!

Let me fix that for you:

There, isn’t that better? I mean, don’t make the B by penciling it in, you have the font available, but seriously, isn’t that better?

Asking the right questions

As the days and weeks have stretched into a month, I’ve gotten extremely frustrated with being injured. In the last two days I realized that I’ve been making it worse by certain attitudes I wasn’t entirely conscious of. One is that I should be able to keep up my usual standards even when injured (with the obvious exceptions of things I just can’t do, like hiking and biking) — making nice food for parties, attending my usual events and meetings, exploring a lot on vacation, cooking up all my CSA produce, signing letters, going to interviews…but actually, sometimes I just can’t. And it’s okay to buy wine instead of cooking, to give away my produce, to miss meetings and events, to just be glad I can take the vacation at all (nevermind take advantage of every opportunity), or to flake out (occasionally) because it’s just too much. No one is expecting me to be the same as my regular self except…me. And if I want accommodation, I have to ask for it, because it’s definitely convenient for other people for things to be normal, and if I don’t tell them I need things to be different, they’ll naturally do normal as a default.

This is the attitude that got me in so much trouble with my foot in the first place. According to the podiatrist I saw this week, if he had seen me at the initial injury, he would have put me in a heavy brace (stirrup air cast with cross-strap support) 24/7 as soon as I was up to walking. Instead I was initially advised to walk a bit once I felt comfortable, wearing just a basic elastic bandage. That was going okay until I decided to have three interviews in a week, including traveling to Victoria on Vancouver Island, and came back unable to walk more than a few steps again. Oops. So, now I’m in a brace that keeps my foot safe, but it’s over a month since I injured myself and the things I can do easily, although increasing in number, are also getting pretty old.

This morning I realized that I’ve also been relying on those things (sleep, read, listen to music, mess around on the computer), and allowing myself to be bored and frustrated by only having those actions to pick from, instead of thinking about all of the things that I can do that I might want to do. I haven’t even picked up my knitting; I only started raiding my housemates’ bookshelves, instead of relying on my own smaller ones, last week. I did go through my to-do lists, but I haven’t done much project work or writing; I haven’t been working on my Codecademy courses. I haven’t even tried practicing meditating, which is a kind of obvious thing to do when you can’t do anything. :)

Nothing is going to take away the natural frustration of what’s normally simple being hard, of not being able to do my yoga practice or run, or of missing the majority of the Portland By Cycle/Women on Bikes season. But asking myself the right questions — what do I want to do, that I can do? — will make it easier for me to get more things done, while at the same time making it easier and less stressful for me not to push myself to do what I simply can’t right now.

The worst advice I’ve ever gotten

The worst advice I’ve ever gotten is to go ahead and pursue a potential romance with a friend, because you really can’t ruin a good friendship that way.

It’s not true. You really can. It doesn’t mean you will, or that if you do, the decision was a bad one. But it’s not true, and you should go into such a situation knowing that whether the friendship will come out intact is dependent on a lot of factors, and they aren’t all under your control. Even if it’s intact, it might be quite different — better, worse, who knows? It might need a break for a while and then come back stronger. But don’t go in thinking there’s nothing to lose.

I remembered this advice (which was given to me in college, naturally) this morning because I was thinking about a situation where it might apply, and ended up shaking my head, remembering exactly how not true it is.

Remixing yourself

I just finished Reamde, which I’ve been meaning to pick up and serendipitously ran across at the library on Thursday, just before spending a bunch of time on a plane and then in bed with a cold and a renewed pain in my ankle (probably from selfsame traveling).

I was only about 250 pages in when I realized that this was going to be another one just like Cryptonomicon, where you can’t just stop reading after a decent length of time because he’s suddenly brought in new and interesting characters and you just know that this is going to lead to a final confrontation where everything you’ve learned throughout the book’s meandering among different storylines will come together in interesting and slightly unpredictable ways.

And that’s not the only way it’s like Cryptonomicon. It doesn’t jump back and forth in time, but some of the characters almost fit the same roles — Richard is like Randy, Sokolov is like Bobby Shaftoe; the younger characters play a role much like the Randy-orbit characters do in Cryptonomicon, with Zula being like a projected-forward Amy. There are no five-page discourses on breakfast cereal consumption techniques, but the same discursive style is present, where Stephenson describes each person’s thoughts in various situations in precise detail. Instead of focusing on data havens and encryption, it’s about gold farming, viruses, and terrorism. (Both of them, interestingly, are about the human [dis/in]ability for pattern recognition, and the way that causes events to play out in the real world.)

After a while I developed the theory that it was like a remix of every Stephenson novel in the style of Cryptonomicon. There’s the fascination with China from The Diamond Age, the use of the RV and attitude to suburbia and modern American culture from Snow Crash. The heavy use of, and reference to, West Coast irony compared to Midwestern earnestness that pretty much pervades both. And I started to wonder if it wasn’t done on purpose, like it’s a joke on the readers, or if he really was just being derivative. One thing I’ve noticed about Stephenson novels is that if you ‘get’ them, it makes you think you’re maybe a bit smarter than everyone else, because his writing style is intellectual and clever — he has these nice ways of observing and describing things, and setting things up with these little discourses, so that you think you’re getting some kind of deep and interesting insight. And the characters are clever people, with various emotional hangups that the writing style makes sound profound. But his characters really aren’t all that interesting in most cases, and it’s all layered on top of interesting and well-planned-out but otherwise kind of basic, and occasionally implausible, storylines. Wars, war games, academics, tech industry/politicking. The writing is fancy goat cheese frosting on pretty basic vanilla cake.

In Reamde, the thing I found really perplexing, and which I don’t see anyone mentioning in reviews, is that Marlon’s T’Rain character is a troll named Reamde. If this were really the case, the track that the investigation takes is a bit inexplicable. It’s clear from conversations between Richard and Corvallis that Corporation 9592 has figured out which groups of accounts are involved in activity connected to the virus, although they aren’t planning on taking much action on it — on page 563 they describe it as ‘Chinese hacker kids’, and then Richard asks Corvallis to monitor the group of accounts that have been associated with gold movements in the area. They even figure out (after Richard tasks Corvallis with monitoring the accounts) that there is a liege lord of all these accounts! The name and address are fake, but that doesn’t mean the characters’ names wouldn’t show up on checking out this account (the way it does when Corvallis pulls up Zula and Wallance’s characters). There’s no way that Corvallis, Richard, or anyone else at Corporation 9592 could have failed to finger him specifically as the creator of the virus. They would still have needed to know something about his account, which would not have been easy to find out, but it would have been clear that that specific account was the one to watch, and that’s never really mentioned. This is just flat out nonsensical, and there’s no good reason ever given for it. Why would they never search all the monitored accounts’ character names for anything resembling that string?

This isn’t the only implausibility, but it’s one that just seems incredibly stupid, and easily dealt with even by post-hoc editing. Conclusion: Either Stephenson has exhausted his capabilities as a writer, or chose to deploy them in a way he knew would be successful and enjoyable to his existing readers but not terribly new or profound, and so some of the story construction and editing is sloppy. Either way, disappointing, but not bad. I’ve read a lot of derivative novels in my life and this was one of the more enjoyable ones.