This is Water

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet
an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says
“Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a
bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes
“What the hell is water?”
—-David Foster Wallace, from the 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address

The other day I stumbled across a blog entry that posed the question, “What Book has the Most Page-for-Page Wisdom?” I had read most of the links on the page – but one that I was not familiar with caught my eye. This is Water, by David Foster Wallace.

It’s a short work, actually a transcription of a commencement address, and readily available in book form or online.

There are a lot of good ideas here, but I want to look at one piece of text – a description of the hell everyone’s life can become if we give in.

By way of example, let’s say it’s an average day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired, and you’re stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home — you haven’t had time to shop this week, because of your challenging job — and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the workday, and the traffic’s very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store’s hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can’t just get in and quickly out: You have to wander all over the huge, overlit store’s crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the ADHD kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough checkout lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day-rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can’t take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register.

Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your check or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn’t fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic, etcetera, etcetera.

—–David Foster Wallace, This is Water

The excellent piece goes on to explain how important it is to not let this sort of thing get to you, to realize that we are all in the same boat, that we need to look at life in a non-selfish way and go with it – or else we will go mad.

All good advice and interesting thought provoking… but I want to present an alternative. Find out about this shit and simply don’t do it… or rather, figure out something else.

For example, I know all too well the hell of exhausted grocery shopping. So I decided not to do it.

My goal for this year… and probably for next year too, is to never drive my car to the grocery store. My commuter bike has room for a pair of big, cheap panniers I found at Wal-Mart of all places. With those and a backpack I can carry a goodly bit of groceries – enough to get by for a few days.

This has transformed my grocery shopping from a gas-fueled frustration fest into a series of fun little mini-adventures, complete with fresh air and a little exercise.

It helps that I have five grocery choices within easy cycling distance from my house. I define that as less than, say three miles… and no killer streets.

First is the Super Target – good for general shopping. They have bike racks sort of hidden in little alcoves near the entryways. This is the closest place to the hell described in Wallace’s speech. But, somehow, when you have ridden a bicycle to a store, it’s impossible to be overly frustrated at the inevitable delays. You simply feel too silly.

Bike racks tucked away at the Super Target store.

Bike racks tucked away at the Super Target store.

Then there is the Fiesta Mart – a Hispanic slanted grocery store. It’s the farthest away – maybe two miles – but a nice route, mostly bike trail. It has a beat-up but serviceable bike rack around by the propane cylinders.

My commuter bike, with panniers, waiting at the Fiesta Mark bike rack.

My commuter bike, with panniers, waiting at the Fiesta Mart bike rack.

Those are the only two groceries with bike racks near where I live. No big problem – they all have cart racks, which can be locked to as well as a dedicated rack. In the other direction – in Garland, actually – is the Saigon Market Mall – a big, cool Asian Market – good for noodles, fresh vegetables, and fish.

Then, very close to where I live is an Aldi – great for staples like milk and eggs. It’s nice to buy milk there since it is uphill from my house and I can ride up there light and coast home heavy.

Finally, there is an India Bazaar in the same center. Great place for rice, beans, and, especially spices. Their spice aisle is a wonder – I love to stand there and simply smell.

Locked up on the cart rack in front of the India Bazaar

Locked up on the cart rack in front of the India Bazaar

I know that the Wallace speech deals with much larger and more subtle issues than how to get your groceries. But in this tough world we need all the weapons we can muster and being able to roll out of the garage on a cheap, used, crappy bicycle instead of a smoke spewing SUV makes life a little bit easier to bear. For everybody.

Let’s Talk of Graves, of Worms, and Epitaphs

“Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills”
― William Shakespeare, Richard II

We lost about half the ride at Lee Harvey's - but here's the rest at the Santa Fe Trestle Trail. (click for a larger, better version on Flickr)

We lost about half the ride at Lee Harvey’s – but here’s the rest at the Santa Fe Trestle Trail.
(click for a larger, better version on Flickr)

A week ago I went along on an organized bike ride that, in the spirit of upcoming Halloween, explored three of Dallas’ historical cemeteries. I left the house and rode to the DART station, taking the train downtown. This was the last week of the giant State Fair of Texas and the trains were packed with last-minute fairgoers, but I made it without any problem. I rode from the West End Station down to the Continental Bridge Park and met up with about twenty folks there.

We rode down into the Trinity River Bottoms and followed the new paved bike trail and some gravel roads to the Santa Fe Trestle Trail. Then we headed up Corinth and into South Dallas. Working our way through the neighborhoods we arrived at our first stop, Oakland Cemetery.

This was a very peaceful and interesting place. It’s one of the oldest cemeteries in the city and is full of locally famous folks – the names on the tombstones are reflected in many familiar street names. One feature is that when they constructed the cemetery they left the native trees – making it one of the few first-growth forest spots in the city. There are a number of unique sub-species of trees found only there.

We rode around without stopping – I plan on going back soon for some photography there.

Leaving Oakland Cemetery we went a few blocks up a side street and stopped at an ordinary small rental property. It was the house where Ray Charles lived for a few years in the 1950s – while he was making some of his most famous music. I had no idea there was any connection between Ray Charles and the city of Dallas – the house is not marked or preserved in any way. The local blues scene was influential on his musical growth and style at the time. He was traveling a lot – but became a regular performer at local clubs like Woodman Hall and the Arandas Club.

Ray Charles' rental home. Dallas, Texas

Ray Charles’ rental home.
Dallas, Texas

We rode back on side streets into The Cedars where we stopped for lunch and a beer at Lee Harvey’s – which appeared as we turned the corner like an oasis in the desert.

The day was getting long and I thought about heading home, but I was convinced to ride back across the river to another historical cemetery, Oak Cliff Cemetery. It was another interesting and beautiful spot – but the sun was starting to set so we headed off to our last destination, Western Heights Cemetery.

I was getting tired and started to fall behind the main group. A strong cyclist stayed back with me and we became separated from everybody else. It was dark when we made it to Western Heights. We waited for a bit – but the others never made it.

Historical Marker at Western Heights Cemetery Dallas, Texas

Historical Marker at Western Heights Cemetery
Dallas, Texas

The most famous person buried in Western Heights is Clyde Barrow. A few years back I visited Bonnie Parker’s grave, north of Love Field. Her family insisted on her being buried far away from her infamous partner – there has been some interest in having them moved together over the years, but nothing has come of it.

Bonnie Parker's Gravesite

Bonnie Parker’s Gravesite

We clambered over the fence to take a look at the grave of Clyde and his brother Buck.

Grave of Clyde Barrow and his brother, Buck.

Grave of Clyde Barrow and his brother, Buck.

It was getting late and I was a long way from home, so I took off, riding back to the Trinity River, over the Continental Bridge and catching a train at the American Airlines Center back to Richardson. We had ridden a little over thirty miles, which is a long way in the city, especially for me. There is nothing better than a fun and exhausting day.

The Middle of the Perceptual World

This new quantum mechanics promised to explain all of chemistry. And though I felt an exuberance at this, I felt a certain threat, too. “Chemistry,” wrote Crookes, “will be established upon an entirely new basis…. We shall be set free from the need for experiment, knowing a priori what the result of each and every experiment must be.” I was not sure I liked the sound of this. Did this mean that chemists of the future (if they existed) would never actually need to handle a chemical; might never see the colors of vanadium salts, never smell a hydrogen selenide, never admire the form of a crystal; might live in a colorless, scentless, mathematical world? This, for me, seemed and awful prospect, for I, at least, needed to smell and touch and feel, to place myself, my senses, in the middle of the perceptual world.
—-Oliver Sacks, Uncle Tungsten

20 Elements Joel Shapiro Northpark Center Dallas, Texas

20 Elements
Joel Shapiro
Northpark Center
Dallas, Texas

They Say You Die Twice

“I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.”
― Banksy

Roll Up Door Tony Bones, 2008 Deep Ellum Dallas, Texas

Roll Up Door
Tony Bones, 2008
Deep Ellum
Dallas, Texas

2008 Artwork by Tony Bones

Tony Bones detail

Tony Bones
detail

“Once upon a time, there was a king who ruled a great and glorious nation. Favourite amongst his subjects was the court painter of whom he was very proud. Everybody agreed this wizzened old man pianted the greatest pictures in the whole kingdom and the king would spend hours each day gazing at them in wonder. However, one day a dirty and dishevelled stranger presented himself at the court claiming that in fact he was the greatest painter in the land. The indignant king decreed a competition would be held between the two artists, confident it would teach the vagabond an embarrassing lesson. Within a month they were both to produce a masterpiece that would out do the other. After thirty days of working feverishly day and night, both artists were ready. They placed their paintings, each hidden by a cloth, on easels in the great hall of the castle. As a large crowd gathered, the king ordered the cloth be pulled first from the court artist’s easel. Everyone gasped as before them was revealed a wonderful oil painting of a table set with a feast. At its centre was an ornate bowl full of exotic fruits glistening moistly in the dawn light. As the crowd gazed admiringly, a sparrow perched high up on the rafters of the hall swooped down and hungrily tried to snatch one of the grapes from the painted bowl only to hit the canvas and fall down dead with shock at the feet of the king. ’Aha!’ exclaimed the king. ’My artist has produced a painting so wonderful it has fooled nature herself, surely you must agree that he is the greatest painter who ever lived!’ But the vagabond said nothing and stared solemnly at his feet. ’Now, pull the blanket from your painting and let us see what you have for us,’ cried the king. But the tramp remained motionless and said nothing. Growing impatient, the king stepped forward and reached out to grab the blanket only to freeze in horror at the last moment. ’You see,’ said the tramp quietly, ’there is no blanket covering the painting. This is actually just a painting of a cloth covering a painting. And whereas your famous artist is content to fool nature, I’ve made the king of the whole country look like a clueless little twat.”
― Banksy, Wall and Piece

Like A Reflection In A Fun House Mirror

“Silence. How long it lasted, I couldn’t tell. It might have been five seconds, it might have been a minute. Time wasn’t fixed. It wavered, stretched, shrank. Or was it me that wavered, stretched, and shrank in the silence? I was warped in the folds of time, like a reflection in a fun house mirror.”
― Haruki Murakami, Dance Dance Dance

(click to enlarge) Anish Kapoor (India, 1954) The World Turned Outside In, 2003 Polished stainless steel Northpark Center Dallas, Texas

(click to enlarge)
Anish Kapoor (India, 1954)
The World Turned Outside In, 2003
Polished stainless steel
Northpark Center
Dallas, Texas

You Insolent Demon, How Blind You Are!

You insolent demon, how blind you are! You may think I’m small, but I can grow easily enough. You may think I’m unarmed, but I could pull the moon down from the sky with my two hands. Don’t worry, old Sun WuKong will sock you one.
—- Sun WuKong, The Monkey King

I love noodles! Because of that, I was excited when, about a year ago, I read of the opening of a new place in Deep Ellum – The Monkey King Noodle Company.

Restaurant review: Monkey King Noodle Co. is a Chinese noodle soup lover’s paradise

All Hail The Monkey King

There had been this two-story taco joint on Main Street. I don’t think I had ever actually eaten there – but it was colorful and smelled delicious and I was unhappy when I saw it closed down. But it wasn’t long before construction started up. When I found out it was going to be a noodle spot – greatness.

Monkey King promised fresh hand-pulled noodles and authentic Chinese street food recipies. That sounded right up my alley – but I was never able to work out a visit. They were closed every time I stopped by.

Finally I was riding my bike down Main and saw someone out cleaning at Monkey King. I checked my phone and saw they would be opening at six – which was a half hour or so away. I rode on down to The Cold Beer Company and had a Temptress, then came back a few minutes after six.

The line was already halfway down the block but I had time so I locked up my bike and joined the queue. The guy in front of me said he lived nearby and was a huge fan of the Soup Dumplings – but since this was my first time there I went ahead and ordered the top of the menu, The Spicy Beef Noodle Soup.

And it was good. The hand thrown noodles are thick, chewy, and… well, perfect. The broth was as spicy as promised and the hunks of beef surprisingly hearty.

The small Monkey King building has a scary steel spiral staircase up to a patio on the roof. I really enjoyed chatting with the folks up there, eating our food while the sun set behind the crystal spires of downtown.

Now I have to go back and try those Soup Dumplings.

Monkey King Noodle Company, Deep Ellum, Dallas, Texas With cool covered patio on the roof.

Monkey King Noodle Company, Deep Ellum, Dallas, Texas
With cool covered patio on the roof.

Spicy Beef Noodles from Monkey King Noodle Company

Spicy Beef Noodles from Monkey King Noodle Company