Colorado to New York, one year later

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Erika asked me recently:

I am interested to know how you feel now, about everything you were riding toward and away from last fall.  How did the ride change you, what are your thoughts about the entire adventure now, what have been the long-term effects of the trip, and where are you in your life now?  Also – would you do it again?

It’s hard to know where to start in describing this…  I’ve been sitting here for almost 20 minutes trying to find an angle on it, and utterly failed.  So instead I’m just diving in, saying whatever appears in my mind.

A long solo bike trip is a combination of exposure to strangers and the unknown, and long stretches of peaceful, private time.  I remember the trip as much for the books I “read” and the self-absorbed notes I took as for the things I saw and did.  New feelings and ideas came from everywhere.

It sits in my mind as a mountain range sits on a landscape, dividing my unhealthy, upset past from my more balanced, secure self.  I remember the turns of the pedals and the sweat and the vitamins and all the protein I tried to stuff into myself, and how my body seemed to change shape as the days passed, and how surprised I was that such a change could still happen … That I could, indeed heal.  That I could indeed burn off the constant stress and fear and misery, that I could actually come to terms with leaving a job that I had staked all my pride in, not by feeling content with the outcome, but by wringing the feelings out of me, leaving them on the road, expelling them in each breath.  By outrunning them, and by staking a new identity in a fresh terrain, with a reclaimed store of energy.

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When I arrived in New York I was an almost completely recycled person, seething inside the same skin.

There was still a big problem though: I didn’t have a plan.  I finally had a handle on my health, and an idea about where I wanted my career to go, but the sense of clarity that I’d been hoping for in my romantic and emotional life just hadn’t materialized. With so much experience already behind me, what would catch my interest now?

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The trip also beat some perspective into me about ambition.  My ambition to be a good contributor to the world and to society and community was not, I realized, a typically male motivation in a career.  I was not interested in power or rank, not particularly interested in high pay or prestige or appearing authoritative.  I also realized that my mode of interacting with people was not typically male either – it spread further across the spectrum.  I was interested in cooperation, rapport, empathy, egalitarianism, reassurance.  When I combined that with my very strong history of nuts-and-bolts software engineering, it led directly to a key phrase that popped into my head somewhere around Indiana that made everything clear:  “I like helping scientists.”

As an aside, it also laid the foundation for another realization that happened post-trip, that was so novel I was shocked that I hadn’t realized it before:  Just about every woman I’ve seriously dated or fallen in love with or even had a short fling with, has had a strong bisexual side.  I could go right down my dating history from beginning to end, and whenever there was mutual attraction, it was with a woman with some bisexual traits, whether it be a sexual history with women, or an assertive masculinity to her personality.  I finally had a pattern to work with that wasn’t based on something so arbitrary as hair color or ethnicity or height. That knowledge enhanced my sense of peace with who I am.

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Even now, a year after the trip and all those long thoughtful days, I can still pull fresh ideas from the experience. I also make regular use of the equipment I had to purchase; for example I wore my rain gear three times this week – pants, jacket, and hood – and stayed warm and dry for my daily office commute. Ripples from the event seem to echo perpetually across my life. Sometimes just being out and about on the recumbent will naturally lead back to the trip.

For example I was out earlier today cycling between the UPS store and the office, and I stopped at a red light, and a tall black man with a graying beard, carrying a bag of groceries, ambled over to me from his spot on the crosswalk and gave me a fist-bump, and said, “Nice wheels, man! Where you riding to?”

“This is just how I get to work, nowadays,” I said. “But I did ride it across the country once!”

“Whoah!” he said, and laughed. “Hell yeah, now that is some serious riding!”

Then the light turned green, and we each took off.

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Around town, I’m probably known more for the recumbent than for my face. That was true all across the country, and it remains stubbornly true at home. There is an endless supply of people who have never seen a recumbent before. Thankfully their approach is very civil – they don’t see me as some kind of space alien, like people in Missouri did. … And I still remember being stopped by a cop in the middle of an empty Kansas highway just because I was an anomaly and he wanted to – I quote – “make sure I was okay.”

In fact, cycling around Oakland is comfortable in general, and I don’t think I really appreciated that until I rode through a lot of other urban centers. Oakland is very supportive of cycling, and is spending good money to untangle the bike lanes and signals and curbs and increase awareness. Motorists are very forgiving and observant of cyclists, racks are plentiful, and even the school crossing guards will blow their whistles and halt traffic for you if they happen to be around. I recently realized how accustomed I was to this environment when I went on a date with a woman who lived in Santa Cruz.

We were on our bikes, coasting down Piedmont Avenue out of the Mountain View Cemetery, and she said to me, “You know, you just did a bad thing back there.”

“Oh?” I said, stopping at the bottom of hill next to her.

“Yeah, you rolled through that 3-way intersection, right in front of a cop. He looked straight at you. So don’t be surprised if he comes zooming up behind us.”

I stared at her, blankly, for a long moment.

“Ah,” she said, “Right. I forgot, this isn’t Santa Cruz, this is Oakland.”

“Exactly,” I said. “Cops in Oakland have actual things to do.”

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A year after the long ride, I’m still fighting the urge to think like a lazy urbanite, and that bothers me. It’s only three miles round-trip to visit the post office, three miles round-trip to the grocery store, four miles to either of the Farmer’s Markets, four miles to work and back. Less than half a mile to eight different restaurants. Even if I hit all those places in one day, it would still be less than a quarter of the typical mileage I covered each day crossing the country. When will I really get the clue? So it’s raining; so what? That’s an extra 15 minutes of prep time, tops, and I never have to worry about the parking lot being full. So it’s blazing hot; so what? Put on shorts and a bandana; stick some iced-tea in the cup holder; off you go. You’ll arrive refreshed and ready.

I’m astounded sometimes when I think about how I owned a bike for almost 15 years and saw it mostly as a toy.

Now it’s also a serious implement, an essential part of my health, a cost-saving device, a wellspring of stories and conversations and community involvement, and the best choice – unequivocally the best – for exploring new parts of the civilized world. If there’s one thing the cross-country trip convinced me of, it’s that.

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So. Would I do it again?

Yes; hell yes.  I would leave tomorrow if I had the chance.  All the gear I need is here, arranged around me in the living room as I write this.  It would take me less than a day to tune up the bicycle and load it for bear, and then I could throw together a plan to feed the cat, lock the door, put my foot on the pedal at the edge of the sidewalk, and be gone.

Perhaps I’d ride north, then pull a gigantic S-curve across the entire USA, ending up in Boston or Maryland, and by the time I got there I’d have a berth on a container ship reserved, or my carrier box shipped out so I could stuff the bike inside.  Then perhaps I’d keep going. I would arrive in Spain in late winter, then do another S-curve through Europe, ending up at the edge of Italy in the fall, where a ferryboat can bear me across to the east edge of the Mediterranean, and Turkey.  From there … Russia, China … who knows?

But that’s probably not the way it will happen, if it does happen, because of the lesson I learned on this last trip:  I can only be rootless for so long.  It’s most likely that after reaching the Atlantic, I’d actually be impatient to get home, and work and build and write and hang out with friends.  Then perhaps I’d consider picking up the trip where I left off.

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And that also connects with my immediate situation:  If I can leave tomorrow – quit my job and housing search, and take off – then why don’t I do just that?  What’s stopping me?

Essentially, a feeling that what I need next, what I’m looking for, is not out there over the horizon, but is closer at hand.  It’s here, somewhere.  In this architecture, on these streets, in the market stalls, in the minds of the people I talk to at work, and at restaurants and concerts and rallies.  It’s here, I’m almost totally certain.  And I’m just as certain that something isn’t quite aligned correctly in my everyday life for me to pick up the scent of it.  That’s where I’m at in the day-to-day, now.  Something is not quite adjusted right, but I’m narrowing it down, checking old items off the to-do list, tweaking the sails to catch a new angle in the wind and bring it to my face.  What is it!  What is this thing!!!

Let’s find out.

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Stress sucks.

Enter a period of psychological stress, and your organs release a steady river of hormones, telling the cells in your body to burn more energy. After a few days of this feedback, your cells begin sending signals to all the mitochondria living inside them, telling them to divide, increasing energy capacity. This is important because when the energy production system is bottlenecked, little chemical packets called “free radicals” are released inside your cells, especially from the struggling mitochondria. Free radicals are damaging to the DNA in your cells, including the DNA of your mitochondria. So having enough mitochondria to avoid a bottleneck is important.

Unfortunately, this is a paradox. When your mitochondria are overworked, it’s like running an engine too hot. Free radicals are the equivalent of smoke coming out of the engine compartment. To address the problem, your mitochondria reproduce by dividing, making more to share the load. … But some of your mitochondria have been damaged by running too hot. When they make copies of themselves by dividing they pass the damage along to their offspring. Eventually, there are more damaged mitochondria inside your cells than clean ones, and the whole operation of the cell becomes degraded because of the extra resources this consumes.

As the mitochondria decline in efficiency, the cell will shift across the spectrum of genes it can express, to devote more resources to mitochondria recycling. This reduces the cell’s effectiveness as part of a functioning organ. (Stem cells and heart cells do not divide their mitochondria, and therefore are not directly under the influence of this cycle, but they can still suffer from the decline of other organs.) Each cell also has a feedback loop of signals inside it, designed to detect this degradation. When a cell in your body realizes it has dropped below a reasonable efficiency level, it commits suicide, removing itself and its damaged mitochondria from your collective internal gene pool.

Yes! Your own cells sometimes kill themselves because they can’t keep up.

Here’s what this means for you, on a human scale: When you pass through a cycle of stress, part of you dies off while the rest of you decides to repopulate, spreading slightly less efficient mitochondria throughout your tissues, resulting in a subtly decreased energy level. You really begin to notice it in middle age.

This effectively cannot be reversed, because you can only work with the genetic supply of mitochondria that you have. Your best hope for renewed health is to maintain a higher set-point for energy capacity, via a higher standing population of your current mitochondria, so that when you are pressed into high-stress situations, you do not logjam your energy supply chain and create damaging free-radicals.

In other words, sufficient sleep, complete nutrition, and consistent aerobic exercise places your body into its most long-lasting mode. It delays the onset of virtually ALL late-life diseases. This may seem like common knowledge, but now you understand why it is so…

And why there is absolutely no product, service, or diet that can turn back the clock. Your very best outcome is to slow it down.

That’s Great, But, What Have You Been Up To LATELY?

Biking around Oakland all day like some punk-ass deadbeat hipster has been lots of fun.

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Also, visiting my parents and sisters and nephews during my time off has been totally awesome.

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Don’t worry, there was no permanent scarring. Heh heh heh.

Not to mention the vacations with Erika. She took a picture of me finding … (band hit) … A SHRUBBERY !!!

Garrett and the Desert Holly

Our adventures also reached the dizzying heights of … (wait for iiiiit) … SHOPPING FOR PANTS !!!

new pants Disco Jeans!

In total, I can surely say it was an Excellent Adventure and a Bogus Journey.

But lesson learned: I need to work on big things I believe in, or I feel rudderless. That is why, after a few rounds of interviews, I began working at the Joint Bio-Energy Institute in Emeryville. Contrary to what the name implies, they do not spend all day rolling joints and flailing about spastically. It’s all about alternative fuel research and genetics, yo.

The JBEI is a 20 minute bike ride from my house. Flippin’ sweet. Yesterday I picked up my badge:

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I also got a tour of the place. You know those tacky commercials where some actress puts on a white lab coat and stands in front of some complicated beeping machines and glassware to convince you that Bob’s Double-Nose Enhancement Pills are the one true path to enlightenment and skipping merrily through fields of pollen, and also they are definitely not rat poison? The grain of truth in the stereotype is that the white lab coat and the hardware convey REAL SCIENCE, right?

Well, I am now apparently surrounded by REAL SCIENCE.

There are huge rooms here at the JBEI where people in white lab coats stroll around in front of complicated beeping machines and glassware. Tons and tons of glassware; acres of it, with strange liquids writhing inside. There are other rooms filled with thunderous air-conditioning and rows of industrial freezers, with digital readouts saying things like “-80 C”, and signs tacked on the wall reading RADIATION HAZARD and MUST USE PROTECTIVE EYEWEAR.

While I was getting the unofficial walkabout tour from one of my co-managers, I heard a polite voice behind me calling, “Excuse me! Please; excuse me!” I turned around to see a short woman in a lab coat and glasses, with a huge embarrassed grin on her face, and an enormous glass bottle cradled in her arms with some mysterious clear liquid tumbling about inside. She said:

“Can you open this? Like, just loosen it, but not take the lid off? Please?”

Then she handed the bottle. It took a few seconds of careful macho twisting, but I got the cap to turn, and handed the bottle back to her. “You got it! Thank you!” she said, grinning some more, and then turned around and strode back into the lab.

A charming omen for a first day. Like my first day at Apple, when I encountered Steve Jobs in the cafeteria. This omen illustrates the general tone for this new chapter in my working life: I like helping scientists!

The rest of the day was spent setting up my build environment, then diving straight into a thorny mess of code. Afterwards I was dead tired, but Erika gave me a ride to the Soup Restaurant of Deliciousness, and I perked up over the meal. We had an excellent time.

That night I prepped the recumbent in the living room:

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Inflated tires, oiled chain, tightened bolts, and reattached storage bags.

The bags contained items to customize my work area:

  • Six dark chocolate peanut butter cups.
  • A box of dark-chocolate covered walnuts.
  • Three Hawaiian shirts with matching plastic hangars.
  • A framed painting of a striped kittycat that has been on all of my office desks since 1998.
  • A pair of shoes
  • A hefty bike lock
  • My newly minted badge
  • A toothbrush

Some time after I packed it up and rolled sleepily into bed, Erika sent me an Emoji version of how my next day would go:

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She got it spot on. The ride next morning went perfectly, and the recumbent sparked a conversation in the parking garage, and I made a new friend, then another in the elevator on the way up to the fourth floor.

The second day: Eight hours of A-game hacking. By the end of the session, I’d learned a ton of new things about Java, Tomcat, Ant, and Indigo, and I’d come up with a good strategy for untangling the design flaws in the my newly-assigned project.

Awwww yeah.

Then I rode home, fed the cat, grabbed some laundry, rode to Erika’s, and we dashed out to catch yoga. An hour-and-a-half of balancing, stretching, and serene, focused movement. An excellent Tuesday ritual. Between this and the bombastic expression of Karaoke I think I have a good thing going.

Let’s see where it takes me!

Kevin’s Drawing

Kevin's Drawing