Ch 4: The Cat in the Hat

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A slight to be seen.

Day 3: Fresh cool morning. City day today. Incredible how friendly people have been to us, Peace pilgrims on bikes. We’re able to be seen and see the world around us. Welcomed into the community. Tough hot riding, but totally worth it. Looking forward to another day. 

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Fertile landscape, scorched by fire.

Waking up under the palm trees, I felt comfortable with our camping experience. We were back on the bike tour! We took our time packing up camp, eventually rolling back out to the road. Reflecting on the journey, today was going to have challenges and obstacles, but we’d overcome them. The key was to be mindful of the lessons learned along the way.

We continued our climb in Kindia, the mountain city. The most fertile region that we passed through, the roadside was  large pineapple plantations surrounded by banana and orange trees. Many roadside vendors offered lower and lower prices for the fruit. Traffic got dense as we approached one of the larger Guinean cities.

We came to an unusual sight on the paved road, an intersection. Ethan had been through here on the taxi rides back and forth to Conakry, so he led us uphill on the bypass around the outside of town. Coming to one of the largest roadside food markets, we pulled our bikes into an unopened gas station. Crates contained the awaiting fuel pumps. Moving a nearby bench to a shady place behind a wall, we stretched and watched the street for a moment.

Looking out across the city, a large volcanic mountain was framed by the smokey horizon. I pulled out my sketchbook to capture the incredible sight, while Ethan walked down to the food vendors to find our lunch. Happy to be in the shade, I sketched anticipating lunch. Ethan returned and we passed a delicious spaghetti, beans and hard boiled egg sandwich between us. Incredible satisfied, Ethan deliberated on going back for a second.

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‘Kindia, yes I know this place.’

As we had been sitting there for a while, a curious local had approached, and was now engaged in conversation with Ethan. I continued to work on my sketch, thankful for the full belly and the shade. Our new friend insisted on getting some selfies with us, so hugged together on the bench, we smiled for the camera. Some sidewalk vendors approached carrying racks of sunglasses and assorted fashion accessories. I pointed out a simple one blade / can opener knife, and Ethan agreed that it would be a nice addition to our gear.

After our long break, we finally returned to the bikes. Many shops decorated the side of the road with stacks of energy drinks inside. I still didn’t have a water bottle that fit my cage, and I thirsty wished I could get one of these bottles. Still unable to express my needs, I awaited an opportunity to ask Ethan for a drink.

Turning back onto the main road on the other side of Kindia, we soon came to a checkpoint. An older gentleman questioned Ethan. Similar to previous stops, once Ethan got to the point in the story about being with the Corps De La Paix, we were clear to go through. The old man continued to joke around with us, shaking our hands and welcoming us to Guinea.

The road took nice turn downhill as we continued onward. The steep hills were covered with luscious jungle. The weaving road would come to large clearings, where we could see out into the rolling countryside below. Feeling great, we blasted down the mountain. Seeing a shop with large water bottles, I hollered to Ethan to stop. He complied, and I now had a huge one litter bottle for my cage. Very relieved to be able to drink while we rode, my spirits soared.

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Cruising down the mountain

At the bottom of the grade, we rode across a new large bridge. Seeing the opportunity for a break, Ethan turned us around, and we crossed back over the adjacent old narrow, one lane bridge. A worn path led us down to the water side, where several other guys were washing clothes or themselves in the slow moving water. Still feeling uncertain about the water, I patiently waited while Ethan washed. Feeling the need to relieve my bowels, I carefully walked into the brush to find a spot. Relieved, I walked back out to river, but in my infinite disgust, I felt my toes become coated in a slimy brown gunk.

Without too much investigation, I knew that it was human shit. After my disgust had passed, I realized that this was today’s lesson.  Instead of being upset, it was just an opportunity to wash my feet. Thankful I had been wearing my sandals instead of my sneakers, I walked into the water and rubbed my feet through the muck. Satisfied I returned to the sun to dry off, accepting the reality of hygiene and sanitation around me.

As we relaxed, another watering hole visitor took notice of us and came over to pay us a visit. Ethan talked, while I played a little dulcimer music. Our new friend was impressed, so I gave him a couple of my stickers as souvenirs as a parting gift. Always amazed at how quickly Ethan can load up and return to the road, I once again was the slow one trying to secure my bags and get redressed.

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Shared streets.

On the road in the early afternoon, I took the lead for the first time in Guinea. Feeling strong, I pushed ahead, with Ethan steadily following behind. We approached another military checkpoint, and I slowed down. One of the guards was busy with another car, and the other appeared to be giving me the wave through. Thinking we were alright to continue, I just kept biking. The first guard was not satisfied however, and started blowing his whistle like a madman. Realizing that I was in violation, I turned around just as Ethan was arriving.

The questioning was especially tense, with me understanding very little of the rapid french. Ethan seem undisturbed as he patiently told and repeated our story. Unsatisfied, the officer requested our documents, scrutinizing them, then asking for more documentation. He didn’t seem to like that Ethan only had his Peace Corps ID, instead of his full US Passport. He also didn’t like that Ethan didn’t have his Yellow Fever documentation. But I seemed to pass, even though I didn’t speak a single useful word.

As we continued to stand there, several of the other guards walked over. They greeted us with smiles, and hearing our story, convinced the first guard that we were in fact okay. They really got a good laugh upon hearing that my name my Samba, and made Ethan type down their phone number encase something happened to us. Finally getting the go ahead, we returned to the road, though I was somewhat shaken by the encounter. Being questioned, in a language you don’t understand, by armed men, in a country far far from your home is stressful to say the least. Nonetheless, I was ever so grateful to have Ethan here to calmly work through these events. And I was even more aware of the privilege I carried with me, a US passport to go along with my white skin.

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Another tag-along rider.

Still in the mountainous part of the country, we slowly climbed another hill. A young rider hopped on his bike as we rode through town, and joined our convoy. Once again I was impressed at his determination, riding a single speed with a loose chain up the mountain right along with us. Upon closer inspection of his bike, I realized that one of his pedals had fallen off, and that he was riding on just the pedal axle. Man, if the bike snobs back in Corvallis could see the quality of bikes here. It’s truly about the rider, not the ride.

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More leg room when you sit on the roof.

The climbing continued for quite some time, as the sun continued to bake. Our friend eventually parted ways, reaching his destination I suppose. We rode on, until finally what seemed like the top. Quite tired, we pulled over to take a rest. ‘Whoa, there’s a big snake over there’ Ethan exclaimed. The snake appeared to be dead, but we gave it plenty of room anyways, opting for a spot further up the road.

Spreading my tarp out over some tall grass, we relaxed in partial shade, munching down large quantities of our snacks. Always grateful to be eating, I reflected on how far we’d come. Well really, I had no idea. I vaguely knew where we were going, but had little clue of the various towns along the way. We had no map, only Ethan’s memory of the trip from riding in taxis. In many way though, it made it easier to just stay in the moment, having no concept of the future.

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Across Big Mamma Africa.

Re-energized we returned to the road, making some more afternoon miles. The road took a general turn down again, as we eventually came to another large river. Pulling into the town of Kolente, a large market greeted us. We parked the bikes, and Ethan went shopping while I stood by our gear. Nearby a young girl was terrified by the horrible tu baboos that had just arrived. Her mother was comforting / laughing at her, as other children stared on. Her mother beckoned me over. Pulling out the candy, I carefully approached and gave her a piece, hoping to ease her terror. Still uncertain of me, I chose to pick my battles and return to the bike.

Looking around it seemed like someone was staring at my from almost every direction. Knowing when I’ve got a stage, I unstrapped my dulcimer and sat down on a nearby bench. Immediately children started to gather. Warming up, I focused on my music, as the number of children grew. Packed tighter and tighter around me, I looked up at all the curios faces around me. The looks were everything from disbelief to amusement or absolute joy. Smiling my brightest smile, I looked around the crowd from face to face. Many children responded with huge smiles of their own. Some of them would begin giggling, after looking at this incredible creature eye to eye.

I sang them some songs, and some of the kids clapped or danced along. Others continued to only stare. Nonetheless, I’m sure that moment was as memorial for them as it was to me. Ethan eventually returned, and seeing my crowd, informed me that he would be over there. Confident in myself, I continued my show, without worrying about the brief separation from my lifeline. Working through some more of my material, I felt so alive to be playing my music for the children of Guinea. What an incredible dream come true.

Having enjoyed myself, I realized when the energy was starting to wane. Putting away the dulcimer, I pulled out my next trick, my stickers. Introducing them in English, which no one seemed to understand, I took the next step of holding one out to the most curious and friendly face. My message was across, and suddenly dozens of hands were reaching from all directions. I tried to explain that they needed to share, or to only take one, but the words were lost in the commotion. No matter how many stickers I had, the hands would continue to take them. Briefly I felt the power behind those many hands, as I tried to hold my own against their might. With the stickers gone, I held up my empty hands, and thanked them for being a great audience.

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American African.

Returning to my bike, I looked around the market for Ethan. Eventually I spotted him across the way, and walked my bike over. He had ordered us a large rice dinner, and we sat in the shade to eat every grain. As we sat there longer and longer, I was wondering why we didn’t start riding again. ‘I think she’s going to let us stay at her place’ Ethan finally explained. So once the rice shop was finally packed up for the evening, we pushed our bikes behind the queen of the town’s gossip that night, the rice lady who hosted the exotic bicycle riding white people. As we walked through the street, I saw many familiar faces smiling back at us, waving with their new Flatland’r Jr. stickers.

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Dissertation Daze

Thanks for all of the support after my last post about my anxiety. I really appreciate the messages, and mail, your words are encouraging me in these tough days. I’m still working on the dissertation, and making steady progress. Each day I get to the office good and early, watch the sunrise then start banging my head against the computer. The struggle isn’t intellectual, I know what I need to do and know that I have the words inside of me to finish the papers, it’s emotional.

Maybe it’s my Taurus nature, being patience with things I want to do, and belligerent towards the things I don’t want to do, but I keep finding myself incredibly angry with this process. I know I just have to finish the work, so close to the finish, yet so much of my time is spent just trying to not explode. Typically I handle anger like a volcano. It lies dormant for a long time, until it builds up enough pressure to destroy everything around it. Each day when I’m trying so hard to get past the anger, I know that it’s not being expressed, and in turn, being saved for a horrendous day of reckoning.

I daydream about my defense. Or should I say offense, when I go on the attack, spewing all the toxic negative thoughts I have about academic life. I revel in the bitter words I plan to share. About the broken culture of perfectionism in academia. About the Ivory Tower of privilege. About the extinction event going on around us, while we sit here on stolen land at our comfortable computers chasing fat government funding.  I plan on calling them all cowards for not acting. I always finish the thoughts with an ultimatum, ‘today is my last day in academia, pass or fail, I will never participate in this miserable exercise of mental torture again.’

The power of that dark side is so seductive. The building anger wants to destroy these relationships I’ve built, burn the bridges to this community, and give them a rebel yell as I’m excommunicated from the polite conventional inaction of well-educated, privileged Corvallis. But surely going out in fiery blaze of self destructive anger isn’t the right answer?

Life in general is quite good these days. My living situation is stable. I’m physically healthy. The end of the dissertation is in sight. Lots of wonderful music to listen to, and play. Strong, meaningful relationships. When I look back, I see the progress I’ve made here, in my community, but moreover in my personal growth. So why so angry young man?

Fundamentally I see it as a dissonance between what I’m doing (endless, repetitive, mostly meaningless writing exercises), and all the other opportunities of my life. I have been blessed with many talents. Writing, drawing, music, speaking, listening, leading, entertaining, loving; my life is vivid in its expression. I believe in myself. I know that I can ultimately adapt and adjust to extreme circumstances. I day dream about all those other things that seem so easy to do instead of being present with what is in front of me.

So why not just let go and just get through it? Well, because I take everything so incredibly personally. I tormented by my own perfectionism. Rewriting that sentence I’ve already wrote 4 different ways? Well this time it better be the best fucking one! The internal pressure I build is quite incredible (and probably why I’m able to accomplish so much), but it also comes at a cost of my mental health.

And there’s the crux of my situation. Over this year, I’ve attempted to be committed to my resolution to always put my mental health first. But here I am, doing something that is a living nightmare for my mental health, yet I must continue. The moral of all your messages and thoughts: ‘just get through it’, ‘everyone suffers’, ‘you’ve got this Dylan,’ but never ‘just give up.’

I really don’t value the Ph.D. That’s my problem. I’m working so hard for something I think is mostly entitled bullshit (now that’s a quote for the defense). Therefore I have little motivation to continue being part of the academic cult of personality. I often play this game where I think of people that inspire me and ask do they have a Ph.D.?

Jimi Hendrix: Nope, yet he fundamentally changed the role of electric guitar in popular music. How did he do it? Dedication to his craft, always playing. Unabashed freedom of self expression. Every single moment. Alright, well, no shame and obsessive dedication, I know I’ve got plenty of that.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: Yes he earned one, but why do we remember him? Is it for his academic papers or his ability to lead in the face of brutal oppression? His spoken word, for the people, is what resonates through time, not his publications. Perhaps he rose to the leadership position because he had the right credentials, but I believe it was because he had the right heart. Dr. King had an unshakable belief in the plight of racial equality, and dedicated his life to being the change.

Dr. Seuss: Well, he was awarded an honorary doctorate, but long after he started using pen name. Was his work meaningful because it passed rigorous peer review and appeared in prestigious journals? No. His work resonates with us through our childhoods. Putting pictures and words together to entertain and tell powerful stories with moral implications. My name is Dylan Ross, so perhaps I should just give up on this whole process and start going by D.r. and hope that in the age of disinformation it carries the same weight.

I could go on and on, but I believe you get my point. Why am I doing this? Mostly for the health insurance. Will it help in the long run? It’s hard to say if the catastrophic changes that I believe are impending on our 21st Century life take place. The impact I have is not due to some credential, it is from a heart that is dedicated to what it believe in. That unshakable devote dedication, my greatest strength and heaviest burden.

So what’s the moral to this ranting? I’m making steady progress, and am past the worst (I hope?!?!) of my anxiety about the dissertation and my future. Two more weeks until I turn it in, and less than a month until my defense is done. Doing my best to hold it together, and to bear the burden that I placed on my own shoulders. And hopefully, one day soon, I can wake up without thinking about the implications and intricacies of the next paragraph and get back to doing what I love most, living a beautiful life, and sharing my truth with the world.

Anxiety

The fall is upon us. Maple trees are brilliant red, and the mornings are crisp with cool air. School is back in session, campus crawling with so many students again. The last of the sunny days, and a few rainy ones to get us ready for the coming months.

Here it is. The 22nd grade. In the final stretch of school. My defense is in little over a month. My dissertation is due later this month. And how is it going?

Pretty difficult. Yesterday I had my first panic attack. For the last couple of weeks, Tuesday has been the day I take for myself. Cook up plenty of food, wander around the island, go for a canoe adventure. But yesterday, I came to school to face the dissertation again. The stress is building, and every second the deadline is closer. I had a cup of coffee to get me in the writing spirit, and went to the grindstone, rewriting those words I’ve already written so many times.

I made steady progress through the afternoon. Then it hit me. I’ve only gotten through 3 pages. I need to have this paper ready for my advisor by the end of this week (I intended to send it to him last Friday). I can’t do this. So much more writing to do. Then all the references and citations. Then all the comments that I’ll get of all the things that are wrong and need to be fixed. The constant striving for perfection, from myself and from academia. Breaking down in tears, I wept mostly silently at my desk. Realizing that my effort for the day was over, I packed up my things and went to the stairwell to cry.

The stress of trying to finish my dissertation is compounded by the stress of the uncertainty following my potential graduation. Finishing my degree makes me unemployed. My health insurance, access to health care, counseling relationship, gym membership, and general income will all disappear at the end of the term. Those around me have pretty defined plans of getting jobs, but I can’t imagine signing up for another dose of long term stress right now. I’ve accepted that I’ll just go back to being a transient living in a van.

My sobbing continued, as the tension built within my body. On Monday I talked with my advisor about my progress. A subtle shift has occurred in our conversations. His support has changed from my role as a student, supporting me in my post graduating world. ‘I can get you a job interview, you just let me know where you want to work.’ After backing out of so much work (which I normally charge into), I feel untrustworthy. I see him shifting things away from me, and it makes me feel like damaged goods. And here I am struggling again. He’s already made so many concessions to me, at what point does that support run dry?

Walking from the building, I got my bicycle and walked it over to the grass area where I often sit. My breathing was short and very tense. I flipped open my phone and started looking for someone to call. ‘Please leave a voice mail…” My panic escalated, as the tension in my hands made it hard to hold onto the phone and to sit up. I collapsed onto the grass trying to focus on breathing through all the tears.

I called CaLeb, and his voice was on the other end. I gasped out what was happening, and he quickly offered supportive advice. My hands could no longer hold the phone, so I put it on speaker and wallowed on the ground beside it. Unable to speak, I listened, thankful to have something other than the intensity of the tension to focus on. He told me about his adventures, and his musically endeavors. Eventually my breath started to slow, and I started to rub my hand against my body to feel something other than the uncontrollable tension.

CaLeb laminated that he couldn’t give me a hug, as we’re on different sides of the continent. He suggested that I drink water and get something to eat. I was finally able to respond, and tell him how I was feeling. Describing my situation and what I’m working through. Feeling somewhat better, aka being able to breathe again, I thanked him for picking up the phone and went to find some food.

After eating some dinner, I started my bike ride home. And of course, my mind was totally focused on the writing that I need to do, how I feel like a disappointment to my advisor, and the general sense of doom for my future after graduation. Each page I write feels like one more wrap on the noose that I’m placing around my support systems. Then when I’m most exhausted and my mental health is degraded, I’ll kick the bucket out from under my feet.

What a wonderful experience graduate student life is. I know that I am not alone in my struggles. How many breakdowns will it take for me to finish? How many times must I leave school in tears, contemplating my destruction? Is another credential worth the damage to my mental health? What if the deadlines really do kill me?

They all tell me, ‘Dylan, you’re so close, just finish.’ ‘You’re so smart, if anyone deserves to be a Ph.D., it’s you.’ But I don’t know if I can do this. I sketch out my plans for how to accomplish it all, but see the steady slipping, missing my self imposed deadlines. Why am I working so hard to be part of a system that I fundamentally don’t agree with? I have so many talents and abilities, and yet here I am focused all my energy and effort to build a career that mostly stresses me out. I take everything I do extremely personally, hence my ability to give so much, but also it’s so exhausting to push so hard against the incredibly slow progress of civil infrastructure and culture change.

As I cried myself to sleep, my mind was still churning these thoughts. How do I figure this all out? After a month of great mental health, in a few short days I’ve slipped back into despair. Is this the end of my academic journey? After a lifetime of achieving, can my ego accept giving up at the very end?

But maybe I can finish it. Do the bare minimum. Self plagiarize. Jump through the hoops one more time. Suffer through the finish, then pick up the pieces afterwards. I half jokingly suggest that I should fail my defense to keep my support services, but my adviser assured me that I will pass.

I reflect on my time here at OSU. Surely the community is stronger because of my time here. I think of all the projects I’ve accomplished. The people I’ve encouraged to ride bikes. The infrastructure I’ve provided input and direction on. The real changes. I see the papers published. The good research outcomes. The relationships, friendships and community I’ve built. All the people that I’ve interacted with over the years. And the hard work I’ve done facing my inner demons. The emotional and spiritual growth that I’ve experienced in my time here. All of that didn’t need a Ph.D. It came from my spirit, my willingness to serve, and my vision for a future where we can continue to survive.

So I need you support. Your words of encouragement are so critical right now. Please tell me this is worthwhile. Please help me see the potential of the future. Please send me something in the mail (PO BOX 1424, Corvallis, OR 97339) to inspire me to keep going. Because I know I can’t do this alone.

On the Mountain Top

My life has been going through some really wonderful changes in the past few weeks. The most foundational change is in my living situation. I was patient in my search, probably checking out 8 places over the summer, but not finding the right fit. Then I found it, the right people, in the right location, with an east facing window. I’m still down by the river, but not living in the van. I’m renting a room in a farmhouse out on Kiger Island, south of Corvallis. After a summer of living on the streets in the Dodge Mahal, it’s really quite wonderful to have the space and stability of a house. Routines are starting to form again, instead of the constant uncertainty of parking somewhere new all the time.

The family I’m living with is a wonderful match. They’re around my parents age, with children my age. Being there helps to fill the empty nest, while I get the benefit of conversation, fresh baked cookies, and my favorite role as the finisher of leftover food. Helping out in small ways is greatly appreciated. The house is on a hazelnut farm, and they’re starting to drop! Being in a rural setting is so relaxing. Coming and going, I get some excellent views of Marys Peak, and love to watch her change in the weather, the moonlight and soon the seasons. The quiet of the country side fills me with deep peace. I walk down by the river, and see the blue heron, squirrels, chipmunks, and deer. The constant noise of the city is far away, just the sound of the breeze in the yellowing summer leaves.

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Marys Peak

Being able to unpack all my junk and actually use it has been very productive. Instead of layers of possessions constantly clogging my space, I can spread out and play music, draw, read, write, or dig into my Legos. As I go through my things, I’m constantly reducing and optimizing with the knowledge that I’ll be back in the van eventually. Clearing out the junk is enabling me to do some upgrades on the van space as well. Planning on getting some engine work done, remove the interior panels to build in more storage, and to paint a solar system mural on my ceiling, Sistine Chapel style.

Having access to a kitchen is a blessing. Being able to cook my own food has dramatically improved my diet. Instead of eating dried fruit, nuts and scavenging, I can cook my weekly beans and rice, and enjoy all the delicious vegetables that the Oregon harvest brings. I quickly bought a tub of ice cream, and have been slowly enjoying that pleasure instead of eating the whole pint before it melts. Similarly, being able to wake up and use the bathroom without wondering if someone is watching me pee in their bushes is a real treat. And I can wash my hands whenever I please!

Since Song Camp my life has been full of music. I feel so inspired as a creator, and play and sing every day. I go through my vocal exercise as I ride my bike, and seem to always have a song playing in my head (a wonderful change from self defeating ruminations). Taking my music more serious has been really validating for me. As my confidence grows, the music flows. I can transpose songs across instruments, and have been figuring out how to play lots of new songs on the dulcimer.

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The swimming hole at Harris Bridge

I also finally got the birthday present I wanted, a cello. Each day I fall more in love with the honey tone of the cello, as I patiently work on my technique. Sometimes I get frustrated with myself, but I remember that I’ve only been playing for 10 days, give it time. It’s a tall order as it’s my first fret-less instrument (having to find the right notes), learning the bow technique (though I often just pluck, strum and fingerpick the cello), and learning how to read music from my ‘learning cello’ book. Learning in this new way has really opened my mind to intricacies of the music, allowing the music to transcend any one instrument. Today I learned ‘Ode to Joy’, as well as my own rendition of ‘a hard day’s night’. I quickly fall into a music trance, playing for two hours effortlessly.

Living out on Kiger Island has me biking much more. I’m doing around 10 miles a day again, which is a enough to get my heart pumping. Having the time and space between work and school is also very helpful to clear the mind and transition between the worlds. Over the summer, the proximity of my school and life had me exhausted with both. The riding is easy on these sunny summer days, and I know I’ll adapt to the rain soon. I’ve also been offered to carpool into town during the work week, which should help on those rainy days.

In other bicycling news, I’m working on a tandem. I’ve enjoyed riding them in the past (thanks Carl), and am excited to have my own to trick out. The companionship of riding on the same bicycle together is pretty swell. Excited for the potential adventure opportunities, and opening up this new space in my life for others to share in my experiences. I’ve put in my order for one of Trevor’s Marys River Metalwork custom bicycles as well. Basically having him build me a frame, a gravel touring bike. In my dreams, it’s the bike I’ll ride around the world.

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Passion fruit flower

My writing has been progressing. I’ve been working on papers throughout the summer, in between my adventures. This effort will soon come together as my dissertation. I switched topics over the summer from the bicycling simulator, to the noise and vibration evaluation of rumble strips. The rumble strip research was what I was working on when I first started at OSU, so I’m in the process of taking our research report and converting it into journal papers. Much less stress with the research completed, instead of trying to finish a new project and do all the writing as well. My goal is to finish this fall, so I can find sunnier places to spend the winter. I’ve consistently struggled with seasonal depression, so I’m working hard to enable a winter somewhere south of here.

With that being said, I’ve scheduled my defense. In two months, on November 12th, I will defend my dissertation, and potentially finish my Ph.D. It’s pretty surreal to be at the end of this long journey through school. By some estimates, I’m about to begin the 24th grade. Most of the people I graduated with from high school stopped around 12 grades ago… I certainly have enjoyed my time as a graduate student, all the opportunities it has afforded me, but I’m also ready to be involved in other things in life. Instead of being an external advocate, I could potentially be working within agencies to be the change. I’m not too concerned with what that next step is going to be, but I know that with time I’ll find the right place where I can continue to serve humanity with my gifts.

My journey with my mental health is on a mountain top for sure. The stability of my living situation, the joy of the summer adventures, the progress towards my degree, and the constant music has me feeling absolutely great. Drama seems to be at a low for at least the past two years, and my mind is generally clear and positive. I recognize that with time it will change, but for now, I’m thoroughly enjoying being optimistic. Having a smile on my face, and a song on my lips feels so natural and free. Not everyday is blissful, but the challenging days seem manageable. Still working on letting go of things, but making progress. I’ve survived through my despair, and I value who I am and what I bring to this world.

Cutting back on my caffeine intake seems to be a critical component of my mental stability. The rush, then crash has often started the self defeating spiral of darkness. With moderation, or alternatives (ginger tea!), life seems to be on the right pace. The lower stress is pleasant. I remind myself that I can be productive without caffeine, which ultimately comes with those routines. Eating at home gives me more choice, instead of ordering coffee with my breakfast.

During those lowest times, I know that I struggle with depression. A few weeks ago I decided to start taking medication. In general, I feel like it is helping with my consistency. It’s kinda hard to tell with all the other changes happening in my life, but I feel a focused energy in my mind with the medication. Self care is still critical to maintain my good mental health, but it’s nice to have some help to keep me positive enough to do those things that I need to do for myself. I’m glad to be taking care of myself holistically.

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The view from the front yard of the Farmhouse

So, Hot Damn, things are going well! Doing my best to enjoy this time on the mountain top, and not afraid of the valley. Summer in Oregon is beautiful, and I look forward to continuing to explore and enjoy the lovely weather. The next two months will be trying, pouring myself into my academic work. But I’m on the home stretch, and with patience and persistence I will accomplish my task. My heart is full, my mind is clear, my body is strong, and my love grows. Until next time 🙂

Song Camp

A little over a week ago, I had the pleasure of attending the Harris Bridge Song Writers camp. Up stream on the Marys River, the beautiful countryside, and Coastal Range mountains surrounded our vineyard campground. I drove the van out for my stay, and was greeted with recognition and enthusiasm. An afternoon swim was proposed, and I headed out to the river to try and find the swimming hole.

Following the river, I watched a blue heron stalking in the shallow water. This doesn’t look like the swimming hole to me. Instead I decided to sit down under one of the humongous oak trees to center myself with some meditation. The afternoon sun was still high in the sky, but I was cool underneath the broad shade of the tree. I observed as other people arrived, settling my mind, and connecting with the earth all around me. Soon my smile was stretched across my face, what an absolutely beautiful place to be staying.

I headed back over to the tasting room, and was informed that I had not gone quite far enough to find the swimming hole. My attention turned to late lunch, a delicious sandwich under the shade of another oak. Greeting other folks as they arrived, I felt excited to be meeting potential new friends.

Soon everyone had set up camp, and we gathered to introduce ourselves, and talk about the days ahead. Our first act together was to join hands in our circle, breath together and voice Om, the ancient tone of Krishna (according to the Bhagavad Gita). We then were to introduce ourselves, describing our motivation for coming to camp, as well as using ten words to describe our journey in music. Some folks described themselves as singers, songwriters, guitar players, or rebels. Some were young professional musicians, away from touring for a few days. Others were older souls finally diving into music and songwriting.

I was the last in the circle, and told the group that I came to song camp to finally take myself as a musician more seriously. Music is something that brings me deep peace but has yet to be a primary focus of my time and effort. Music is my meditation that I can share with others that transcends language and cultural barriers. My hope for the camp was to encourage and validate my musical soul. I then gave my ten words: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young Deja Vu, down-home, North Carolina, dulcimer. 

After our introductions we took a break for dinner, then did our first exercise. The objective was to take a well known tune, and create new lyrics for it. The Weird Al experience. I decided to go with the Beatles song, A Hard Days Night:

Having a Joyful day,

Walkin’ around and laying in the shade;

Having a joyful day,

Gathered around and ready to play!

And when the sunset is long

And the songs are all sung,

We’re gonna swim all night

We’re gonna swim all night!

Our next activity was to take a word from a hat to write about as a riddle. We weren’t supposed to use the word, but describe it in a way that others could guess. Mine:

Shelter from the storm

The place you come back to at the end of the day

Is it my four walls, or the floor beneath your feet that allows you to kick off your shoes and let your hair down?

Don’t call me a home until a family is inside

It was decided as a group to go for an evening swim down at the swimming hole. Already in my cut-off blue jean swim trunks, I headed down stream to try my luck again. Along the way Annie and Clara joined me. Walking along the railroad tracks, we found the path down to the river. A flotilla of kayaks, floats, noodles, a paddle board and an inflatable boat awaited us. I helped them launch boats, then waded into the water. The cool water washed over my legs, then I plunged in to acclimate.

Using the elementary backstroke, I made my way out to the deep pool in the middle of the river. Treading water, the shock of the water started to transition to the warmth of my body swimming. Soon more swimmers arrived, and the swimming hole was full of cheerful conversations and fun! During the summer, the evening sun is aligned with the river, lighting the swimming hole up with a magical golden light. Climbing aboard the paddle board with Annie, I sat in admiration of the joy around me.

Eventually the sun dipped below the hills, and our swimming enthusiasm waned. Pulling the boats back on shore, our party made our way over to the large beach for a song circle around the campfire. Equipped with guitars, ukuleles, and of course my dulcimer, we gathered around to take turns sharing our songs. The goal for everyone was to compassionately listen, to find at least one thing we like in every song. My turn came, and I played Sunny Grove, my take on the old time tune Shady Grove. Sunny Grove, my mountain love… 

The dark sky full of stars was soon illuminated by the rising moon. Almost full, the moon soaked us in silvery light, as the song circle went around for a second song. From funky grooves, to delicate ballads, I was impressed by the variety of songs, and the vulnerability of sharing them in such an intimate setting. As the bed of coals grew, our group was coming together. Eventually though the yawns overtook the songs, as we faded into the night to sleep.

Waking up fairly early, I realized how much easier it is for me to go camping than my regular van life routine. A place to fill up a water bottle and a toilet, what more could a person want in life? Stretching through my morning Tai Chi, I listened to the birds as the sun rose above the trees. Breakfast was served, and our group gathered around in the circle again.

To start our day Beth, one of our instructions, led us in a free writing exercise with a prompt of ‘I remember’. We wrote then shared around the group, providing encouraging feedback for each other. Our next activity was about Song Seeds, or those little moments of inspiration that could be turned into songs, if we take the time to capture them. Sometimes these seeds are a potential lyric, melody, rhythm, or a more abstract concept of feeling or emotion. Then we explored seaking our own Song Seeds. Stopping by the Magnolia tree:

Soft sweet smell drifting me to the past

Grandparents home, childhood adventures

Take me back to North Carolina

Forever in my heart,

Soft sweet smell of the magnolia

Remind me of who I truly am.

We gathered back together to discuss our search. Sights and sounds that we normally took for granted were now beautiful moments of inspiration. The mindful attention to the muse is critical, because inspiration is such a fleeting joy. Take note of those magical moments, and when the time is right, develop them into songs. We ended the session with a Mary Oliver quote “Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”

The sun hung high in the sky as we started our next session before lunch. This session was about starting with the melody and working from there. We rolled dice to determine which notes would be in our diddies. Starting at C -1, each number represented another note on the scale. As the rest of the folks hummed along with the tune, I struggled. The melody is secondary, almost accidental, when I play music. Rhythm drives my music, so switching to the other end of the spectrum was frustrating. We all wrote our diddies on scraps of paper, then threw them into the middle of the circle, and one was selected to be our line for the song. With a fair amount of humor to mitigate my frustration, I was pleased when no one selected my lame attempts at writing to the melody.

As we broke for lunch, I decided to get away for a little while and walked over to the edge of the forest. To assemble, our group would unleash a wolf cry into the quiet countryside. I heard the cry for lunch, but decided to stay among the trees. Grateful for the quiet, I steadily observed the forest in my solitude. Finding time to decompress is so critical to maintain my positive outlook. When my soul was still, I slowly returned to camp.

Our afternoon started with a group singing lesson in our now family style circle. It was the first singing lesson I had ever had. A few of the steps were to: practice good posture, relax the face and shoulders, open the throat as if yawning, and breath through the diagram. We practiced different exercises and scales to limber up our vocal chords, sharing different techniques from our various experiences. I couldn’t stop laughing as we buzzed our lips together as a group. Afterwards I was so grateful to have some instruction, learning some techniques for developing the mechanics of my singing. With a fresh outlook on singing, our group divided for one on one time with our instructors.

As I was scheduled later in the afternoon, I decided to head over to the river to dip my feet in the cool water. Relaxing in a chair in the river (paradise, I know right?) I listened as Annie practiced here songs up on the shore. She had been selected to fill in a vacancy at the Summit Festival that Saturday, so she was brushing up on her songs to prepare. As the water trickled over my feet, and the beautiful baritone ukulele tickled my ears, I sat in pure contentment.

Eventually my time slot came, and I returned to camp to find Clara. She was set up with her looping gear and amplifier. She demonstrated how she uses the looping gear to create a band’s worth of sound to write to. When I first moved to Corvallis four years ago, I went to Clara’s show at Bombs Away my first night here. Ever since then, I’ve attended as many of her shows in town (even accompanying her with the harmonica a few times), and have religiously listened to her latest album Things to Burn. Part of me was star struck to be there with a singer, songwriter, and instrumentalist that I appreciate so deeply. The other part felt deeply validated to be sharing our music together.

I asked her to learn one of her songs, ‘I won’t take my time with you for granted,‘ a beautiful song of gratitude. We went through the chords, and I played along on the electric dulcimer. What a dream come true. After the song, we plugged the dulcimer into her effects board and jammed. The piercing bluesy riffs of the dulcimer in E, with her heavy soulful guitar was divine.

All too soon, our time came to an end. Grinning, I felt like I had just got to play music with Jimi Hendrix or another one of my music idols. Validated, I headed back down to the river for another afternoon soak. I took the time to call Pops, glad to be in such positive spirits while talking with him. We talked long enough for the crawdads to start investigating my toes as a next meal. Cynthia also came down to the river, and was very pleased to hear the love in my voice while talking to my dad. I shared about my family situation, and the difficulty of my parents divorce, and she encouraged me to keep loving them both.

I could write another couple thousand words about the wonderful experience, the tarot readings, the songs, and the inspiration, but I think you get the point. I had an absolutely lovely time, expanding myself as a musician, in a wonderfully supportive community. The days out at Harris Bridge seemed so simple, and helped to recharge my energy after a busy summer. I’ve been playing music more consistently since I’ve been back to my normal routine, and will carry the lessons I learned at Song Camp for the rest of my musical life. Looking forward to jammin’ with you soon.

World Scout Jamboree

“Almost heaven, West Virginia
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River
Life is old there, older than the trees
Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze”

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John Denver created the unofficial theme song for camp. Imagine a world city with over 42,000 people from 61 countries, coming together in the heart of Appalachia to celebrate the world movement of Scouting. United by our shared responsibility to learn, our love of adventure, and service to others. During those days I regained a great hope for the capacity of humanity to adapt and survive the 21st Century. Here are some notes from my journal throughout my experience. Reflecting on my time, I see my often heroic contributions to the things that I’m involved in, the joys and struggle to consistently deliver so much energy, the depletion of my enthusiasm, and finally the balance of self care and expressing my needs to others. A beautiful life experience, enjoy.

“Here at last at the WSJ. Pretty good day of lots of travelling, but settled in now. The Cardinal was good this morning, on time and not too crowded. WV is a really beautiful state, feel lucky to be here. We have so much to set up, one day at a time. Glad to be helpful and useful. This is an excellent venue for my skills. Doing good, feeling good, all is good.” 7/17

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“What an incredible day. Ethan arrived! Was not expecting that at all. Swapped his bike for my backpack, and now he’s on the trail on foot. Got my own bike at WSJ, spent the day building them, so makes sense. Built up the Fatal Vision pedal carts, and a sweet cargo bike. Satisfied with the day, very productive. Feeling good, very glad to be here, thank for this experience. I can’t believe I was chillin’ with Ethan today!” 7/18

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So many wrecks…

“Feeling nice and fresh after my shower. Worked pretty hard, cleaning tables today. Lots of socializing. Realized that of all the activities and intriguing things here, I’m teaching transportation engineering. How do I make it fun? It’s such an abstract and white collar perspective, so educated. The highlight of the day was playing the Dulcimer in the dining hall at Dinner. Lots of smiles and attention, meet a new friend. Amazed at how beautiful this experience is. So many diverse people from around the world all together. Beautiful, beautiful people.” 7/19

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“Productive in the program area, continuing to develop connections as well as getting things set up.  Connected with the Iowa Driving Simulator folks and the Greek Traffic Safety researchers. Hung up banners and mostly chilled. Feeling very comfortable here, each day flows slowly by. The energy is great, and filling that loneliness needing friendship in my heart. Oregon feels like a long way away, and when people ask me where I’m from I respond with North Carolina! Fun to have my tentmate Tory to chat and explore camp with” 7/20

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Camp driving simulator

“An excellent evening at the Rainbow Cafe. Read Tarot for several people, some English ladies and a pan person. Had a nice chat about generational queer realities, how the internet allows for broader exploration of language and support for the LGBTQ+ community. Cool to find the nightlife and connect with diverse folks. We got the program area set up. A whiteboard, a tv connected to YouTube and a Masters degree, what more do you need? Tory is a real champ, he volunteered to do late night arrivals bus greeting service. Live at WSJ, fun, hot, inspiring, affirming, and an absolute dream.” 7/21

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“Found myself in a dark place this evening. Woke up from a brief nap, and felt so lonely and sad. She is still in my dreams, distant and indifferent, my heart timid and still healing. Crying, I feel the intensity of the next 9 days looming. So many lovely people around, but I just want to hide away. My depression is very real, something I must continue to overcome. Had a practice Traffic Engineering lecture and generated some good discussion from the scouts and staff. Oregon has made me really tolerant of the rain. It’s barely misting, and folks here are complaining about the rain. Played dulcimer for a while in the tent, the highlight of my day.” 7/22

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End of a long day, the official start of camp. Crazy to see the ten-thousands of people at the opening ceremony, the flags waving, the uniforms from all over the world. Beautiful drone display, and cool music group. The program area went totally well today, probably 10 good conversations with different groups. A few scouts really got it, was nice to share some knowledge and answer such concerned questions. Strange to just be at the beginning, even though I’ve been here for a week. Glad to be here, a wonderful world. Looking forward to the coming weeks, keep up the good work.” 7/23

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“A cool evening, feeling very fresh after my shower. Tory and I went to the show in Foxtrot, an absolutely wonderful time. The band was playing the Allman Brothers, Skynyrd, Wagon Wheel, and of course John Denver. The crowd was wild, lights everywhere, and bouncing beach balls. One of the coolest shows I’ve ever been to. Kinda getting bored with my role at Program, not many people make it over to my corner of the tent. Need to switch it up, or just find peace with my contribution. Overall still very satisfied, see the days speeding up. I’m tired, long days, the intense energy is wearing me out.” 7/24

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Tent mates, Jamboree best friends

Settling down after a very good day. Been laughing with Tory for the evening, talking about International Scouts. We checked out the Chat and Chew, and got my Dutch necker! Ate some ice cream, and spent some time doing Yoga this afternoon. Got switched over to the Bicycle Petting Zoo, much happier about my Jamboree experience. Fun to interact with all the scouts, much more attention for a pack of bicycles than a white board. Probably going to miss the shade and lounging, but excited to be doing something more active. Thankful for Tammy, my supervisor, who got me the job switch right after I brought it up. Didn’t feel the loneliness today, more of a steady happiness from a foundation of contentment. Glad to have a day off tomorrow.” 7/25

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Some say it was more of a bicycle freak show once I started working it

“The end of a long day. Tory and I went to see Lord Baden-Powell’s grandson speak, then hiked over to the cultural celebrations. It was rowdy, and I reached my exhaustion standing around in the sun. My stomach got spoiled eating all the scout prepared foods. So much processed packaged foods here, tired of all the sugar and salt. Spent most of the day with Tory, talking about perspectives and our international travels. I’m really grateful for him, my Jamboree best friend, something that feels lacking in my Corvallis life. We went to the Finnish sauna, which was incredible. It might become my daily ritual. Felt so good to sweat it out, and it makes the regular heat seem so weak. See that my patience is wearing thin with the constant energy from people. It’s easy for me to loose my cool, especially when I’m trying to find my own space. Feeling like I’m constantly running my batteries down, just too much stimulation. A full day of bikes tomorrow, sleep well my love.” 7/26

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Gateways!

“Having a tough time this morning. Feel exhausted from the constant noise. Had some more frustrating dreams, of being dislocated from my housing again. I got in trouble for leaving the door open, I tried explaining that I’m an outdoor person, but no success, they kicked me out! My housing insecurity continues to haunt me, and like Ethan I want to flee instead of facing that reality…

I broke down upon arriving at the program area. Grateful to have my co-workers support me and listen to my darkness. Feels good to cry, and to be open about what I’m going through. Got it out and was able to have a good day at Program. Most of the it the interactions were very positive, but some were very challenging. The language barrier can be very frustrating. Was very satisfying to fix up the bicycles. I see how serious I take everything I am part of.” 7/27

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Oh golly a bridge!

“The end of another day. Quite worn out. I go hard at the bicycle zoo, trying to keep people safe. I don’t get much help from the other staff, they mostly sit back in the shade. Feeling like such an old grumpy man. All these darn kids with their loud music, and endless energy. I take everything so seriously, my sense of responsibility runs very deep. Had a great time at the sauna, nice to flush out my system. Same old problems, different circumstances. Time for rest old soul, today was a heavy day.” 7/28

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“Feeling very positive today. Was nearly at the point of breaking, but walked away and took a break. Created a space for the other folks to step up. Good to see them trying to communicate across the language barriers instead of just sitting back. Nice to realize that any work is only as serious as I make it out to be. Had some good conversations today about environmentalism in Costa Rica and Anarchy in Finland. Glad to have tomorrow off to catch up on my self care.” 7/29

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Chat and Chew

“Today was my day off. Was nice to sleep in, and eat a slightly later breakfast. But the water was shut down due to a sewer flood, so my plans about a shower and laundry got cancelled. Walking through the woods was very relaxing, but visiting the Summit was frustrating. So many people everywhere. Lines for everything. The best was the faiths and religions booths. Some brief discussions, but ultimately made me realize my spiritual quest is far deeper than a 5 minute conversation at an information booth. I really want to journey to find a proper spiritual teacher. A storm rolled in while I was out and I sought shelter in the booth from Columbia. A young cub scout was there as a day visitor, and was very frightened by the storm. As he cried, I cried. My empathy is very powerful. Worked out, and went to the sauna again. Was a listening ear to a homesick Polish staffer. Lucky to have Tory to talk to at the end of the day. I played him some dulcimer, in between talking through my challenges. He’s my best friend.” 7/30

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Patch trading

“What a day. Reached my breaking point, and had to walk away. Talked to my supervisor, and took the rest of the day off. Went up to the graveyard to find some quiet. Took a nap in between some graves, and woke up with a pack of Scouts exploring the place. No rest for the wicked! The intensity of my emotions is challenging for me no matter where I go. It’s so easy to be overwhelmed by them, and to give into the spiraling darkness. Took the afternoon to finally do my laundry, really satisfying to work on something by myself with such obvious results. Checked out a basketball and was straight saucing it on the courts. Got invited to the sauna with some folks from Iceland, glad to get a final session in before they dismantle it tomorrow. Bittersweet to see this coming to an end. The train should be a great time to decompress and focus on my self care. So very grateful to have Tory as my tentmate, feel very connected. We chilled in the tent during an evening thunderstorm. Finally a day of rest! Finding and going beyond my limits, but communicating and working through it.” 7/31

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The full zoo

“Exceptionally good spirits today. Just got to watch a huge fireworks show out the door of our tent. Scoutmasters supreme! We stayed here at Echo and watched the closing ceremony on the live stream. Officially part of the old men’s club now. Moving ceremony, especially the part about global citizenship. Glad to know that I’m living that globally conscious life everyday, and that scouting was a huge influence towards conservation, stewardship and service. Spent the day in the program area closing up. We flew through the work, nice to see it all happen so quickly. Many hands make light work. Was good to stay busy with physical task. Definitely pulled my weight today. Going to miss my co-workers, a diverse and supportive team! Lots of lessons and wonderful memories. A really cool opportunity, bittersweet to see it going. Our exodus begins tomorrow. From Tarot readings, transportation lectures, bike enthusiasm, and service, I can rest easy knowing that I did my fair share to make this the best possible Jamboree.”8/1

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Transportation Scout!

Rearview Reflections

Just like that, the solace is past, summer is upon us. The long days slowly retreat as winter begins to pull us back. Coming off an incredibly busy month for me. Two cross country train rides, to and from the east coast. The Eno Conference. Enjoying ten days active / socially packed days in North Carolina. Enabling full time van life. Digging back into my dissertation work. And this past weekend, I attended my first World Naked Bike Ride in Portland (I’ll write about those adventures, perhaps).

The constant going does wonders for my need for attention, self expression and deep desire to see others smiling. Social interaction brings out my charming, talented side; perfect for first impressions and chance meetings. But when I finally get back to the solitude of the Dodge Mahal, I struggle with the silence and stillness. That wellspring of energy is replaced by a weariness of too many days pleasing others in a row.

Life seems lonely in those moments. So focused on accomplishing all the things. And at the end of the day to be just a dude living in a van waiting on this living situation to blow up. I foolishly compare my life to others. Where is my family? Where are my friends? Where is my pet? Where is my partner? Either a long way away, or lost to the past. But I do my best to smile, and appreciate the calm. To be patient with myself, allowing the time to decompress. Listening to the birds, and the blowing of the wind in the grass, remembering that I’m part of something much bigger than my life.

I reflect on all those beautiful relationships I’ve cultivated in my life, but they feel distant. For before me is a task that I must accomplish by myself (and with a little help from my Lab mates). This is a time for pouring myself into my dissertation work, trying to push the needle forward one step at a time. Slowly dropping commitments, and declining new opportunities, I see my energy focusing. But always with the need for more self motivation and discipline. To keep grinding. A full time graduate student again, instead of just researching on the side after my advocacy work.

Working three-a-days. I come into the lab in the morning and go through the emails and get some things accomplished. Then off of a lunch break, and to walk across the beautiful summertime campus. Another session with the computers, marking off another task. Then a break, maybe out to the van to read a book or my Tarot cards. Then back to the lab in the evening for a final push, today’s focused on this blog.

Yesterday I hit my limit. After so much going, I finally had enough, and broke down in an emotional day. Luckily, I’ve got plenty of practice with those, so I spent some time in mediation, appreciating nature, and then off to the gym for a couple of hours to play basketball. Back to the lab, to help the other guys figure out the sound problem (the speaker plug came undone!). Physically exhausted, I laid for a long time hoping for sleep with churning thoughts.

She was in my mind again. The months roll slowly past, but the distance and self depreciating narrative remain. I try to avoid the rut of those thoughts, but once they return, my mind becomes obsessed. Trying to go through the memories to make it sense of it. Imagining the words I would tell her if we ever got to really talk again. And the deep fear that I now have for seeking intimacy.

Maybe it’s all those conversations over the last month, catching up with old friends, and sharing myself with new folks. Wearing my heart on my sleeve feels so normal, sharing the depth of my struggles and the moments of clarity through self-awareness. But it’s not reciprocated. Among all those people, who is able to really open up and share back? Who can hold me in that space of vulnerability? I scroll through my list of phone numbers, and none of the names seem like the right person to connect with.

So my heart retreats. I know my smile can light up their faces, but why do I keep pouring myself out? Who really sees me? And there’s definitely no one here to hold me.

I know that my greatest challenge in life is romance. I am a fool for love, crashing my heart into anyone that laughs at my jokes. That’s when life feels the most alive, when someone finally comes close enough to see my perspective for a little while. To share the beauty and bounty of our lives. Adventure buddies, confidants, and lovers. But it doesn’t last. My emotional intensity is too much. That baggage of a lifetime of wanting affection that I can never ask for. Too much commitment, far too soon. For who can be open, honest, and vulnerable in a repressed, illusioned, guarded world?

The narrative is always the same really. I can insert a new lovers name into my story, but the theme of the story doesn’t change. Love, followed by disappointment and long drawn out heartache. Holding on to those who have left me. Analyzing how and why. Regurgitating memories of love spent. I can’t allow myself to be tempted by love, for I know that it will defeat me, dragging me down to my lowest self.

So who do I turn to? You. As individuals, none of you seem all that close. But as a whole, I know you are the people who love me the most. The people who want to read my writing to know what’s going on. When I see you, you already know what I have to say. What a 21st century kid, my best friend is an ambiguous collective of internet connected souls.

Where do I go from here? Back to my solitude and toil. My hope is to finish my Ph.D. this fall. Dr. Engineer Boss Man. Then perhaps I’ll have enough engineering degrees to last a lifetime. And what’s after that? Your guess is as good as mine. Probably adventures, camping, bicycles, sunset sketches, and loafing. Yes plenty of that glorious loafing.

 

Eno Fellow

At the beginning of the month, I had the honor of participating in the Eno Future Leaders Development Conference. Twenty top graduate students went through a intense week of meeting national transportation policy makers. We met with lobbyist, staff on Capitol Hill, USDOT leadership, and private industry leaders, in a whirlwind of perspectives, interests, and information.

The conference was extremely encouraging for me. I got to met my peers, fellow students who are dedicated to making a difference in our transportation system. We are increasing equity and accessibility, improving safety, and figuring out how to fund the future of our transportation network. I was assured that my local lobbying efforts in Corvallis resonated in DC, except national policy is much more complicated due to the incredible mix of completing interest from so many stakeholders.

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Fellows ready for take off!

Several themes emerged throughout the week. The political dysfunction in DC was often discussed, which is frustrating due to the absolute inefficiencies of it. On the other hand, States are stepping up to continue the progress of our country’s infrastructure. Perhaps this federal political gridlock is helping to shift our priorities back to the state level, which should help to diversify our innovations and focus resources to more context sensitive solutions. The urban / rural divide was discussed in this political context, and understandably so. Our vast country does have distinctly different transportation needs, from dense urban cities to sparse rural towns.

Autonomous vehicles (AV’s) were another hot topic. Private tech and car companies have been leading this conversation for several decades now, while government tries to keep up, or does nothing in this rapidly changing field. As a transportation fundamentalist, I see the investment in AV’s as the next step in creating more luxurious vehicles, furthering the divide between those who can afford private personal vehicles and those who can’t. While the truly autonomous vehicles are still many years away (level 4 and 5), modern luxury vehicles are integrating new driving assist technology with every model. While these features are promoted as ways to increase safety (as 94% of crashes are due to human error), I see these features as dissolving the responsibility and attention of driving, encouraging a distraction prone generation to pay even less attention to the road.

And while under the best cases, the features may improve the safety of the vehicle occupant, those outside the protection of the AV are exposed to increased risk of not being detected by sensors, or imposing conflicting situations for the computer guidance. Some folks believe that smartphone integration will allow AV’s to ‘see’ other road users like pedestrians or cyclists. I asked the panel on AV’s about the issue of those without smartphone being invisible in this paradigm, citing the AV pedestrian fatality in Arizona. The response was quite disturbing, that most people have smartphones, and that people who don’t have smartphones are choosing not to have them.

The most common topic was probably the fate of the Highway Trust Fund. This program collects gasoline taxes to provide for a majority of the federal transportation funding. The gasoline tax rate has not been increased since 1993, and as vehicles are getting more efficient, the amount of funds are slowly decreasing (especially in relation to inflation). How do we solve this funding crisis? The obvious, but apparently politically infeasible solution, is to increase the gasoline tax rate. In my mind, all those wars we fight for oil, the environmental externalities of our transportation system (CO2), and the dire need for maintenance in our decaying infrastructure are enough to justify increasing this tax rate. But back to that political dysfunction, our current solution is deficit spending made up by shifting funds from somewhere else.

Another potential solution is the adoption of mileage based taxes or Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT). Essentially charging each vehicle owner for the miles that they drive. This is unpopular, as people are concerned about privacy, that rural populations will be paying more than urban folks (inherently more driving with less efficient vehicles), and that the tax would have to be collected from 200,000,000 different vehicle owners. Some states have begun pilot programs to test this technology, charging around 1 cent per mile.

I believe the answer could be changing the federal law preventing toiling on the interstate system. The largest public works project in the history of humanity, the 40,000 miles of freeways around our country define our transportation system, and have greatly contributed to the land use choices that have manifested as sprawl. Advances in technology have greatly improved the convenience of toiling, primarily but offering quick pass systems, or toiling by mail. Currently it is difficult to toil across state lines, as state agencies don’t have the ability to force collection in other states.

By nationalizing our toiling system, these jurisdictional boundaries would be reduced. Congestion pricing could be integrated into this model, where toil rates are proportional to the amount of congestion (higher prices discourage people from driving during busy times, reducing demand). Also integrating ton/mileage toiling, where heavy vehicles pay based on their weight (and in turn the damage that they do to the roadway), could help to address the subsidy for trucking that the currently ‘free’ interstate system provides. Federal policy could also require the integration of toiling technology into new vehicles, standardizing the inclusion of this technology into passenger cars.

Not surprisingly, we didn’t hear much about walkability. There is no Federal Walkability Agency, as our policy and funding are mainly targeted towards carbon based transportation options. Under the current paradigm, car travel is the most common, therefore it shall receive a majority of the funding. This model continues to perpetuate a broken system of heavily subsidizing the cost of car use in America. Oregon is a great example of how dedicated bicycle and pedestrian funding can have a huge impact on the development of accessible infrastructure (with the Bicycle Bill of 1971), which allocated 1% of the state transportation funding to walking and biking projects. Our federally funded roads are often the most difficult to bike and walk along. These US highways typically become the endless sprawl of fast food, big box stores and strip malls we love so much. A Federal level Complete Streets policy could dramatically improve the safety and accessibility of so many of our most dangerous roads by providing continuous sidewalk and bike facilities.

The conference instilled in me a desire to focus on transportation policy. I got into civil engineering to make an impact on the built environment, that we all interact with in our daily lives, but often take for granted. But instead of being focused on individual projects, policy allows for setting direction of our priorities, how we allocated our limited funding, and in turn, setting the standards of how our transportation system works. The big picture is incredibly complex, with many competing interest, but the more I learn, the more I understand. My education background provides good context for the jargon and intricacies of transportation infrastructure. My ability to write provides the means for policy, by working out the devil in those details. My life experience provides an alternative perspective on the prioritizes and realities of our system, especially regarding the marginalized. And my charisma allows me to have these conversations with the diverse mix of folks and stakeholders.

So how was my trip? Inspiring, fun, exhausting, validating and an absolute joy. I have a newfound confidence in my voice (not that it was ever really lacking), and my place in the world. I have been blessed with many talents and abilities, and have the opportunity to positively impact the lives of many.

eno

With Eno President Robert Puentes and Former Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters