28 May 2014

So You Want to Play in Traffic?

You're thinking about riding your bike to work, but nervous? Here are some answers to the questions that might be worrying you.

Problem: You'll sweat on the way to work.
Solution: Bring a spare shirt. Keep deodorant and, depending on the level of formality expected at your office, a couple of blazers at the office. Or even drive in on Monday morning with the week's wardrobe and drive home with it again on Friday afternoon.  If you use hair gel, keep that at the office too and use it when you get there after you take off your helmet.

Problem: You haven't ridden a bike since you were thirteen.
Solution: Practice. Take the bike out early on a Sunday morning when there's not much traffic and, if it would bother you, not too many spectators. Go to an empty playground or a park, and...
  • Practice riding in a nice straight line.
  • Keep your thumbs hooked over the handle bars, and one finger on each brake, and your elbows nice and loose so you don't feel like your fillings are going to fall out every time you hit a crack in the road.
  • Look over one shoulder, then the other, to see what's coming, still while riding in a straight line.
  • Practice signaling left and right, by sticking one hand and then the other wayyy out to the side so nobody can possibly miss it. And make sure you're still riding in a straight line.
  • Come to a complete stop, still in that nice straight line, and then start up again without letting the handle bars sway left or right. Much.
  • Try braking and accelerating while signaling.
  • Practice turning with one hand, and then the other, off the handlebars.
  • Find some parked cars, or a parked car by a building, and practice riding between them. Get to know how much clearance you need.
  • If you can, find a dirt road or a trail and ride around to see how it feels. If you hit a patch of sand or gravel, you'll notice that you can stay up if you can keep the bike in a straight line (there's that again) and keep the wheels turning.
Problem: It might rain.
Solution: Check the weather forecast the night before, and again in the morning. Buy rain gear according to your budget, and carry it with you depending on the chance of rain and the temperature and how uncomfortable you'll get if you get caught out. If you can, get a waterproof/breathable jacket, but even then, see item one.

Today, there was a 30 percent chance of rain in the morning, plus cooling temperatures throughout the day. I biked to the train station in a T shirt, with blazer and rain jacket in my bag; I wore the blazer for the ride from train station to office, and on the way home, wore both blazer and jacket -- for warmth. I didn't get rained on during any of the legs. Layers are helpful year-round, because you'll warm up after 10 or 15 minutes of riding, and temperatures can change quite a bit between 8 a.m. and 5 or 6 or 7 p.m., depending on when you head home.

If you do get caught -- or decide to ride -- in the rain, slow down. Braking takes longer, sewer hole covers and train tracks are treacherously slippery, and you never know what's under that puddle. Also drivers will be less likely to see you, because of crud on the windshield plus because they won't expect bikers out there -- so take extra cautions.

Problem: It's dark.
Solution: Lights and brights.  Your rain jacket can be any color, as long as it's neon; you might also want a reflective vest and ankle reflectors. Put red blinking lights on the back of the bike, on your helmet, on your backpack if you carry one, and a white light on the front of the bike.

26 May 2014

Remembering the Dead

I find Memorial Day complicated: my maternal grandfather fought for the wrong side.

My mother grew up, and I was born, in Germany. For her, there is only "the war" -- World War II, which left her family refugees, her father killed in action. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I'm glad he didn't survive the conflict and I'm glad I never had to meet him.

The story is he served in a tank unit. The story is he was a mechanic. The story is he was a common soldier. The story is he was a lieutenant. A photo shows a uniform with the death's-head insignia. The story is he was wounded and sent home, yet chose to return to combat. Twice.

Some day, I will go into the archives and find out what facts may have survived. I want to know; I don't want to know.

It's small comfort that my other grandfather served in the US merchant marine in that same war, or that my father and several of his relatives served the US military, and even, several generations back, the Union army.

Today, we're exhorted to remember those killed in action for the United States. World War II was surely a just war; the enormity of the Holocaust overshadows much else about the conflict. Yet the US did much that was unjust in that war, interning people of Japanese descent, refusing entry to Jewish refugees, discriminating against African-Americans who were drafted or volunteered to serve.

The wars we have fought since then are more difficult to justify. Yet American soldiers die, or they return alive but wounded in body and soul. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of civilians have died in Vietnam, in Iraq, in Afghanistan. Returning veterans are refused the care they need to re-enter society as successfully functioning civilians, even allowed to die for lack of medical care.

Today's parades, in honoring the veterans and the fallen, seem also to celebrate war itself. We need to find a more nuanced way to remember the past, and acknowledge the realities of the present. We need to learn to seek peace and pursue it.

10 May 2014

A Different Kind of Awareness

May is Asthma Awareness Month, and the Centers for Disease Control wants you to know that "you can control your asthma."
The page acknowledges that "we don't know what causes asthma, and we don't know how to cure it." But if "you" are "living with" asthma, it's your responsibility to keep it under control.
There's more:
Although asthma cannot be cured, it is possible to manage asthma successfully to reduce and prevent asthma attacks, also called episodes. Successful asthma management includes knowing the warning signs of an attack, avoiding things that may trigger an attack, and following the advice of your healthcare provider.
This bothers me for so many reasons, I barely know where to start. 

An "episode" sounds like something you watch on tv.  An "attack" sounds significantly more sinister. 

The grammatical construction of "your asthma" suggests that the person owns the illness, but the construction of all the ideas on the page suggests that the asthma owns the person.

I might live with asthma, I might have asthma, but it's not "my" asthma. And I am not "my asthma."

"You," the person with asthma, are admonished to stay away from anything that "may trigger" an attack.

"May" (why not "will"?) suggests multiple possibilities, and by extension the impossibility of avoiding everything that could trigger, let's call it an "exacerbation," which directly contradicts the insistence that "you can control your asthma." If "we" don't know what causes asthma, how are "we" who "live with" the disease supposed to recognize and be able to avoid all, or any, possible triggers?

My list of triggers includes several foods and additives; airborne things like smoke, dust, mold, and chemicals; various animals; upper respiratory infections; and exercise.

Yes, exercise. I exercise anyway, because it helps to reduce the severity of the disease on a day-to-day level as well as during "attacks," but I have to be careful.

Most of the things that trigger my "episodes" are pretty common.  I don't know if it's usual for people to have such a long list, though.

I cringe when I hear someone sneezing or coughing near me. There are plenty of respectful smokers, but others stand right under the no-smoking sign and light up, or walk down the street waving a lit cigarette, and I don't always see them until after I've inhaled what they're trailing. Eating in restaurants is your basic crap-shoot.

The problem with the admonition to "avoid triggers" is that it lays all the responsibility on the indidivual rather than calling for the community to mitigate potential toxins as much as possible.

The claim that "you can control your asthma" is made twice, alongside the exhortation to "learn to control your asthma." Maybe it's meant to be encouraging: "you" don't need to live with symptoms. But it also implies that a person who has an attack is at fault for failing to avoid the triggers. If you "can" control your asthma, then if you have an "episode," it must be because "you" screwed up.

Reality: asthma is poorly understood; there is no cure; it can't always be effectively controlled. We live with it every day. And we go on living.

03 May 2014

Where Did April Go? (What Professors Do: Miscellaneous)

I haven't posted in a month.  Part of what happened to April was Passover, and the attendant cooking and eating and catching up with family.

Right after that, all hell broke loose.  John Ziker and his colleagues at Boise State recently did some research about how professors spend their time, and even they were surprised at how many hours their colleagues were working every week (average: 61) and how much of it was spent in meetings (17 percent) and answering emails (13 percent).

Some of the things I've been up to:

giving feedback on annotated bibliographies to guide drafting of term papers
writing recommendations for students and for colleagues
attending the various presentations, lunches and meetings involved in a tenure-track job search
reading MA theses, and providing feedback to guide revision
grading and commenting on papers to provide feedback to guide extended versions
writing, and delivering to colleagues, a lecture on digital humanities
meeting with students regarding academic work, internships, plans for graduate study
working with a former student on an article
scheduling MA thesis defenses, reading theses, attending defenses
providing comments on student presentations to guide drafting of final paper
organizing panels for a local conference, which I didn't end up being able to attend
committee meetings
attending end-of year honor society induction and awards ceremony
department meetings
did I mention grading/writing feedback on papers?
organizing an annual symposium

A few years ago, I asked my Facebook friends, many of whom are teachers, how much time they spent reading student papers; the answers ranged from three to five minutes per page.  I'd been wondering if I was doing something wrong, so that helpfully validated my own practice.

It's not over yet: I have final exams to write and to grade, a conference paper to write and deliver, term papers to read, final portfolios to review, final grades to calculate and submit, and various other administrative and teaching tasks before the semester is over. And then, sixteen months before I teach again: bittersweet.