Tuesday, January 29, 2008

This American Bike Commute, Part III

“Forecast: 30% chance of rain. Cloudy developing into rain showers by afternoon.”

I regarded the forecast with a sigh. After great deliberation, I decided to ride the bus to work this morning. In addition to the possibility of getting soaked, I won’t lie – I’m kinda sore from all this biking. Good sore, the way you feel after a satisfying workout. But sore enough that sitting still seemed like a nice idea.

And it was nice, to sit placidly and read a book as we jostled down the sleepy morning streets. It was nice to see some of my English students on the bus, to say “Salaam aleikum” and sit down next to a scarved Muslim woman named Maha.

But at the same time, it was hard to concentrate on my book. I’d brought my bike along, because sometimes my class ends too late to catch the afternoon bus. It was secured to the bike rack on the front of the bus – supposedly - but I kept peering out the windshield at the barely-visible handlebars like an anxious mother. My brain played a running video of the bike jiggling loose, falling, getting crushed by the mighty bus. It would be as bad as running over my dog, I felt. That bike and I have been together for more than a decade.

And once I got to school, it just didn’t feel right. When I wheeled my bike over to the bike rack, the usual crew looked confused. “You’re dressed awful light this morning,” said one.

“Yeah… I rode the bus this morning,” I said abashedly. Why did I feel so sheepish? Riding the bus is still a great solution. Heck, it wasn’t like I’d driven a car or something.

I continued into my building. Still, nothing felt right. I wasn’t hot and sweaty. My cheeks weren’t glowing with energy. I didn’t need to go triumphantly change my clothes in the handicap stall in the bathroom. Out of habit, I filled up my water bottle at the water fountain and chugged half of it – but it wasn’t as satisfying as usual. So I just stood boredly in the hallway and waited for them to unlock my classroom. I’d gotten used to feeling alive, surging with energy and adrenaline, at this hour of the morning. This just didn’t cut it.

So far the sky is streaked with blue and gray, some patches almost sunny. I’m holding my breath and hoping I get to ride home.

by Sadie Kneidel

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

This American Bike Commute - Part II

“There she is!” I heard one of the students standing by the bicycle rack say as I rolled up to work this morning.

“Where were you yesterday?” he asked as I clambered breathlessly off my bike, stripping off my soggy vest and earmuffs as quickly as possible.

I grinned. “What, you missed me?” I said. “I didn’t come to school yesterday. I had to go out of town.”

“Oh.” He and the other two students nodded. “We thought you didn’t come ‘cause it was icy.”

“Icy!” I shake my head back. “Ice doesn’t scare me none.”

I’m getting to be a regular at the bike rack, it appears. In the middle of my second week of biking to work, I’m starting to develop a routine. The prospect of biking still never seems promising when I’m standing on my porch, but en route I always end up glad I’m doing it. It’s a good time to think. In fact, there’s nothing to do but think. Think, pedal, and breathe.

I’ve been thinking a lot about sweat. Sweat is really one of the major problems of my bike commute. Even when it’s so cold that my hanky freezes in my vest pocket, I work up such a sweat that it feels like a July afternoon. Yet, if I strip down to my bottom layer of garments, the winter wind cuts through me like a child’s scream. My skin freezes while my core burns.

I’m just not sure what the solution is. So far, I’ve been wearing a “sweat layer” – a tank top and long johns that more or less soak up the sweat, and can be removed when I get to work. It’s funny how it’s not appropriate to be sweaty at work. It’s funny how I have to remove all traces of bicycling in order to appear professional – as if actually using my body for something useful were shameful, something to hide. Maybe it is.

The other thing I’ve been thinking about is guilt. This morning as I biked down Lee Street, I passed a Latino man standing by a pay phone. He was bundled in a bulky flannel shirt, a wool hat pulled over his ears. He had the most blank, bereft look on his face that I’d ever seen. His eyes were far away, as if remembering warmer times when he was not standing by a lonely pay phone in a cold, cold country far from home. It was a look that made me want to pull over and say, “Here! Have this… apple! And these… women’s dress shoes! And this spare bike tire! Sorry, but it’s all I’ve got!”

Of course, I didn’t pull over; I didn’t say that, or anything else. I just kept biking. But it made me think. I notice that when I’m driving my car, as I pass other people on bicycles, or waiting for the bus, or trudging dutifully down the frosty winter sidewalks, I feel a stab of guilt. I feel guilty that I’m tucked up in my cozy personal vehicle while they – mostly people with less money and privilege than I have – tough it out in a system in which they don’t have a leg up. I feel guilty for taking advantage of having the upper hand and saying “Tough nuts!” to folks who aren’t as privileged.

I notice that on my bike, all that guilt goes away. It’s true that I, unlike most of the people that I pass, choose to be out in the cold; I have the choice of the easy way, at any time I want it. But still, having that choice and turning it down does make me feel better. I know that my presence doesn’t make those weary and woebegone souls any less cold or tired. Really, it doesn’t make them feel one bit different. But it does make me feel different, for choosing not to partake in the privilege I’ve been offered.

Maybe that absolution has something to do with the sweat. Driving makes me feel guilty because it’s taking the easy way out, even though it involves a whole host of drawbacks that feel wrong to me: using gasoline (and therefore justifying the U.S.’s long arm in the Middle East), generating air pollution, spending hard-earned money unnecessarily, putting myself in the midst of dangerous and stressful traffic jams, getting flabby instead of getting exercise, and so on. The guilty echo I hear as I drive past pedestrians, bikers, and bus riders – “You hypocrite!!” is not really what they’re thinking about me at all. It’s what I’m thinking about myself.

Maybe that’s why I don’t mind the sweat. The sweat is hot, it’s cold, it’s damp and kind of gross. But it’s honest. The sweatier I am, the better I feel about what I’m doing. I’m not participating reluctantly in a system I don’t believe in. I’m saying, “This is how I think it should be. This is how I know it could be.”

by Sadie Kneidel

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Bike beats bus; car eliminated

Catherine eyed me skeptically over the breakfast table. “Are you really going to bike?” she asked with surprise.

“I think so,” I said. “I mean, my brain believes I am. My body might have other ideas. Like the bus.”

Just then the bus rumbled past the front door. We smiled at each other. “Well,” I said. “What I meant to say is, yes. I’m biking. I’m gonna race that bus.”

It was Tuesday morning, 7:10 AM. My car had broken down the morning before on the way to work, leaving me to coast to the mechanic on a busted clutch. I’d had to roust my housemate Catherine from her warm bed, and beg her for a ride to work. I’d been half an hour late, and stressed and frazzled to boot.

But this morning, although my car was still in the shop, I was prepared. In the grayish dawn light of my bedroom, I donned long johns, jeans, two shirts, a wool sweater, a down vest, a windbreaker. I pulled on a ski mask to protect my neck from chilly drafts, gloves to shield my fingers, and of course, perched atop it all, my shiny yellow helmet.

“Well,” said Catherine. “At least if you fall off your bike, you probably won’t even get hurt. You’ll just bounce.”

I wrinkled my nose at her, not that she could see it under my arsenal. “I won’t fall,” I said. “I’ll be fine.”

Waving goodbye, I shuffled out the door and clambered atop my bicycle. With one kick, I rolled down the sidewalk, swung to the right, and hit the pavement. I was off.

I was prepared for an arduous journey. My work commute takes 25 minutes by car, from my urban neighborhood just south of downtown, to Guilford Tech’s satellite campus on the outermost reaches of the northeast part of town. Every morning, as I dodge the rush-hour traffic crowding the city’s vehicular arteries, I think, “Today’s the day I’m going to die.” But I haven’t. At least not yet.

This morning was different. I headed due east, straight toward the pink streaks heralding the sun’s imminent arrival. Cars whizzed past, but I didn’t notice them much. I was more occupied with the tight feeling of my thigh muscles and the slight grinding feeling of something in my hip. Oh jeez, what am I thinking? I berated myself. This is insane. I could see the bus stopped four or five blocks ahead of me. Maybe I can catch up with it, I thought hopefully.

Eight minutes later I was passing downtown. I was also soaked in sweat. I stopped to strip off my windbreaker, welcoming the chilly wind through my wool sweater. Lord, it felt good. I swerved to avoid a patch of ice on the road. I didn’t want to test Catherine’s bouncing theory.

I’d expected heavy traffic on this four-lane road, but I barely even noticed the cars that passed me. Instead, I watched as the blistering orange sun inched over the horizon. I checked the gas prices at each gas station I passed. $2.97. $3.01. $3.06. My legs no longer felt tight. I felt like an engine, a smooth efficient machine. I wondered how much I’d get for selling a Toyota with a broken clutch.

I passed a service station where a lady in a long wool coat paced as a mechanic peered under the hood of her stalled car. She stared through me as if I were invisible. I passed a house where two men stood, hands in armpits while a Chevy idled in the yard, warming up. I held my breath and ducked through the cloud of exhaust.

I was flying. I felt like a bird. I had no idea how long I’d been riding. Five minutes, fifteen, fifty. My four-lane city road merged with a county road; the buildings gave way to stubbly fields. I passed the farm bureau, the coop extension, the county agricultural office. A lazy train track wove beside the road. I looked up: gray-brown tree branches silhouetted against the brilliant sunrise sky.

One last hill, and I turned on Aunt Mary Lane. I cut north, crossed a six-lane road, and breathlessly coasted onto campus. I craned my neck to see the school clock. Was I late? How late?

The clock read 7:48. My body surged with elation. I grinned wordlessly under my ski mask. It had taken me 33 minutes to cross town by bike, just eight minutes longer than by car.

I couldn’t believe it. For the past six months, I’d been complaining about how impossibly far away my job was. I’d acquired my car reluctantly, and winced with each accumulating mile on the odometer. The tanks of gas, the car insurance, the stress - it was a necessary evil, I’d believed. Riding the bus to any job would take unbearably long, and there was no way I had the stamina to bike to destinations outside of my neighborhood. Only an athlete could bike that far.

What had I been thinking? I wasn’t even tired. In fact, I felt remarkably alive. I almost skipped from the bike rack to the bathroom, where I peeled off my sweaty long johns and slipped into a fresh blouse and slacks. I scooped my hair into a ponytail and regarded my reflection quizzically. My cheeks were so pink I looked clownish. My eyes were twinkling. I felt upbeat and energetic – a mood I can’t usually attain at 8 AM no matter how much coffee I drink.

I strolled to my classroom carrying my bicycle helmet like a badge of honor. When my car had broken down, it sure hadn’t seemed like a blessing. But I guess that faulty clutch was the miracle I was waiting for to show me that sometimes the solution I need is right in the place where I refuse to see it. Here I’d been, racing home from work in my car so I’d have time to get to the gym for exercise. I’d never even considered biking to work because I hadn’t thought I was strong enough. I didn’t think I could afford to spend the time or energy. But this morning, I knew I couldn’t afford not to. As the bus pulled up to the campus bus stop, right next to my parked bike, I smiled to myself. I’d won this race on my own two wheels.

by Sadie Kneidel

Monday, January 07, 2008

A reason to hope

Yesterday I found hope in the intestines of an opossum.

My friend Sam and I spied the casualty lying on the gutter on Friendly Avenue. Its whiskers were gray, its expression bleak. There was no obvious sign of injury, other than a small trickle of blood by its mouth. The body was soft and cool.

Sam squealed to a stop, propped his bike on the curb. “Y’all go ahead!” he called, and pulled out a plastic bag. “I’ll catch up with you later.”

An hour later the two of us crouched in the back yard, sporting one purple latex glove apiece. We opened the plastic bag and carefully lifted out the possum. His paws looked like little monkey feet, clenched in fists. His eyes were closed. We tied a piece of twine around each of the possum’s ankles, and hung it upside down on the chain link fence. Its soft white belly faced us. I thought of medieval torture scenes. Although, of course, our victim was already dead.

I shuddered as Sam confidently sank his knife into the possum’s chest and began slicing a horizontal line to its belly. The tugging of the knife at the stretchy skin made my own stomach writhe in horror. “I’m grossed out by this,” I said weakly. “I’m not even going to pretend like I’m not grossed out." I paused. "But I still want to watch.”

But within minutes, my repulsion began to fade. As Sam peeled skin away from the possum’s belly, I gazed at the sheaths of muscles impassively. It looked like an anatomy lesson. “So this is how you save the pelt, huh?” I said tentatively. Before long, I gave the skin a cautious tug myself. It’s hard work, peeling possum skin. It doesn’t want to come off.

Peeling back the right side, we discovered the cause of death. Judging by the congealed blood and spilling intestines, the animal had been struck by a car on that side and bled to death internally. Unfortunately those spilling guts were our enemy; if they ruptured, they would taint the whole body – including the fur and meat that we wanted to save.

We took turns trying to hold the guts in place and tugging at skin, but it was impossible. They wouldn’t stay. “We’ll have to take them out,” Sam said, and pushed deeper with his knife.

As we cut through the stomach muscles, a rainbow intestines and organs spilled out into my waiting hands. “My god,” I gasped. “It’s beautiful.”

I was holding a mountain of possum guts and all I could think was how beautiful they were. One loop of the intestines was warm pink; another was grayish blue, like the sky on a cloudy day. A third was mossy green, the color of a stormy ocean. Across all the colors spread brilliant veins of mauve, like cracks in a potter’s glaze. The muted colors reminded me of the rocks you pull out of a stream or the ocean – resplendent in their wetness, drying to a faded shadow of their dusky beauty.

We stared at the intestines in silence for a long moment. “Fucking humans,” said Sam in a small voice.

I gazed at the small gray stomach in my hand, full of one last possummy meal, and nodded mutely. The gray soft body we had spotted on the side of the road had been tragic, to me. One small animal doing its best to survive in a cement-covered world full of enemies and indifferent accomplices. That soft face, frozen in its last fearful sprint, had broken my heart. But here, upside down and cut open, the possum was no longer sad to me. “It’s better this way, at least,” I said softly. “At least we’re learning from it.”

My mind was boggled by the unexpected masterpiece before me. We live in a world so resplendent that even a handful of dead guts are as intricate as a work of art. I in my heedless rush would never have known it, had I not been stopped by this one small bloody-mouthed possum.

The natural world is both my hope and my despair. I despair at the damage we humans are inflicting, at our oblivious indifference to the destruction we are causing. But on a chilly January afternoon, crouched by a sad dead bloody possum, I took hope. I can’t save the world. I can’t change the way thoughtless humans neglect the magnificent nexus of wild plants and animals that we live amongst. But one moment of beauty is enough to make me stop and notice the magic that is around me. And those small moments: a hawk swooping overhead, a shiny black beetle lumbering across the sidewalk, a maple tree in a blaze of autumn colors – remind me what it is that I love so passionately in the first place, and why it is so worth protecting.

by Sadie Kneidel

Friday, January 04, 2008

Monkeys can estimate numbers as well as Duke University students (yes I'm a UNC grad)

A female rhesus monkey estimating numbers. Photo courtesy of Duke University.

Yup, monkeys have been shown to estimate as well as Duke college students, in tests performed at Duke University's Primate Center. The tests measured what is sometimes called "fuzzy math." Neither students nor monkeys were given enough time to apply verbal skills, or count, so the tests measured a more primitive aptitude for quick visual estimates.

To find out how monkeys' fuzzy math stacks up against humans', primate researcher Jessica Cantlon tested two female rhesus monkeys named Boxer and Feinstein (after the senators). The monkeys watched a video screen.

"They would see one set of dots and then there would be a little delay," Cantlon said. "They would see a second set of dots, and then they'd be given two choices. And their task was to press the choice that represented the sum of those two sets of dots."

When Boxer and Feinstein were right, they got Kool-Aid. They were right about 75 percent of the time.

Cantlon then gave Duke students the same exact task, rewarding them with cash instead of Kool-Aid. They were right about 90 percent of the time — not a lot better than the monkeys.

If the students had been given more time, they would have done much better, Cantlon said. They would have added the dots to arrive at exact amounts.

"When you take away language from a human during a math task like this," Cantlon said, "they end up looking just like a monkey. You see these remnants of these more primitive mathematical abilities that are still kicking around in humans."

Cantlon said monkeys are probably good at making quick estimates because they may need to assess quantities in a hurry — like whether they're outnumbered by an enemy. Or if the number of fruits in a tree warrants a return trip.

Cantlon said young children probably do something very similar before they learn formal arithmetic. The results of the study appear in the journal Public Library of Science Biology.

In the journal article, the authors conclude that monkeys perform approximate mental addition in a manner that is remarkably similar to the performance of the college students. These findings support the argument that humans and nonhuman primates share a cognitive system for nonverbal arithmetic, which likely reflects an evolutionary link in their cognitive abilities.

Jessica F. Cantlon and Elizabeth M. Brannon. Basic math in monkeys and college students. Public Library of Science Biology.

Jon Hamilton. Dec 18, 2007. Monkeys rival college students' ability to estimate. National Public Radio. Click here to listen to the NPR podcast of article.

Keywords:: monkeys estimate, animal intelligence, primates, Tarheels, Duke vs. UNC, Duke admission scandal