Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Open and Free

I was riding my motorcycle through the remnants of morning rush-hour traffic, the only obvious vestige being certain specific intersections with busier than normal traffic. A dull chill accompanied the ride, from a wind out of the north. Meteorologists would remind us of the term “north wind,” implying that a wind is officially designated by where it comes from, not where it goes.

“The wind blows,” says the scripture, “wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.” In the case of riding open and free, there is not just the natural wind to contend with, but also the manmade wind caused by the vehicle’s forward motion; the two wind vectors combining to form a resultant whose magnitude and direction continuously fluctuates with the subtle nuances of the surrounding traffic motion and passing obstructions of buildings – now blocked, now released, now blocked again.

We gaze in half-hearted interest at the TV satellite weather map, which informs us of a front moving through from the northwest. Yet, out in the weather, riding open and free, the wind feels much more complex than a mere homogenous mass of air molecules, all moving simultaneously in the same direction. The micrometeorology of one’s immediate environs is much more subtle and complex; chaotic, even. Localized eddies twist, swirl and dissipate. Natural and artificial obstructions cause further complexities, yet the breakdown of otherwise calm air into eddies and vortices, many of them invisible except for the tell-tales of dust and other moveable debris, is inevitable, especially with the injection of solar energy, or the thermal energy from a warm body of water. We see this in the wide expanses of the American west on a hot yet calm summer afternoon, where the vast horizons are punctuated by distant clouds of dust, like pillars of smoke by day, slowly ambling across field and prairie in their own private journey from birth to death. There’s something distant and mysterious about the dust devil, yet also calmingly familiar. The name itself suggests some further spiritual implication, yet they seem inevitable from the hard laws of physics and thermodynamics; the localized heating of air near ground level causing density differences that result in vertical motion of air; Brownian Motion joining forces with the Coriolas Effect to produce circulation of air in vortices rising and falling.

Afternoon thunderstorms are also playgrounds of the wind, producing large-scale cyclonic motion whose central down-drafts pull rain and ice in torrents from high up in the thunderhead, causing flash-floods and gully-washers; and whose rising columns of air circulate around the periphery of the storm, creating the phenomenon of wind shifts as the storm cell wends its way across the landscape, driven by some larger flow of air.

All of this theoretical conjecture about the dynamics of gas molecules in motion seems like mere empty-headed babble when one is riding open and free, especially so on a brisk autumn morning in the high desert of the southern Rocky Mountains. I stop for a traffic signal, suddenly aware of both my open vulnerability and also the distant cackle of crows, wending their way from the high treetops of a nearby city park to another perch overlooking the waste bin of a fast-food joint. A jet aircraft wings over toward the northwest, heading for Las Vegas or Salt Lake City or Portland. My fellow drivers are wrapped up in their steel and glass cocoons, purposely avoiding their neighbor’s gaze, perhaps fearful of being accused of perpetrating a mad-dog-like stare, wrapped up in their inner thoughts about the day’s chores and that problem at work, while trying to follow the line of reasoning on the talk radio station, aware that the discussion is totally one-sided, dominated by the program’s “host” who appears to not be very host-like at all. The light turns green. I accelerate quickly to get out in front of the pack of cars and trucks whose drivers are unaware that I can smell the fresh chill of the autumn air and also the warm, almost rancid, smell of hot grease as I pass the burrito place on the right. A pedestrian is crossing a side street on the left, while the breeze has picked up a bit, my goatee flapping in the turbulence and the dry limbs of the young shrubs along the median swaying left, then right, then left again in the wake of passing vehicles.

I arrive at my destination, Winning Coffee, near UNM. I park the bike out front, adjacent to the mostly empty patio chairs, exempt from parking meters. The cool breeze has forced most of the street denizens indoor, except those few diehards whose nicotine urge has overwhelmed their common sense. I unfurl myself from my riding gear: Thinsulate suede gloves, fleece ski pullover, worn and haggard leather jacket. The sudden rush of warm, moist air strikes me as I push through the door, along with that distinctive tinge of body odor meets fresh ground coffee that is Winning’s. I expect the cool lenses of my glasses to fog over, but it’s not that time of year yet. In my pocket is a compact digital point-and-shoot camera, with which I hope to add to my growing collection of grab shots taken surreptitiously. I think I’m so clever, taking concealed candids in public, while most of my victims either know and don’t care or don’t know and hence don’t care. I’m only faintly fearful of those who would potentially both know and care, hence my reluctance to overtly point and snap. Yet I sit here, my table strewn with this morning’s paper and a cold, empty coffee cup and a book I’ve managed to bring but have yet to crack open, and I can write in bold, vivid detail about each person at adjoining tables in language florid and bulging with opinion-laden observations both critical and revealing, and they would be none the wiser, would probably care little were a gust of wind from the door ajar blow a loose page to the floor beside their feet, and they were permitted to spy a phrase or sentence or two while stooping to retrieve in neighborly politeness.

I pocket the digicam and tote my empty cup up to the cashier for a refill, leaving my old jacket and writing paraphernalia temporarily abandoned at my lone table in the center of the adjoining room. I’m betting on the incongruity of fountain pen and clipboard fanatics also being kleptomaniacs. But I could be wrong.

The crowd has thinned, and then picked up again. It has a subtly different nuance, whose complex under-structure I would be able to categorize in more concrete terms were I to permit myself to do so, were I to judge as more important than finishing this piece, emptying my cup and heading out to document the street in images visual rather than literary. Once again I have run up against that inevitable dilemma of creative expression: whether a picture really is worth a thousand words. I am still undecided on this point, conceding that future research is needed, which will, of course, require inevitably more open and free motorcycle rides across town in the brisk, cold wind.


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