The faint hint of sulfur was unable to overpower the smell of the grisly roadside barbecue. Malone stared past his nose at the struck match, his cupped hand protecting the harmless flame as it caressed the end of his cigar. When did his hands get to be so wrinkled? The deep shadows jumped back and forth in his palm, chased by the flame’s flicker and the pulse of red and blue light from the top of his squad car. Cigar lit, Malone tossed the charred match stick. He drew in deeply and leaned back on the hood of his car.

In his hoarse voice, “You alright back there, Greene?”

From behind the car, “Yeah, just give me a minute.”

“No rush, Greene,” Malone called back. He crossed his ankles and puffed on his cigar. “We’ve got a wait ahead of us anyway.”

That’s how it always was when Malone responded to these kinds of calls. It always seemed to happen about dusk, when the light started to fail. It was always so damned far from the office too–took almost 30 minutes to drive to this one. These calls kept Malone on the clock, kept him from getting home in time for supper. Probably for the best though. An empty stomach on these occasions was better than the pain Greene was suffering through.

Greene leaned against the hood next to Malone. “Sorry Sarge. I’m good now.”

“Yeah?” Malone eyed Greene, his newest deputy, barely 2 months on the job. Even in the faint light Greene looked pale. He still had a bit of saliva on his chin too. “Well, good. And don’t worry, you’ll get used to this kind of thing.”

Green swallowed loudly, his mouth still salivating. “Why?”

What the hell kind of question was that? “Well, Greene, when you’re repeatedly exposed to something unsettling, you just…you develop a kind of resistance to it.” Malone looked back down the bank of the road.

“No, I get that Sarge.” Greene leaned forward and placed his hands on his knees to focus on his breathing. “What I don’t get is why this happens often enough for me to get used to it. This is the third wreck along this road in the last 6 weeks alone.”

Malone pulled deeply on his cigar, the ashy end illuminated to a blood red, matching the sun as it fell over the western range of mountains. The expansive valley was in full shadow now. Malone stood and faced Greene, looked him up and down. His shirt was pressed so nicely, the creases visible even now, at the end of a long day. His brass badge caught the orange flickering behind Malone, its surface still polished to a sheen. Malone’s own badge had started to dull. His own uniform carried yesterday’s wrinkles.

“Well, Greene,” Malone plucked the cigar from his mouth and let his arm fall to his side, “what would you suggest?”

“I don’t know, sir.” Greene looked down at the insects hovering around his knees, bathed in the beam of the car’s headlight. “Maybe lower the speed limit?”

“Hmmm. Lower the speed limit, huh?” Malone brought the cigar back to his mouth.

“This road sir, I know there are a lot of straight stretches, but there are curves too, just like this one we’re parked on. I think they just sneak up on people and,” his eyes drifted down to the twisted remains of a car frame, barely recognizable, “well, you know what happens then.”

Malone forcefully exhaled, pursing his lips and directing the smoke at the mosquito that had been hovering in front of his face. “What’s the speed limit on this road, Greene?”

“Seventy, sir.”

“And how fast do you reckon that car was going?” He reached his arm backward to the smoldering remains, his cigar held between his pointer and ring fingers.

From Greene’s perspective against the squad car hood, the smoldering end of the cigar was right below the wrecked car. “Maybe 70, 75.” It looked as though the Sarge was using his cigar to set the car alight.

“Right. What do you think that driver felt?” Malone’s pulse quickened.


With a raised voice, “What he felt, Greene, physically.” A few beads of sweat formed on Malone’s brow. “If that would’ve been you in the car, what would your last moments on Earth have been like?”

“I’m not sure, sir.” Greene eyed the carnage just below the level of the road. The car was totaled. Frame distorted, panels missing, glass shattered. The spilled gasoline still fueled what was left of the flames. “I don’t imagine they would be much of anything.”

“Exactly, Greene. At those speeds, you’re damn near guaranteed a quick death.” Malone turned back to look at the remains of the car and its driver, still inside. “He didn’t have to deal with any of this disaster. His time spent suffering was limited. He was dispatched quickly.” Another deep draw. Malone, eyeing the aftermath lowered his voice. “Probably at the pearly gates right now.”

Malone looked back at Greene. The saliva still clung to his chin; now moisture appeared at the corners of his eyes too. “There are always going to be wrecks on this road, Greene, awful ones. Like you said, the turns sneak up on people. If we lower the speed limit though, we risk people dying slow. You know how long it took to get here. Do you really think we can do anything for them?”

Coming down the road was another set of headlights, large, mounted high. Either the fire department or the wrecker. Almost time to get to work. Greene spoke again. “No sir. Our response times are too slow.”

“Exactly, Greene. The high speed limit nearly guarantees a quick death.” Malone could hear the engine now; almost here. “If anyone could guarantee my death would be as quick as these poor souls, I wouldn’t question it.” The fire engine pulled past the squad car and against the side of the road. The exasperated hiss of the air brakes was the call to action, but no one inside the engine made an immediate appearance. They weren’t in any hurry.

Greene stood. “I understand, sir.”

“Good.” Malone dropped his cigar butt onto the asphalt as a few men stepped out of the fire engine. He stamped on it and rotated his foot to smear the ashes across the road. He ran his hand down his cheek and across his chin, the prickle of his facial hair a reminder of the late hour. “Now let’s get to work.”

The Only Moment

One. That’s all you get. Just one.

The realization was terrifying; but a second look made it liberating.

There’s something unique about riding a bike. Just over a year ago, I began to train for a long distance mountain bike ride. I spent a lot of time on my bike the next few months. Lots of time–enough to think, reflect on my experiences, dwell on life. That’s when it happened. I realized I only had one and that I was already in its midst.

I had been broadening my philosophical horizon at the time and was reading and listening to a lot of Alan Watts. What most stood out from his work was his notion of time.

He wrote that there really is no past, that there really is no future.

How do we experience the past? We look to history books, documentaries, movies; stories from our parents, grandparents, and tribal elders; and most importantly, we have memories. Our own memories remain our most potent source of knowledge about the past because they were based on direct experience. But all of these are things we experience in the present. We don’t read or watch movies in the past – we read and watch in the present. We don’t hear stories in the past – they are told to us in the present. And our memories, they fit the bill too – memory recall occurs in the present moment.

What about the future? You might say, “Well I’ve been planning to do this and do that. Those are in the future.” Well, no; they’re not. Those are called plans. Plans are nothing more than intentions, nothing more than a visualized action. Any guesses as to when exactly we formulate those intentions, those visualizations?

It was late May and my trip was just a couple of weeks away. I was out on one of my last major rides before I left and I wanted to see just how far I could go. It had been a hot day and the trail I rode cut through pines before it entered an arid, un-vegetated landscape.
I rode to the far terminus of the trail before I turned around and started back. I was just a few hundred yards from my car, the other terminus, when my odometer passed the 90 mile mark. That was the furthest I had ever ridden in a single day. I was satisfied to say the least, but I was so close to riding my first century.

Gnats danced in the grass where I sat, just out of eyeshot from the parking lot where my car sat. I snacked while considering my options. I was already exhausted and the day was getting late. If I rode to my car and went home, it would have been a successful day. But 100 miles…it was a milestone just 10 more away.

I remembered that this was my only moment. No past, no future, just this present moment, the only moment to define myself. I finished my snack, jumped back on the bike, and rode away from my car. One hour and ten miles later I loaded my bike and crawled into my car, sore, exhausted, but with my first 100+ mile ride under my belt. I looked at myself in the visor mirror. Salt caked my temples and cheeks and dirt was smeared across my forehead where I had wiped away the sweat; in the middle of it all, a wide, satisfied smile.

Metaphorically Speaking

“Speaking? Don’t you mean metaphorically thinking?”

Metaphors fit the bill of today’s discussion. But don’t worry you second-hand journalists, you pitiful poets, you wanna-be literary gods, for this article isn’t for the writers of society and it isn’t about literary metaphors. It is about cognitive metaphors, those constructs through which we experience the world.

“Wait…metaphors aren’t just a tool of rhetoric?”

No, metaphors are a tool to understand one kind of thing or experience in terms of another. In short, we think in metaphors. This post will introduce two kinds of metaphors and illustrate how they appear in our everyday language.

Orientational metaphors give abstract concepts a spatial orientation. Compared to other classes of metaphors, these are special because they are grounded in our direct experience of the world. It is through our physical and cultural environments that these metaphors arise.

For example: Happy is up, sad is down.

Think about a particularly incredible day that you’ve had. It’s fair to assume that you were feeling great, walking with a spring in your step, your chin held high while you gazed up at the sky. What about the last time you were miserable though? Your shoulders were probably hunched while your chin rested on your chest, your eyes fixed on your feet as the soles of your shoes gradually wore away because of the way in which they dragged along. This is the physical basis of our first orientational metaphor. A happy person has erect, upward oriented posture while depression manifests as a sagging, limp posture.

So how does this metaphor manifest in everyday language? Have you ever said anything similar to “my spirits rose” or “that gave me a lift?” Those key words indicate an upward orientation. How about “I’m feeling down” or “I fell into a depression”? These words have a downward orientation. Have you ever thought about these simple phrases as being metaphors? If you’re anything like me, there’s not a chance. But don’t worry, we aren’t alone. Most people look right past these metaphors and actually consider comments like the ones above as being quite literal. This just shows how pervasive metaphor is in our language. Let’s look at another example.

Having control (or power) is up, being subject to control is down.

Ever been in a fight? Yeah, me neither. But we know what the end of any fight looks like; the victor is standing over the defeated as he bleeds (or cries in the case of the schoolyard…I’d hope there wouldn’t be blood) while laying on the ground. Do you see how the relative physical positions relate? The victor is above (up) the defeated (down).

So have you ever “had the upper hand” or “had control over the situation?” Ever “risen through the ranks?” I hope you can say yes to those and never have to experience a “decline or fall from power.” And I certainly hope you never find yourself “under someone else’s control.”

Again, orientational metaphors originate from our physical and cultural experiences and are so fundamental in our thinking that it can be difficult to find an alternative. Here are some more orientational metaphors. See if you can figure out the physical/cultural basis of each (you can get the first two no problem):

Conscious is up, unconscious down;

Health and life are up, disease and death are down (feeling “under the weather“, Flula?);

Good is up, bad is down;

Virtue is up, depravity down;

Rational is up, emotional down.

The second kind of metaphors we’ll cover are Ontological metaphors. These metaphors allow us to reflect on our experiences in terms of objects and substances, which can be treated as discrete entities. Conceiving everything as discrete allows us to refer to, quantify, group, and categorize them. But what do I mean by discrete? Let’s look at container metaphors, my favorite type of ontological metaphor.

We all have skin. It’s what separates the outside from our insides (our guts). We project this conception on everything we perceive as having a boundary, from forests and meadows, to roads and houses, and to countries and continents. And when entities are bounded, they have size and can be quantified by the amount of substance they hold. That’s why we say there is a “lot of land in China” and not China is made up of a lot of land. We perceive the land (the substance) as being contained by China (the container) even though the concept of “China” is an abstraction of the mind. And even though rocks can be a homogenous, it doesn’t stop us from “breaking them open to see the inside.” The inside is no different than the outside, except the outside is a boundary, so we perceive an in/out relationship (geodes are a cool exception to this example). And did your parents ever tell you not to “stand in the middle of the road?” They didn’t mind if you stood on it, just don’t stand in it.

The same holds true for our field of vision, as objects “move into and out of” our field of vision. Events and actions are perceived with the same metaphor as well. Have you ever “gotten out of doing work?” Or did you get “called in to work and have to drop out  of the race?” Again, our use of metaphor is pervasive.

Human cognition is fascinating and our use of metaphor in everyday thought and language was news to me. It’s interesting now to listen to conversations and pick out the metaphors, even when it’s me talking. If you want to learn more, check out Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, a book about the Theory of Metaphorical Concepts, which is where this material came from. If you don’t have the time to read the book, then stay tuned for future posts on metaphors; this one has only scratched the surface.

This post is part of series. Continue reading here.

The Red Line

Do you follow the red line? Do you trace its every angle and hug to each meander? Do you even know which line I’m talking about?

If you’re lost, don’t count yourself alone. I too was ignorant of the red line until recently. To demonstrate, let’s travel through time, back 2 years to when I was a college senior 3 months from graduation. I was passionate about science and would receive a B.S. in Biology and Environmental Science. Biology, huh? That should land me a decent paying job right out of college, right?

Frankly, I don’t know. I haven’t even put that degree to use. Two years ago, I began an introspective journey, a very critical evaluation of myself and my values. This culminated in a bike ride along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, the longest mountain bike route in the world. Now I spend my days writing, trying to capture that experience and the lessons it taught me.

One lesson I learned: the red line doesn’t own you, so go your own way.

The GDMBR traversed 2700 miles of country roads, forest service roads, single track, and quad track from Canada to Mexico along the Continental Divide. To guide me, I had a set of 7 maps. Each side of each map was bisected by the “red line,” the route, the path that I was supposed to follow if I was going to claim that I had completed the longest mountain bike route in the world. Hell of a resume entry, right? I suppose it was pretty important to stick to that red line then.

This wasn’t the case though. The map makers couldn’t know what I would be experiencing as I rode, what I would value, what I would hope to gain from the route. The further I rode, the less value I assigned to the red line–I didn’t let the red line dominate my life. On the 40th night of my backcountry-bicycle journey, my last night before finishing, this was the advice I passed on to a pair of cyclists that had just begun their own ride along the GDMBR. It seemed natural to me, even obvious: “Don’t let the red line dominate you.”

I still needed to apply this to the big picture of my life though. When I graduated from high school, I had aspirations to be a writer. I threw those under the bus though when I left for college. I enjoyed science and there was a career to be made in such promising fields as chemistry and biology. Better go that direction, right?

Now, almost two years a post-grad, I can tell you that if it were not for some life-shaking events, I would still be on that path–I would still be following the red line, the line drawn by someone else in a way they saw fit. I would probably be in some stuffy lab in a graduate program where thinking is confined to measurable observations, statistics, and line graphs. I would probably be building my credentials in anticipation of arriving at the red line’s next destination.

This isn’t to say that this particular path, this particular set of life choices is wrong. In fact, I hope to return to graduate school, albeit, to study something different from my Ecology/Wildlife education, something I’m more passionate about. But what I am trying to say is, don’t follow any red line, purple line, pink line, green line, black line. Don’t live up to the expectations set for you by someone else. Live up to your own expectations and go where your passions might lead you–leave behind a line that is its very own shade of you.