Monday, May 30, 2011

Adventures in South Korea

Well here I am, writing this blog at the wonderful Hooyong Performing Arts Centre in South Korea. I am here for a month, as I was chosen as one of nine artists from around the world to participate in their artist-in-residency program. I am a long way from home, but feel incredibly welcome here and am already soaking up as much as I can.

My main purpose for being here is to work on the script for the verbatim project I am currently developing (with the help of many others) back in Flint. I can't describe how wonderful it is to have such a beautiful place to work. While I write, the members of the resident theatre company (nottle theatre company) rehearse for their upcoming production of La Casa De Bernarda Alba (or, the house of Bernarda Alba) by Lorca. Watching them rehearse was fantastic. Obviously I don't understand the dialogue, but knowing the play I am able to follow a lot more than I thought I would. The company have a wonderful aesthetic, and I am already getting many ideas for the production of the fires play (which will begin rehearsing a few weeks after I return to Flint).

This experience is giving me a lot to think about my discipline. I find it very difficult to focus on writing or artistic endeavors at home. Perhaps there are too many distractions, who knows? However, I do know that I hope I can keep up this work ethic when I return. My brain is working overtime thinking of ways in which to do this...

Speaking of distractions, while I'm getting a lot of work done and feel very productive, I'm also using the opportunity here to relax, work on my tan a little, and explore the area. This afternoon (like the company) I took a day off from work and used the opportunity to borrow a bike and go for a little ride!

The bike I took was quite a different ride to my trusty 10-speed at home (I miss her...), but I managed to get the hang of the gears pretty easy and was glad that it was a mountain bike as I encountered some pretty mega pot-holes along the way! The seat was far to low and I really should have adjusted it before I left, as the entire ride I felt a little like a clown on one of those mini cycles. I think my knees will be sore tomorrow...

I took the recommendation of a few of the company members to head through the rice fields towards the river. I packed up a little supply kit with the essentials (water, a book, an orange, my ipod) and of course my korean phrasebook in case I got into any trouble along the way.

It was a pretty uneventful ride. I couldn't get as close to the river as I had hoped (it was warm and my feet fancied a little paddle), but it was nice to have some alone time and go on a little journey. I was reminded of why I love cycling so much. You see such a different world than you do traveling by car, bus, or plane. It's just you, your thoughts, and the road.

Here are a few shots of the journey:

Setting off through the rice fields

A happy little tree!

The closest I could get to the river, where I ate my orange.

I'm hoping to make it to Seoul for a couple of days while I'm here. I hear it's a very cool city and I hope to be able to explore it by bike, but we'll see!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

One Year On

I recently celebrated the one year anniversary of my return to the US.

It has been a a tumultuous twelve months with it's fair share of ups and downs. In my last post I wrote about my Uncle's illness and while his battle was brief and bravely fought, he passed away towards the end of February. It was (and still is) a difficult period for my family. I think one of the blessings of my return to Michigan has been the fact I'm able to spend more time with my parents, particularly as my Dad continues to come to terms to life without his younger brother.

Winter is hard enough in Michigan, but grieving the loss of a family member made it pretty bloody awful. To make matters worse, this winter seemed to never end. It's finally beginning to look and feel like Spring now and I think I can confidently say we've seen the last of the snow for a while.

I was able to continue the riding throughout the winter, although there were days where I opted to leave the bike at home and strap on my winter boots instead. I also moved into my own place at the end of January, so it's an easy walk to downtown Flint and the University. I wasn't sure how I'd get on living a more solitary life, as despite being a few months away from turning 29 this is the first time I've actually lived on my own. This was more out of necessity than choice as in London, it's just too expensive to live on your own. Occasionally I miss the communal aspect of living with people and in the past I've been blessed to share a home with some wonderful people. However I think the solitary life is good for me at the moment. It allows for a lot of freedom, time for reflection, and I do have some wonderful neighbors who provide me with fresh eggs from their backyard and plenty of good times.

Professionally and artistically, I am still pinching myself at how great things are going and I'm feeling more comfortable living and working in Flint for the foreseeable future. I feel a lot more comfortable with teaching now, and for the first time in my life I feel I am finally seeing the fruits of many years of hard work and studying. I've received multiple grants for the collaborative play I'm working on, and this project is gaining a huge amount of interest and attention. I've mentioned it briefly in previous posts, but in a nutshell I'm working with some students to create a play based on interviews with people discussing their experience with arsons in the city. We have a huge problem with arson fires in Flint, and there are many sides to the story that have not been told, or are rarely discussed. It's my hope that this project might change that. It really is an incredible opportunity and working on this play is helping me fall in love with Flint once more. I'm hearing a lot of harrowing stories, but I'm also meeting so many inspiring people who continue to fight against rampant apathy and despair that continues to plague our community. Riding my bike through neighborhoods that have seen several houses burn and are now littered with holes where houses once stood is often a moving experience. I'm thankful that my vehicle of choice often requires me to take the roads less travelled. I'm often amazed at how quiet my rides are. Apart from the occasional dog chasing me, I can often ride blocks without seeing a soul.

I'll be traveling again in a few weeks time as I was also recently selected as one of nine artists-in-residence with a theatre company based in South Korea, so will spend just under a month living in an old school and working on the play I just mentioned. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to get away from other distractions and focus all my time and energy into writing. It's been hard to find the time this year. This trip will mean that I won't be visiting the UK again this year and while I am disappointed I wont get to see friends and spend some time in London in the spring (the best time of year in my opinion), I am very excited at the chance to experience life in a completely different culture.

As I begin to find myself committed to more projects, I am starting to worry if I can realistically continue this car-free living for much longer. I know that even if I do "give in" and buy a car, I wont use it very often and I'll continue to use the bike whenever possible. I am pleased I was able to make it through this past year without a vehicle of my own. Although it has been an inconvenience at times, I can see how my life has greatly improved as a result.

I've been forced to live differently. I have to live closer to where I work. I have to be able to purchase my food from locally owned and operated retailers. Obviously there are also incredible health benefits to riding a bike or walking nearly everyday. I don't go out as much as I probably would if I owned a car, so as a result I've also seen a significant growth in my savings account! While all these things have clearly had a positive impact on my life, perhaps the greatest impact my car-free living has had is how it's forced me to embrace a slower pace of life. I'm a person that likes to keep busy, and always needs a project to be working on, but this experience has given me weekly, or daily opportunities to stop, to slow down, or to take the longer route.

Despite the snow, the rain, and the wind, I feel my life is better as a result of this experience. My bike and I have taken our fair share of beatings during these winter months, but right now I think we both feel pretty good.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Winter Blues

It's almost the middle of February. I'm pretty certain this is the worst month of the year (particularly if you live in Michigan), despite it also being the shortest of all twelve months.

It's not uncommon for folks here in the Midwest to develop a series case of the winter blues. Symptoms include an inability to get out of bed in the morning, a desire to "call it a night" at around 9:30pm each night, and an overall lack of motivation in all aspects of life. Sounds wonderful, huh? I'm trying my best to beat it by significantly increasing my vitamin C intake, trying my best to appreciate the beauty of the season (when it's sunny out, the snow does look quite pretty), and reminding myself that after winter must come spring.

I'm still riding, although not as much as I might like. It certainly does require significantly more effort than usual, and as I've recently moved into a new apartment which is a little closer to downtown I've taken to walking more often. After a fresh coating of snow, the roads in downtown Flint aren't great. Many of them aren't even plowed. A lot of residents don't bother to clear the sidewalks either, so most pedestrians resort to walking in the middle of the road. After a rather heavy snow storm last week, my bike was hibernating inside with me. In my new apartment, my bike lives in the bathroom (as it's so freaking huge). Earlier this week I felt he was looking a little neglected, so I cleaned him up and rode him to work.

The ever increasing pile of snow outside is a pretty perfect metaphor for how I feel this month. I'm in the middle of a rather tedious grant writing process to hopefully secure some funds to develop this play I'm currently working on, which is causing me to seriously neglect some other responsibilities (this blog, for example). However, the biggest weight on my shoulders is my Uncle's illness and the fact that his time on Earth is clearly coming to an end far too soon. My parents and I visited the family in the UK over Christmas, and his treatment seemed to be having an impact (he was diagnosed with lymphoma towards the end of last summer). However, as 2011 began, his condition started to gradually decline to the point now where he's simply being made comfortable.

I won't go into all the details of the situation and how bloody awful it is for my aunt and two young cousins, and of course the rest of my family. My parents flew over again last week in order to be there, and while I'm blessed to have some wonderful new neighbors who are very kind to me and good friends who call to check up on me, sitting inside from the cold and simply waiting for the phone call frankly sucks. When the call finally comes, I'll book my flight to join them all but before then I'm still playing the waiting game.

Even though it's incredibly hard to get out of bed and onto my bike during this winter of our discontent, when I am able to manage it I find even the shortest bike ride becomes an incredibly emotional experience. The blinding light reflecting from the snow and the bitterly cold wind slapping my face is a harsh reminder that I am very much alive and incredibly blessed to be so.

In one of my classes (the one where I am working on this collaborative play with students), we recently listened to a short interview from NPR with the actress & writer Anna Deavere Smith. She has often created work from interviewing a variety of people and then takes great care to capture their unique language and character in what becomes a one-woman performance. In this interview, she began talking about the similarities between two "characters" in her most recent piece on health care in the US, and how they were both able to articulate a similar thought, despite speaking in an incredibly different style and manner. The theme they were discussing was the idea of hope and optimism, and I found this brief interview contained exactly what I needed to hear in order to keep me going through February, and whatever will follow next.

So I'll end today with a short quote from this interview, and hope that I too can go beyond the evidence.

Anna Deavere Smith (as Cornel West):

"Hope and optimism are different. Optimism, you look out the window, you say, it looks pretty good out there. Hope says, it doesn't look good at all. Doesn't look good at all. Evidence doesn't look good at all, but I'm going to go beyond the evidence, create new possibilities based on vision, become contagious to allow people to engage in heroic actions. Always against the odds. No guarantee whatsoever. That's hope."

Thursday, November 11, 2010

autumn riding

Beginning this entry with "it's been a long time since my last post" would be somewhat of an understatement.

I wish I had enough valid reasons for not writing more. I have my reasons, but if I'm honest I feel as if I'm mostly becoming a little lazy. I'm not doing half as much writing of any kind at the moment and I feel pretty crap because of it. I don't think it's lack of inspiration, but rather a seemingly never -ending list of other tasks that often take priority.

One of the reasons I wanted to start this was to simply have an outlet to write more. Particularly for those times when due to overwhelming sense of a lack of creativity, this might offer an opportunity to simply write about stuff that I had done, made me really mad or that the few people who might read this might enjoy.

Another was of course, to document my car-free existence. That (I'm pleased to say) is actually going very well. Fall is well and truly upon is and even though there is a distinct chill in the air I feel the last week of bike-riding has been one of the most enjoyable in a long time. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact I just took my bike into a local repair shop for a little tune up, and ever since it rides like a dream and I feel like a kid at Christmas.

As the procedure for "leaf collection" in our neighborhood is to simply rake them from your yard into the street, I've been riding through massive piles of crunchy leaves lately which I'm pretty certain makes one of the best noises ever. Picking the leaves out of my gears afterwards is not so much fun, but worth it.

One highlight of the last month which I had every intention of writing about (and then didn't) was a little bit of bike riding activism I organized on 10/10/10 - an international day of Climate related activism. Organizations like and 10:10 (in the UK) were encouraging people all across the world to organize local actions with the idea that together we can make a much bigger noise.

I began thinking about planning something for this date late in the summer, but after a few conversations and a reminder that a crap load of Americans simply don't believe in climate change (or at least that it's not something we should be concerned about) I ashamedly felt a little defeated. However, as the 10/10/10 date got closer and closer I began to read about other people's planned actions all over the world and the motivation returned.

So on a sunny Sunday in early October, myself and around 15 other local cyclists gathered for a bit of bike riding activism in Flint. We decorated our bikes with handmade flags, pipe-cleaners, ribbons and a few other craftylicious items. As we rode around together we stopped at a few locations to discover positive, environmentally friendly actions that are already taking place (or are at least in development) right here in our little city. A lot of people find it very easy to focus on all the negative things happening in Flint, but on this day we found plenty to be happy about.

Here's a photo of the folks who turned out for the ride, along with our pimped out bikes (which don't look so pimped out in the photo, but trust me they were awesome!)

Later that evening we then moved on to Buckham Gallery, a lovely little art gallery in downtown Flint for a screening of the film The Age of Stupid. It wasn't the first time I had seen the film, but every time I do I remember why I don't own a car and why I don't plan to get one anytime soon. While I like to think that I'm very much aware of the choices I make (and the impact of those choices on people and the planet), watching that film still has the ability to make me feel like I'm the worst climate criminal of them all. About 15 people turned out for the film, and their donations just about covered the fee I paid to get the screening rights. We had a little conversation afterwards and while it was clear most of the audience already felt the issues discussed in the film were important (so there was a clear sense of preaching to the choir), it was good to spend a bit of time with other people who share my passions.

Since moving back to the US, I find myself getting so easily depressed when I hear quotes from idiots like John Shimkus, a Congressman who believes God will save us from Climate Change. If you don't believe me you can read more here. I don't know what angers me most: the fact that this guy could potentially soon be leading the Energy & Commerce Committee, or that there are people of my faith who actually think this way. Stewards of the Earth, anyone?

I get the same sense of despair when I read that while 30% of tea party supporters think, wrongly, that President Obama was born outside the US and therefore is not a legitimate president, just 12% think global warming is a serious problem now.

I don't for a minute believe that alone, my feeble actions will make a massive dent in the fight for the planet. On days like 10/10/10 however, it's good to think and dream that together our actions might just make a loud enough noise.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

ville de moins de véhicules

So it's been a while.

My last post was just before I hopped the train to Montreal for a few days. I got back a week ago and jumped pretty much straight into the first week of the Fall term.

Now it's the weekend and although I have a long "to-do" list of mainly work-related tasks, I'd rather put those off a little longer and write about mon petit voyage.

First things first, let's discuss the train. My journey was broken into two sections, Windsor (just across the border from Detroit for those of you who don't know) to Toronto and after a very brief stop in Toronto it was time to jump on another train bound for Montreal. I left Windsor around 9:30am and arrived into Montreal a little before 9pm. It was a long day, but as Canada rocks there was free wifi on the train so I was able to get a ton of work done for my new classes.

My brief stop in Toronto was shorter than I had hoped, but was still long enough to have lunch with Sharon, a Canadian friend who had been living in London briefly just before I left. Our lunch probably didn't last more than 40 minutes, but Sharon, being the lovely person that she is she brought a lunch for me. We had a good catch up and I hope to make it to Toronto for a little longer next time.

To be honest, the train journey flew by. I had plenty to do, the scenery was pretty great and I had plenty of room. I'm determined to do more journeys by train. It didn't always feel like it in the UK (especially when three trainloads of people were squashed into one train), but there's still something magical about train travel here in North America. It takes forever to get places, but it will always beat driving in my book.

Once in Montreal, I met up with the fabulous Queen Elizabeth III, who I would be spending the next few days with. We quickly found our hostel and settled in to the funky little place.

The next few days were filled with plenty of museum visits, good food, drink and a slow-paced exploration of this fine city. I felt I handled the whole french-speaking fairly well. I don't think I realize how much I actually did learn after 4 years of french classes in school and another year in college, or at least I don't get to use it enough. I made an effort at least, which for the most part seemed appreciated.

Just before I had departed for this trip I had some bike issues at home. A flat tire that proved unrepairable meant I had missed out on a few days cycling. I was expecting to see a lot of bikes in Montreal, like most major cities. I don't know if there were just more or perhaps me missing my own two-wheeled friend was causing me to pay more attention, but there were bikes on every corner and the city even has one of those communist bike sharing schemes. If you don't know what I mean by that communist reference, read this.

Elizabeth and I did make use of the bixi bike rental scheme, and while we had a brief but enjoyable ride along the waterfront, we were blissfully unaware that if you're not a regular user of the scheme (i.e. you LIVE in Montreal), a deposit of approximately $250 is taken from your bank account. I had just been paid, so it wasn't a huge issue for me but let's just say her highness was not amused...

The trip was short but very sweet. I was in need of a good dose of european culture, it was wonderful once again to see so many people making use of and enjoying their bikes, and I came home with a bag full of cadbury's dairy-milk! (it's also fair trade in Canada). Wifi on trains, fair-trade chocolate. Returning to the US felt a little like stepping back in time. I find it rather amusing that for the most part, America thinks it's so ahead of the game when more often than not this isn't the case.

After a week eyeing up so many beautiful bikes (and a few of their riders!) it was time to head home and give my bike some much needed attention. After a failed attempt at replacing both tires and tubes (I had bought dodgy products), I'm happy to say as of this past Friday my bike and I are back in business.

Yesterday was rather windy, a little wet and a reminder that the autumn is upon us. Perfect weather for cycling though, so I can't complain.

I'm going to end things with one final photo of a little scribbling I found along with some other street art in Montreal. The text translates to "bike more elegant" - a lesson for all methinks.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

ode to a bicycle

Just a brief post today.

Earlier this week a good friend of mine sent me an excerpt from Pablo Neruda's poem, Ode to a Bicycle. Here it is:

I thought about evening when
the boys
wash up,
sing, eat, raise
a cup
of wine
in honor
of love
and life,
and waiting
at the door,
the bicycle,
only moving
does it have a soul,
and fallen there
it isn't
a translucent insect
through summer
a cold
that will return to
when it's needed,
when it's light,
that is,
of each day.

Sadly, my bike has not been moving much this past week due to a rather nasty puncture that has yet to be fixed, and she won't be moving much this week either as I'm off to Montreal tomorrow. I hope she won't mind if I cheat on her while I'm away... I promise when I'm home to give her some much deserved attention.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

2 wheels are sexier than 4

This weekend downtown Flint was a little more occupied than usual, due to the annual back to the bricks festival. For those unfamiliar with this event, it's an annual gathering of cars and car enthusiasts. People park their cars all along Saginaw Street and those not fortunate (or fortunate, depending on how you look at it) to own one of these classic vehicles wander up and down the street admiring these truly American inventions.

I had been joking with some friends about riding my bike up and down Saginaw with a hand-written "2 wheels are sexier than 4" sign attached to the back of my bike. While a lot of folks said I should or thought it would be hilarious, in the end I chose not to partly because there were so many people downtown that it would have been pretty difficult to ride, but also because I'm pretty sure it would not have gone down well with some people there and I didn't want to end up being pelted with empty beer cans.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not knocking this event. I get that people put a lot of pride and hard work into restoring their cars, this is an opportunity to celebrate an important part of our city's history, and it's great to see so many people out in Flint on a summer's evening. However, as I walked along the bricks with some friends Friday night, I couldn't help but feel a tinge of sadness amongst the celebration. Yes, the car helped to make Flint; to put us on the map so to speak. But it also played a major role in the decline of this city. Strolling past the cars, I felt as if we are clinging to a past that has proved both economically unviable (it's cheaper for cars to be made overseas) and that is keeping us from embracing a more sustainable and lower impact future.

Perhaps back to the bricks is simply for the old-timers of Flint. Those who remember when every Friday night downtown was buzzing like this weekend because everyone had a job and money in their pocket. These folk deserve a chance to celebrate. To be proud of what their city used to be. But I (and I know I'm not alone) still dream of what this city can be. Who knows, in many years to come those who travel to Flint especially for back to the bricks will be showing off their hybrids or electric cars. Or better yet, their sexy bicycles!

While I might still believe that 2 wheels are sexier than 4, I also understand that this city that I once again call home wouldn't be around if it wasn't for the invention of a certain 4-wheeled vehicle. For that I guess I'm sort of grateful.