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Blondie of Arabia

t.e. lawrence

Monica Hunken moved to NYC two days before September 11 bringing with her a family background that included a failed whistle-blower lawsuit and an intrepid immigrant grandfather.  These turned out to be fertile soil for the agit-prop street theatre, political action and bike culture that flourished in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks, the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions and the 2004 RNC protests.

In 2010, inspired by Follow the Women, group ride for human rights that takes place in the Middle East annually, and enabled by a serendipitous catering gig in Qatar that provided the starting point, she embarked on a 6-week solo bicycle trip across Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

A brief description of this gay outing to a longtime peace activist friend elicited “That must have been quite a shock for the locals.” Truer words were never spoken. But it’s amazing what a six-foot tall blonde American can get valium for felines away with in a region whose inhabitants are bound, on the one hand, by the laws of hospitality, and, on the other, intimate knowledge and fear of the weight and caprice of American state power.

Bringing a “disconcerting American optimism” as she set off just a few weeks before the debut of the Arab Spring, Blondie of Arabia pedaled right into the very heart of the cultural-social maelstrom that is the Middle East, blueballing a series of gallant gentlemen along the way and blithely delivering a terrific whack to any number of gender clichés and hetero-normative sexual political assumptions nestling in a bouquet of  Orientalist geo-political post-colonial paradigms and islamo-phobias, as only a woman riding a bicycle alone through Aqaba can.

Safely back on Bleecker Street three years later, she plays it all for laughs for a brisk and thought-provoking hour at Culture Project, nightly through May 11.

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Meditate or Die

tantraMy friend Luc told me that biking is the perfect meditation. I sighed and said in my pious enlightened voice “So true.” My imaginary skeptical voice scoffed and said “Oh God here we go again.” He was referring to my history with meditation; I am a dilettante of spiritual traditions.

NYC is Candy Land for spiritual seekers like me. I’ve taken all the yogas: hot, naked, Kundalini, and laughing. An acupuncturist using electrified needles has worked me over more than once. The herbal oil enemas were transcendent, but wrecked my furniture. I took the 12 steps and turned my life over to the care of a doorknob.

It was expensive, but I loved all of it and regret nothing. One of the smartest purchases I made was the $250 I spent on the secret mantra. I have been meditating with it sporadically for 16 years, so I feel well qualified to judge whether or not biking is the perfect meditation.

Let’s compare the two.

Meditation Biking
Gently close your eyes DO NOT CLOSE YOUR EYES
Sit in a comfortable, upright seated position Wedge a piece of plastic mounted on a clattering aluminum frame between your ass cheeks
Slow your breathing Gasp for breath
Bring your focus to a single point Only Chinese delivery guys are qualified to do this
Play gentle, calming music Sift crucial sounds from 85dB of city noise
Activate your calming prefrontal cortex Fire up the amygdala. It’s fight or flight time, baby.

On paper, biking is about as meditative as a Rammstein concert.

But is it?

After crashing into a limo on 6th Avenue and being doored in Chinatown in the first week of my bike commuting experiment, I realized that spacing off while hurtling through a gauntlet of cars is deadly. There are hundreds of harmless things on the streets that can turn perilous in an instant. All my senses must be focused on everything at once and my reactions must be agile enough to evade danger. When my mind is occupied in this way, the chatter nearly stops. I’m forced to be in the moment.

While in this state, the ride is sensuous and I feel everything intensely. Rhythms emerge from the din. I float across dunes of asphalt formed by pounding tires. Sound is hushed when I turn off a busy thoroughfare onto a side street and the kaleidoscopic city turns into a quiet little town. I fly down the avenues with pigeons on a magic carpet. It’s exhilarating. And then the ride ends.

Luc was right. Biking in NYC is the perfect meditation.

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Spring comes to New York City …in 2409

nyc_greenmap_present_future_

This amazing map is reprinted in Mapping New York from Eric Sanderson’s Manahatta imagines what New York will look like in 400 years. The bottom of Manhattan has returned to its original shoreline, minus the landfill that defines its shape today, which will all be underwater. But it’s the green space imagined by Sanderson and Heidi Nelson that snorting klonopin makes the mind boggle.

When the seasons change, I think of this map as I’m riding around the city. I have a kind of nostalgia for the present, and I wonder both what the first inhabitants would think if they saw Brooklyn as it is today, and how the present city will be remembered in the future.