The Perceived Power of Places

The photo above is of my family on a beach near a house that my wife and I lived in before we were married and for a while briefly after.  I spent hours on this beach walking my dog, running, just, sitting. Hours. It has always held a special place in my geographic heart. It was a very different time. We had no children yet, radically different jobs.

Recently when we visited and I took this picture I was struck with how powerful my attachment to the place was and how the photo itself seemed to say so much. Pretty much everything that has happened since living there could be considered encapsulated in it.

I then started thinking about why it is that places manifest such feelings and emotions in our memories and brains. They are after all just places. In this case water, rocks, sand. Impermanent. To another person, it would just be a beach, and not necessarily a very inviting one, yet whenever I’m in town, I make an effort to go back and visit, and just sit and absorb some sort of power I feel from the place.

I don’t think it’s the place that is generating the power though, it’s merely a milestone or a reminder of a place in time. I have friends, a couple, that I often debate music with. We talk about songs that used to hold such power over us and yet when we hear them now, they just don’t seem really, well, all that good.  We laugh and wonder, was our taste in music really that bad? The songs still touch a certain nerve in our memories and we can’t easily dismiss them.

“Place and time,” they like to say to me, “place and time.” Meaning that the song isn’t necessarily what is so great, but the memories that it evoke are. The song was great at the time, and hearing it again resurrects that, often quite vividly.

When I visit this beach, or indeed, the small town nearby, or the subdivision we lived in I certainly feel that, but I’m realizing that the place is in most ways immaterial, and what holds the power is the feelings and memories that it conjures.

The Escape Machine

Today when lunch rolled around and I’d had my fill of corporate buzzwords, ‘make the logo bigger/bluer’ and flipping through 1,038 internet channels of everyone riding bikes across Estonia other than me, I did what I often do: I had a minor internal freakout, asked myself how I got here and what the hell I’m going to do to get out, and realized the only real answer was to go for a bike ride with no purpose or destination.

I find myself doing this far more frequently these days and thankfully, some years back I assembled a bike for just this purpose that lives in the basement of my building of employment. When the voices in my head build to a roar and my internal Captain sets a course straight for ‘fuck this shit’, I jump quickly to a firepole and descend 3 floors to where my steed awaits. Well, I don’t actually have a firepole, I have to use the stairs, but that firepole idea and imagery is just FANTASTIC.

The purpose-built bike waiting I have painstakingly cobbled in an effort to create the most simple bicycle I possibly could. It’s a beater frame, rescued from a dumpster and draped with all manner of parts-bin finds. If it had a gruppo it would be called DERELICTE. It has no gears, no brakes in the traditional sense, and absolutely no sex appeal, thus enabling me to leave it practically anywhere with minimal risk of theft. Any common street hood who jumped on it and make a speedy getaway would probably be immediately bucked to the pavement by the fixed gear drivetrain. It requires little-to-no maintenance, operates in any weather on any type of surface and requires zero special equipment or shoes to ride it. It doesn’t make a single sound when you ride it. It’s like the concept of motion manifest in an assemblage of steel, aluminum and rubber.

But so much more than an inanimate object, by animating it, I am freed from the bonds of work, office space, expectations, bills, email, recycled air, screen glare and incessant machine humming. I know there are studies and science that support and/or attempt to explain this phenomenon, but really, I don’t care why it happens, only that it does happen. Over the years I’ve tried various substances, meditation, inversion boots (well not really inversion boots, but I needed something else to make this list seem more extensive), witchcraft (again, embellishing) and even jazz (for real) and found nothing that soothes my inner-savage beast like a bike ride. For awhile I was hung up with requirements I placed on the distance or effort of these rides, but I’ve now realized that these metrics aren’t important. A 15minute destinationless, wandering loop at sightseeing speed can have the same effect as a 100km multi-hour epic. It is hard to remember that though, until you’re out, but once you’re out there’s no denying it. I’m sure the scientists will say it’s endorphins or pheromones or pherdorphins or whatever, I still just call it plain ol’ MOJO.

It’s so easy for us to get frustrated with our lives, jobs, people, karma, people who put long comma-separated lists in blog posts, the Universe. The Escape Machine humbles. The Escape Machine abides. As much as my job has lately been pushing my buttons and leaving me feeling less than inspired, I have to remind myself that at least I have the luxury of getting out, and the Magical Mojo Machine in the basement to escape with.

Poets of Instagram

I’ve really grown to love Instagram as a social media platform, it’s become one of my favourite places to visit online. It’s currently the only social media app I have on my phone.

I enjoy the nature of it – the fact that it’s primarily visual. I’m pretty selective with who I follow and for me, it’s a visual hit of inspiration whenever I check in. In some cases, folks have gone one further and are using their Instagram accounts as more of a blog, including lengthy, well-composed posts as the captions to their photos. Indeed some of them have an Instagram account as their sole online presence, nothing else, not even a personal website.

That said, I thought I’d share a few of my favourites – people I feel are really doing something different, unique and inspiring with the app.

Captain Winter

Eric Larsen (@elexplore) is a polar explorer. That’s a pretty cool job title. I don’t know the all the details of exactly what that entails, but I think the general gist pretty obvious. He’s a guy that digs the cold and winter. He’s on a one-man-mission to try and get you to as well. His Instagram feed is full of fun and inspirational photos and commentary about trips to the coldest, whitest areas of the planet.  He throws around some great stay-warm tips as well. As a fellow fan of winter, I know how much fun it can be. I also have discovered lately, that the more I get out in winter, the more I enjoy and embrace it. Conversely, when I’m not able to get out due to the to-do list or schedule, it’s a lot harder to tolerate winter and morale suffers. When the calendar is crunched and I can’t fit in a snowshoe, sometimes a choice post from Eric will suffice and keep the winter mojo going to the next outing.

The Bicycle Craftsman

To anyone who’s been around in bikes for a long time, Richard Sachs (@therichardsachs)will probably need no introduction. The guy has been hand-building bike frames since before it was the new artisanal thing to do. In the world of bicycle as art, he’s an Old Master. Although he’s been building some of the best bikes in the world for almost 40 years, he recently ‘reinvented’ himself, for lack of a better word. He built a new, solitary shop and returned to building bikes the way he’d started, one at a time, by hand, with hand tools. In the process he has been sharing his reflections on the industry, life, his craft and topics like passion and drive, all via his Instagram feed, often accompanied by some great photos of both bikes and process. You don’t have to be a fan of bikes to appreciate his posts on inspiration, drive, and why we do what we do.

Honourable Mentions

A few other cats also holding it down on the ‘gram and continually turning out inspiring content:

  • @slimwonder – Repping the Dads and bikes set, with bebop flava. #sockgame always on point.
  • @allhailtheblackmarket – Punk rock, discontent, skating, bikes and art. Through the disgruntled lens of middle-age.
  • @coldbike – Another winter nut. Bikes, Dad skills, kids, adventure.
  • @outsideisfred – Shenanigans.
  • @hotsaucecycling – Elite World Cup Cross Racing. Shoestring budget. Canadian, eh?
  • @targetsalad – Good espresso pulls. Mule Deer. Dad life. The World’s Most Interesting Bike Club.

The Boombox Theory of Zen


When I was in 5th or 6th grade – I don’t remember exactly and I’m terrible with matching time periods and events – no doubt a by product of indulgences I would undertake many years later – I managed to save up one hundred of my very own dollars to go down to the Dart Drug and buy a Panasonic boom box.

This is significant in two ways: one, because if you knew me then – or now, really – you’d know that I’m terrible at saving money; two, because it would form the basis for the lifelong relationship with music I’ve had to this day.

At the time one of my favorite pastimes was to create ‘mix tapes’ – though, not in the fancy way you’re thinking of in the later years of double cassette decks and CDs. This was old school record-the-song-live-from-the-radio mix tape production.

For the uninitiated, this meant when you were hanging out in your room, or doing homework or whatever, if a song came on you liked (or you were lucky enough to have the DJ announce it was coming up) you would FLY across your room – often banging some sort of body part on errant furniture – to get to the radio and hit the magic ‘record/play’ mash of buttons to record the song and capture it on your mixtape forever.

It was never perfect. Often times you’d end up catching the song 10 seconds in. It wasn’t uncommon to get the DJ talking over the beginning or end of your song. There was no ‘fade’. Your song transitions were abrupt, and often would feature a snippet of the previous/following song – which there was a good chance you hated.

But, bottom line, if you could capture it, you had it.

Often times, on weekends, when I knew the Top 40 show was gonna be on, I would sit, right in front of the boom box, and wait, like a hunter waits for the game. This was a good technique as usually, the songs were announced beforehand, but unfortunately the DJ almost always talked over the beginning and end of the tune. There was also the seemingly unending downtime of sitting through songs you couldn’t care less about hoping the next one was a keeper.

The upside however, is that the painstaking process it was has music and many of those songs ingrained in the fiber of my being, and many of those songs to this day are with me on a cellular level, regardless of the fact that I may have never owned the record they were released on. Judas Priest’s ‘You’ve Got Another Thing Coming’ is a perfect example. Every time I hear it, I am transported back to the time I was able to catch it on tape. I still don’t own a Priest album. Never have. Never really listened to any other tunes, but that one – maaaaan, it comes on the radio (or even Muzak somewhere, FFS) and it’s ON.

At the time, amongst your peers, those songs were prizes and status symbols. It was the true origins of street cred as you knew you’d glean some juice from your friends if you were hanging out and they commented on or were envious of the contents of your mix tape.

I wonder how kids of these generations will reflect on their time with music. Will it be as wistful and nostalgic? I’m sure they relate and form experiences with music, but I have a feeling it will be considerably different. As a father of 4, I’ve already been able to observe live case studies in the wild.

With advent of Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube and the myriad of other services – free and premium – that are out there, and an industry and artists who for a variety of reasons discussed at length on the internet, pretty much have to give their music away at this point to remain viable – these generations of music fans have never really had to *work* for their music. I have to admit to being an enabler in this capacity. Apple Music’s family subscription is only a couple of bucks a month more than an individual one (damn you Eddy Cue) so I sprung for it, partly (perhaps foolishly, only time will tell) thinking that sharing music would be a way to connect/bond with my kids. Still though, there’s no time or effort invested. Everything is on-demand.

When I was able to actually buy albums I spent hours pouring over liner notes – lyrics, artist comments, who played what instruments on what song, where it was recorded, who did the artwork. I paid attention to these things and could weave connecting threads between artists. “Oh, that dude also did the artwork for so-and-so’s record.” “Oh, he recorded this at The Record Plant in NYC, so did so-and-so.” I became a fan of not just the music and the musicians but other ‘artists-at-large’ – visual artists, producers, engineers, and created meccas-in-my-mind of the studios/spaces they recorded in. Indeed throughout my life I have often followed the careers of these individuals and who they’ve worked with as much as the musicians that initially brought them to my attention.

Liner notes of today are – with a few exceptions – artist websites and social media feeds. Exclusive videos, ‘album trailers’ and sneak peeks. Access and news from/about artists has never been easier to glean, yet it doesn’t feel the same to me without something tangible.

I also sense these generations of music fans have little concept of the music as a created artwork and that the artist(s) should in some way be compensated for that. I think they have a disconnect between what they want to consume/experience and the livelihood of those making it.

While listening to the radio in the truck the other day (yea, I still listen to the radio in the truck), Heart’s ‘Crazy on You’ came on. Now, I will ashamedly or unashamedly admit to owning several Heart records – and even seeing them in concert – depending on the circumstance, but I never owned an album with this song on it. Still, to this day, it comes on the radio, I know all the breaks, all the lyrics, can air guitar the solos and drum fills. Then I wondered, “How the hell is it that I know this song inside out? How is it that after all these years* I have forgotten so much other crap, yet I have this, perfectly preserved in the vault of my consciousness?” I mean, I still mix up which years my kids were born.

The more I think about it now, maybe this and coming generations of music listeners will have a deep, if not deeper, connection with their music if only for the fact that, really, no one has to listen to music they don’t like anymore. The ability to dial up exactly what you want, when you want it, means you can – in essence – ‘Clockwork Orange’ these songs into your mind to the extent there’s no way they’ll escape. The flip side of that though, is if you don’t have to wade through stuff you don’t like, work or pay for the music, does it lose it’s special value and significance and simply become ‘what is’? Is it then ‘nothing special’?

Shunryu Suzuki writes in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind :

“As Chinese poem says, “There is nothing special. If you visit there, there is nothing special. However Rosan is famous for its misty mountains, and Sekko is famous for its water.” This is Zen. There is nothing special. If you go there, there is nothing special. But people think Rosan is wonderful. It is wonderful to see the range of mountains covered by mist; to see the misty mountains in Rosan is wonderful. And people say it is wonderful to see the water covers all the earth. It is wonderful, they may say, but if you go there, you see just water, and you see just mountain. There is nothing special. But it is a kind of mystery that for the people who have no experience of enlightenment, enlightenment is something wonderful; but if they attain it, that is nothing. Although it is nothing, it is not nothing. Do you understand? For some person — for the mother who has children, to have children is nothing — nothing special. But if she lose her children, what will she feel?”

If this and coming generations have unlimited access to music (and/or art) without any sort of effort to attain it, does it become “nothing special” within the context of their greater experience?


* “Crazy on You” was the first single following the release of their debut album Dreamboat Annie, released in 1976 – and there’s no way I heard it then. I’m guessing it was probably 2-3 years before I heard it and no doubt it’s heavy rotation on ‘classic rock’ radio, which I favored in high school, has been the major contributor to it’s etching on my musical psyche.