Sunday, August 30, 2015

Double Metric Firewood Century

What did you do yesterday?

I was going to get up early and do a Double Metric Century on my bike. That's 200km, or a bit over 120 miles. I've done that distance a bunch of times over the years and It's just about at the limit of what I can readily do on the spur of the moment, by myself, without any preparation. It's doable and "fun", but not something you knock out in a couple of hours and then go about your bidness the next day like nothing happened. At least not for me anymore.

Spur of the moment in this case was realizing on Friday afternoon that my project for Saturday, replacing the waterpump on my wife's Bentley, wasn't happening because the "Bombe de Aqua", as it's called in Spanish, hadn't come in("Bombe de Agua",I really like that. What if we ditch "Waterpump" all together and just go with "Bombe de Agua" from now on?). I figured if I was all casual and did the "Yo Baby, maybe I'll do a ride in the morning before it gets hot..." thing, I could take off and do a nice long ride, be back by mid-afternoon and still get a couple of things done before the "Lovely and Talented" figured out I wasted a whole day screwing around on my bike. But by nine o'clock on Friday evening I was starting to have second thoughts. Guilty thoughts. Winter's coming and there's hardly any firewood thoughts. Once the guilt gets up about ankle deep it takes the fun out of things, and it was sloshing around approximately waist level. So instead of getting up at 5:30 and getting the bike out to go ride a "double", I "slept in" till 6 and hauled out the chainsaw to go spend the day cutting wood instead.

And it was OK. In fact, it actually wasn't that different. Really.

You see, they're pretty similar activities in a lot of ways: A) They take about the same amount of time and effort, 2) I go out in public in some remarkably unbecoming clothes, and D) I get to eat more snacks and drink more Cherry-Limeade that I normally would in a couple of weeks. Oh, and wear some marginally useful safety gear that in the event that something dreadful happens, will simply make me appear to have been a more careful, if no less unfortunate, dope than if I had gone out and done it in my underpants and flip-flops. The equipment's similar too in that there's all sorts of messing around that can be done if you want, changing the spark-plug and touching up the chain on the saw with a file accomplishes about as much as replacing the pads and lubing the chain on your bike. Especially if you don't really know what you're doing and are just copying the Guys that do.

Anyway, I went down the road to the Cemetery where they'd cleared out an old fence row to expand the grounds(it's getting a bit crowded, folks are DYING to get in there you know(!) (I love that joke SO much, I work it in somehow AT LEAST twice a month)) and got started. They ripped everything out with a Dozer and a Track-hoe, pushing all the brush and wire and rocks up into a huge pile to burn this winter when the risks of a fire are lower, and "stacked" the hardwood in another pile for me. It was sort of a mess with 1000 lb. logs jumbled up in a pile 6 feet high and 30 long. A bajillion tons of energy stored up ready to tumble down and mash everything in it's way. It's safe enough if you know the basics, have the tools to move things around without climbing on or under anything, and keep your brain turned on. You can still get hurt but if you're careful you probably wont, even if you do it your whole life. But it could. Sort of like riding your bike.
 I only got half the pile cut up into ready to split billets, but every log is on the ground in 10 foot sections, spread out safely and I'll be back over the next couple of weeks to finish cutting it into 24" chunks, then back with Bruce's splitter(I replaced the valve body and fixed the flat tires in exchange for using it on this job) to split it up and get it all ready to haul 2 miles to my house. I'm not exactly sure how much wood is in that pile, I don't do this enough to be an expert but it's easily all we'll need for this winter and most of next if we don't have another horrible one like we did 2 winters ago. Maybe there's more than that. We'll see when it's all split and stacked.

We don't heat just with wood but it saves enough money that it helps make up for me not having gone to Medical School or whatever I gave up to be whatever it is I am. Sometimes I wish I had a job that let me spend my way out of more problems but I don't, and it really only means I do things like cut fire wood and do my own plumbing and car repairs instead of riding my bikes all the time or going Rock Climbing or Golfing like my friends who listened to their Parents and went off to the Dental Mines or the Counting Houses. At least I work indoors now and can go home at the end of the day without having to scrub off all the grease or shake the welding slag out of my hair anymore.

I spent enough years doing donkey work that  spending a Saturday cutting wood doesn't seem like a hardship. But it does to some of my friends that I ride bikes all over creation with, just like spending a whole day riding a bike sounds like a daunting challenge to some of my friends that spend their days hanging sheetrock or roofing houses. Jobs that are just plain hard that they just do, getting used to and getting satisfaction from doing well in a way that should let them see that a hundred miles on a bike isn't anything you have to "train" for, you just have to want or need to do it and go out with the minimum of appropriate gear. And realize you're going to be sore and a little uncomfortable till you've done it a bit and learned the tricks.
Just like what they do most other days.

Most jobs are like that too I suppose, I worked on a geological drill for an Engineering Company for a while, really long days doing crazy hard work out in the boonies. It was absolutely the hardest work I'd ever had to do but after a couple of weeks it was just my job. A 10 hour day made you tired and a 14 hour day made you REALLY tired but you still got in the truck the next time feeling like you could do another day. It was a lot like how I felt after doing 200 Miles in a day back when I was a few years younger. But the drilling job was at a point in my life where I wasn't riding bikes anymore, and when some of my old Racing Buddies tried to get me to go do a 100mile ride with them I begged off saying I couldn't get away, but inside I was thinking to myself there was no way I could ride a bike that far anymore. I think I was 31. One of them told me later he was thinking "I can't understand how he can do that job, I never could", about my drilling gig. But he survived a Residency where he had to do 72 hour shifts in an Intensive Care Unit. It seems funny now.

I know some people would read this and say "Duh." And I guess it is sort of self evident to most people, but like a bunch of things that many of us learn when we're 15 in Marching Band or Girl Scouts or in the Gym, others of us learn it later, and I'm one of them. Some of this didn't sink in till I was way too old for Girl Scouts, I would have had more fun if when I decided to quit pretending to be a Bike Racer, I would have just kept riding because I loved it, and not wandered off and done all my sweating in welding shops and the cabs of stinking diesels, giving up on things that just seemed too hard and going off to do just as difficult things because I didn't realize I could choose. Oh well, I finally learned some of that stuff. I'm glad I did because it made what I did yesterday feel as satisfying as what I had to postpone, and it's why it's going to be so nice in a week or two when I do get up early and go blow a whole Saturday out on my bike.

 I wish ya'll could come too, it's going to be great...

Friday, August 21, 2015

"Excuse me, could I have your autograph?"

Jimmy Carter is getting treatment for cancer, I suppose the fact he's spending some of his time in Hospital shouldn't surprise anyone since he is 90, but still. Oliver Sacks has been saying his goodbyes and working on some important things as well as he deals with the cancer that's going to punch his ticket. I'll be sorry when he's gone. This is on my mind because they are both people that I've admired for years and whose writing I've benefited from reading, and, this is sort of embarrassing, they're both people I hoped I might get to meet someday.

I'm really not one of those "Can I have your autograph Mister?" sort of persons and it's not like I thought I was going to make a new Best Friend and start sitting in on patient sessions with Ollie or goofing off pranking the Secret Service Detail with Jimmy or anything like that. It's more like secretly nurtured hopes to bump into Mr. Carter in an out of the way part of the National Gallery on a rainy afternoon(He does Paint after all) or find myself in line behind Dr. Sacks at a vintage bookstore somewhere. You know, a setting that would automatically define me as a thoughtful, insightful person, a person you might want to extend a hand to and engage in conversation with when I shamble up and ask "Can I have your autograph Mister?"  It's not exactly hero worship but it's more than just "Hmmm, that Dude makes some interesting points, I wonder what he's like to talk to..." 5 minutes chatting with either of them would be a big deal to me and put a finer edge to the satisfaction I'd get reading their work for the rest of my life.

I was thinking about this the other day in the bushes outside the White House; What is it about some people who we'll probably never ever meet, that makes us want to connect with them somehow? And other people who write just as well, sing or tell jokes just as well or whatever, can stroll past in the Airport and we don't do more than jab our partner in the ribs and whisper, "Check it out, THAT'S HER!... you know, the one that does that thing! On TeeVee..." For example; I really like reading E.O.Wilson but have never been tempted to write him a letter or plan what I would say if I ever bumped into him at Wal-Mart. Same with Stephen Jay Gould, I've read at least a dozen books of his and got something worthwhile out of every single one of them but when he passed away I wished his atheistic soul farewell but never thought "too bad I never got to meet old Steve". In fact, I once passed up an opportunity to hear him speak in a situation where it might have been easy to meet him after the lecture and ask him to sign a copy of whatever book he had just cranked out, but I passed it up to go see Russ Myer's "Faster Pussycat, KILL KILL!" with some young ladies my Grandmother would describe as having "Fallen short of the Glory". No regrets on that one.

When I was in college I went with some friends to hear Betty Friedan speak at Hollins College and had this startling realization about why I kept finding myself trying to date Feminists. I'd read "The Feminine Mystique" and it had all sort of gone over my head, but after hearing her speak from 20 feet away, I started trying to unravel some thought I'm still untangling today. There are other Writers who plow that same field that I respect and admire but I'm content to engage them in print, but if she were still around I'd like to go get in Ms. Friedan's bubble again. That was a powerful experience and I still feel a bit of it every time I read something she wrote, see her photo or hear her name.  It's not just Writers I feel this way about either, there are some Artists and Musicians(Chrissie Hynde from "The Pretenders", Buddy Guy) a VERY few politicians(who, like President Carter, get on the list because they have something useful to say AND can write really well) and a couple of spectacularly squared-away people who don't really have a catagory. I'd really like to spend half an hour asking any of them some questions and getting a sense of the person behind the work.

There are a few people that are important to me that I would avoid if given the chance. Christopher Hitchens for example. I can't think of anyone else that is as challenging, as thought provoking or so able to make me want to go brush up on some subject as he was. I agreed with him on a great deal but could never come around to some of his other positions and would have liked to have had the opportunity to ask him some questions.Or maybe not. Really, I don't think I would have ever willingly taken a seat next to him. Perhaps somewhere conversation would have been impossible(a Tractor Pull perhaps?) but where I could have gotten my picture taken beside him to hang on my wall. I think engaging that guy in a discussion about anything he gave a Damn about would have been like walking up to Blackbeard and asking if he might show you his Cutlass. Risky. Very risky.

Anyway, this was supposed to be about Jimmy Carter and Oliver Sacks. Both of them have helped me understand things that I needed to get a handle on. Things that have helped me reconcile the crazy assortment of things I believe and wonder about and hope for, and also things that have helped me be a bit more content when there is no way to reconcile those things. Anyone that does that for you is a friend and you can be forgiven for wanting to shake their hand or give them a pat on the shoulder as a way to connect and keep a  bit of that friendship, or whatever it is, alive when they've gone. I suppose I need to give up on my hope to share a sandwich with either of them so I'll just say what I would then, now.

Thank you Mr. President. Thank you Dr. Sacks, you've both been good to me and I won't forget.

Peace and Blessings on you.


Thursday, August 13, 2015

I Heart Coaster Brakes (and so should you).

When I was about 9 or 10 I took apart the coaster brake on my Stingray and became not just a person who liked riding bikes, but a person who LOVES BIKES. I'm not sure if there was a problem with it or if the temptation to take it to bits was just too strong to resist. I do remember that it was the same day I found my first 8" adjustable wrench on the road, so the old Schwinn was going to get flipped over onto the seat and handlebars and dissected in any case. Call it fate.

Coaster brakes are not particularly complicated, but there is a gratifying degree of sophistication and elegance to how they go about their business if you're sensitive to that sort of thing. I find them particularly satisfying little devices and even now have a big box of them under my workbench. You really don't have to be very mechanically inclined to get one apart and back together, but, if you're a "nuts and bolts kind of person", this might be when you discover it. That's the way it was for me. The instant I had all the parts spread out in the dirt it all made perfect sense to me, and so I naturally considered myself to be a "Fully Qualified Coaster Brake Expert" and made myself available for troubleshooting and lectures on the subject from that moment. The fact that my bike was as likely to fall over from my coasters bearings being impossibly tight, as it was to weave about as the hub wandered aimlessly back and forth across the axle from being comically loose did nothing to shake my faith in my abilities. I think that sort of confidence building is a good thing for a kid, delusional or not.

Anyway, as soon as the workings of that beat up Schwinn stopped being a mystery to me, I started trusting it to be able to take me farther and farther past the end of our road(to the dismay of my Mother), and still get me back again. Because of bicycles, my personal territory started growing and growing, and still is to this day. I hope it never stops even if  I get so old it only keeps expanding in  my imagination. Maybe when I'm a hunnert' and five, grumpy and covered in Chicharone and bacon crumbs, I'll have to resort to riding a coaster brake as only my very oldest muscle memories will be left. That would be sort of cool, get started on one and spend the next half century working my way up to ever more complicated and expensive gear and then 50 years working back to where I started. About the time I have to resort to a scooter to get around I'll likely be about finished with the whole endeavor anyway and be ready to go take a nap and be done with it.

I'm glad coaster brakes are simple enough for even a 9 year old to understand, because if it would have taken more than another year or so I think the magic might have seemed too small and not been sufficient to capture me. As it is, the Magic of the Coaster Brake seems to be at just the right level of simplicity while also being capable enough to challenge a curious, willing young person to go "just a little farther". Of course being able to lay BIG SQUEALING SMOKING SKIDS is also pretty cool and has been enough to turn a bunch of Girls and Boys away from Soccer and Basketball and that sort of thing before it could get out of hand and turn to Golf later in life. That's what a Coaster Brake can do. They've been doing it for over a Century too. Did you know that? It's true, they were one of the very first "Trick" parts and they're still making them today. Like right now. In the time it's taken me to write this(weeks and weeks actually) the factories have filled another shipping container with everything from the crappy ones on those Wal-Mart bikes that will give you Tetanus, to Multi-speed internally geared, alloy-shelled beauties that carry the flag with head up and fists in the air.They can seem invisible but like some other "obsolete" but really useful things(axes, manual transmissions, wooden pencils and maybe pink plastic Hair Curlers), enough people still want them bad enough to spend money on them in the face of all the "better" alternatives so we probably don't have to worry about them disappearing  anytime soon. 

In spite of all this cheerful propaganda, I think part of the reason I still like messing around with them is the sinister reputation the venerable Coaster Brake still has among those of us who grew up hearing the dire warnings about the other, darker side of the Coasters friendly personality. All those Urban Hipsters who jumped on the Fixed-Gear bandwagon a decade ago may have thought they were Bad-Ass but they had NOTHING on those of us that rode our Wheelie-Bikes to adventure and glory back in the dim past...

You see, the lore of the coaster-brake is rich and varied, and we need to see that it's never lost. We need to keep telling the tales of ghastly tumbling wrecks caused by broken chains that started halfway down huge hills and finished part-way up the next, the stories of brush fires started by overheated Bendix's that burned entire counties, or the old Nightmare of the kid who, after flipping his bike upside down to work on it, gets his finger caught in the chain and due to not being able to backpedal to free himself, has to drag the bloody bike into the house and wake his sleeping Mother to get help! That one really happened, honest to God. It was my Neighbors cousin who lived like two towns over. Really.

So the next time that nice old man in the Sweater and Velcro Sneakers tools past on a bike with no brake levers, don't wave and smile, get off the sidewalk. Because with a coaster brake, anything could happen...

Thanks Coaster Brake!