Monday, February 8, 2010

for they are vexations to the soul

there are a lot of things that can happen on a bike.

i've seen pictures of most of them, have lived a few myself, but today was a brand new threshold approached, and then passed for me. it was, after all was said and done, something to write a seinfeld episode about. the action was the same. the recollection and surrounding dialogue equally theatrical and meaningless. and the insult - inevitable.

there are a lot of things that can happen on a bike. you can get fit. you can get fast. you can look cool or not remotely. you can meet cool people or not remotely. you can ride away from people. you can ride into people. you can ride into cars or around them or through their choked lanes at rush hour. you can ride into a sunset or out of a dawn into a brand new day. you can ride to the bar. you can ride to a date. you can ride off a cliff or over a bridge or under a log or through mud, sleet, hail, rain, brooklyn, queens, queen's north of princess, parliament and shuter. you can ride with inspiration or devastation. you can ride in a costume, with no clothes on at all, or with only european-designed clothing on a japanese bike made with pennsylvania steel. you can ride to work. you can ride, away from work, in the direction of home, after a really long and half-frustrating-half-glorious day, and you can get spit on, apparently accidentally, by the very youth you spend all day trying to 'cultivate'. this is something that should not happen on a bike.

i have written and thought, countless times, on the topic of letting things go, particularly in the context of riding bikes in the city, and riding bikes around other people and things not remotely on bikes. most of the time, my mantra remains the same: be prepared for the worst, and let it go when it happens. give a little. let it slide. 

today, i had to let it slide.

i always let it slide. i had let it slide for the last 75 minutes of extreme asshole behavior so exemplified by some of 'the youth of today'. i had let it slide for years, in the work, on the way to work, on the way home from work, and everywhere in between. thick skin, one might say. thick skin is different from indifference because i give a damn, a whole big lotta damn, but i refrain from letting that show through. the skin is thick on the inside.

first reaction: let it slide.

second reaction: wait, that kid should know that that was wrong and unacceptable and a punishable offense. go and tell the kid in kind words. get a typical stupid kid reaction. let it slide. leave, cursing 'the youth' under breath. 

third reaction: get the kid's name. go back. get it. punish him. even with a small note or something. get his name. 

the kid hustles inside. his friends stay behind to laugh, heckle, play dumb, give false names. these are the youth. today, they are useless assholes, and they are not worth it. 

maybe tomorrow.


there are a lot of things that can happen on a bike. fixing one's attitude about the shit of the day is definitely one of them. even by the time i got home after just 7 minutes spinning cold, salty circles westward, i had sloughed off most of the mortal coil and was once again calm. bikes are amazing.


Need. A short story.




"then it's going to get warmer", she said.


his smile said, "i hope so" in a half-believing way and his posture bent itself forward in an awkward, "have a nice day."


he walked a crooked line across the snow, dodging nothing on the ground and everything in his head.


upon reaching the street, he turned south for no apparent reason. he passed the man selling mangoes, nodded at the girl from his painting class two years ago, and narrowly avoided collision with a shoulder-full of tommy hilfiger pomp. collision...


it was friday afternoon, just before four o'clock. the wind in his face, he was pedaling hard, determined to make it to work on time. passed the car. approached the box vans unloading another load of rice and fish for a diet he knew well. pedaled harder. he began to ring his bell as he passed the first truck. the ringing gave sound to the otherwise white noise of an everyday commute. it's wind in the ears and an occasional horn. he passed the second truck still ringing his bell. what a beautiful red blur he must have been.


"it's not your fault, and i just wanted to make sure that you knew that."


"yes sir." that's what his mouth said, empty of saliva and belief and emotion.


"so i hope you can still enjoy your holidays..." was followed by a longer stream of apologetic and unknowing fare-thee-wells from a stranger who didn't know how to help a man who'd lost his...his...


what's the word?


fresh and green, that traffic light was waiting just for him. he accelerated past the back of the third truck, wondering futilely how much one of those crates of rice must


no more than a second in the air. the man was still breathing, but he was bleeding from his head and his mouth and his hand and why didn't anyone speak english or call an ambulance or do anything other than cluck and chatter and watch the boy struggle?




he apologized for being late to work, explaining that he had had to walk there after being involved in an accident. yes, he was fine. no, he didn't need to go home. the bike? oh, the bike was still up there, locked to a post just north of dundas, the front wheel too bent to ride and the heart too...


he went away for the holidays and that night, in his parents' home in the country, the phone rang from across innocence and any semblance of belief.


some officer is on the phone. some man just died. some man just became...what? those questions, those emotions, those things to be written in a journal shared with the therapist, they never came. four words came, though, hot in concept and branded on unfeeling skin:


i killed a man.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

to what end?

there is a felt-burlap banner at the top of my parents' stairs, and it displays a fading excerpt from the bible. 

i've forgotten the details, but i remember the gist: sell all of your stuff, give the profits to the poor, and go follow jesus. it was more personal than that, written in the first person and with much more inviting verbiage, but the main point was clear - get rid of your stuff, do something meaningful. 

as i stood there doing the dishes and folding laundry for the past hour and a half, i had time to ponder what i remembered. i had other memories creep into consciousness, and i had questions from my day. this all came back to me in remembering that message of getting rid of stuff and doing something meaningful. 

working with youth, there is the daily preponderance of the inevitable question: is any of this worth it? the obvious answer is YES. the immediate answer is: maybe..maybe no..sometimes..i don't know let's just drink... 

there is a hill that extends from my parents driveway at a steep grade up into the trees and forest beyond. for some as yet undetermined reason, nothing seems to grow on this hill other than scrub brush and things that have somehow migrated from the badlands of south dakota (no, not your uncle or his pet weasel named Zak). after i got my first really fancy mountain bike, a 1997 specialized S-works cross country in dew green with a ti spring manitou and mavic 217s and xtr stuff and whatnot, i was sitting around at my parents' place, probably whining about something or waxing eloquent about something, and my dad got tired of it. he challenged me to ride up the hill. the hill that nothing grows on, and that tops out at an overhang of pine tree roots covered in sandy moss and pine needles. that hill. i had never been able to ride up something that steep, unless it was rock or stairs. but now i had a fancy bike with fancy wheels and tires and 24 speeds and front suspension and...

i tried.

i sprinted from the parked cars to the base of the hill, jammed a few crank lengths into it, shifted the gears, shifted my weight, threw everything i had at it, and topped out just a bike length or two past halfway. 

it is not a long hill. 

i tried several more times. at best, i made it within a bike length from the top, but with absolutely nothing left for what would inevitably be a very technical summit move. more often than not, the backwards dismounts were hairy and awkward (not unlike the youth of my work). dismayed, pissed off, and pretty disappointed at all the fancy shit my ass could not pull up a little hill in my parents' backyard, i sat back down and probably sulked. (thankfully, my specific memory is grainy and faded at this part.)

my friend j is a ballsy woman. she always has been. she is tall and blond and pretty and walks with a loping gate reminiscent of some graceful savannah animal. we met in high school. she rode bikes. i rode bikes (though not as much as i talked about, read about, and thought about riding them). she was older. i was shorter. i had a crush on her. we wrote letters. we rode bikes. j and i have started writing again, epic e-mails about everything from life to bikes to everything. she told me a little about why she was the woman i've perceived as ballsy - she always wanted to play and get dirty and give it a good hard go and not give up, because that seemed to be the most honest way to connect and experience something. i believe it is. and there weren't a lot of other girls for her to play with and get dirty and give a good hard effort, so she ended up doing the hard things with boys. she rode bikes. hard. and fast. she did her first triathlon the same summer i did mine and completed the whole thing despite screaming knees and a bike that was so small, her knees kept shifting the stem-mounted levers as she pedaled. she didn't want to be left behind. she didn't want to be 'waited for'. and as i recall, i don't think i ever had to wait for her. (she would definitely be waiting for me these days.)

j came over that night back in high school. she spent the odd evening or day or days at our house, and it was always great to have her. my little brothers loved her and the attention and game for anything attitude she always brought to the scene. she was a friend of my sister's. she was a great friend of mine. as she got out of the car and took out her modest little trek with that yellow rock shox quadra fork, i went in to tell my brothers that she was here, and my dad went to greet her.

minutes passed.

i opened the porch door to see j walking toward the house with my dad, laughing about something as the sun sent shadows skipping along the grass and dinner smelled delicious. she was just slightly out of breath. my dad looked at me and said, 'j got up the hill on her first try.'

i smiled, stifling jealousy.

how did she do it? what skill did she have that i didn't? isn't her bike too small and too old and too...? HOW?

naturally, being the suave, mature, calm, and collected intellectual individual i was, i calmly asked her to demonstrate just how she had accomplished the unimaginable.

'prove it! do it again!'

effortlessly, j tossed her blonde hair, turned to mount her bike, and pedaled smoothly--almost slowly--up the hill at a reasonable and calm cadence. there was some effort and determination, but absolutely no flailing or cursing. she aimed, applied force, and achieved. she even made coming down look smooth and graceful. damn.

after days like today, the inevitable question bubbles to the surface: are the youth worth it? then the usual thought process begins, rationalizing why they are or are not (depending on blood sugar and/or blood alcohol levels), what i could be doing instead, and ultimately there is a lengthy dissertation that melds richard sachs with rapha with ira ryan and takes place in a hawaii-like rendition of portland that is easily reachable by my family in ontario. it's a daydream. 

yes, of course they're worth it. just not every day. not every time. in the long run, yes, the youth are worth it. they must be. i was a youth once, and i needed someone to work with me, a whole village and two countries in fact, to save my sorry ass from myself. no, the work does not feel like it is fulfilling or perfectly purposeful every second of every day, BUT, in general, in the core, the ur of it, it is meaningful and purposeful and worthwhile. 

we need work. we need income. we need to be 'productive'. we need neuvation wheels and carbon seatposts. no. wait. we need to be fulfilled. yes. sell all you have. give it away. go do something meaningful. i don't think a lot of this is done by my immediate fellow society members. i think most people don't want to think, not this much anyway, and work because they need to pay for things that they need to have so that they feel like their work is worthwhile. yeah yeah, we all saw fight club and now we can wax anti-consumerism and talk about the people in haiti and put some perspective on and feel better for having considered 'the other' today. i think there's meaningful work that needs to be done while the youthful optimism and drive are there. i think this meaningful work needs to be continued as we age and gain wisdom and patience and lend these newfound qualities to the work that needs doing. i don't think we can buy satisfaction but i think we can earn it. i think i need fewer upgrades and more saddle time. i think i need to work harder and think less.

i think i need to take aim, pedal hard and steady, and get over it. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

star mangled nut.

i have been projecting lately. 

i have been planning all kinds of expenditures and upgrades in anticipation of some debt-lessening that is (hopefully) imminent. a jolly old christmas list, mostly for other people to whom i owe much and would just like to send a pretty little 'thank you'. i got caught up in it, and started thinking about things for myself. a new stem for the serotta. capping off that perfect build with a lighter seatpost and saddle. maybe some fancy aero wheels. thankfully, my ADD kicked in before i zeroed in on any acceptable stem, saddle, or seatpost, and the guy with the wheels seems to also have ADD and is currently AWOL. fair enough. i can let it slide. 

*** technical jargon bike story that relates but not obviously***

once upon a time, i bought a carbon cross fork from a guy just up the street. he had listed it on craigslist for a song, so i walked up and picked it up and let it sit for the entire summer and much of the fall before even embarking on the job of installing it. i had none of the right tools other than a hammer and a hack saw, and this is one of those things that requires the right tools - substitutes usually spell danger, dismemberment, or death. finally, i purchased a section of ABS from the hardware store, took apart the brake assembly, and switched out the forks. the seller was a total bike nut and very quirky but cool and made sure to mention that he had never been able to install the fork without extensive brake chatter. he had tried all brands and models of brakes, to no avail. i figured maybe i could be lucky, maybe i needed to shim the bosses with a coke can and all would be well, maybe i could just tolerate a shudder or two at every damn stop sign. i installed the fork, learned a lot along the way, and rode it for the better part of two months. chatter everywhere. tightening the headset only worked sometimes, and then the effect would fade and it was back to chatter. i also had neglected to cut the steerer tube to a reasonable length, figuring it would up the re-sale value of the thing should i decide to pass it on. one night, i tightened the headset and the top cap came off in my hand. i walked home, switched to a different bike, and promised to fix it. weeks went by. it snowed. one day, i was home from work with a sick toddler, and figured there was no better time to break out a hacksaw and hammer and get to the source of the problem. i trimmed the steerer tube. took out the mangled star nut. put in a new one, completely crookedly, hoped for the best, and put everything back together. i tightened the hell out of the headset with the new star nut and it worked like a charm. not only that - there was absolutely ZERO fork chatter. zip. none. quiet as a whisper, especially since i took the time to toe in all of the brake pads at the same time. the fork functions perfectly, looks even better than it did before, and has greatly increased the safety and efficiency of the ride. all it took was some effort, and the willingness to work with what i had right in front of me. get to the source of the problem (star mangled nut), fix it (new nut), do a good job (mostly), and move on, better for it. 


i tend to get very obsessive about things, daydreams based on things that i hope to soon have (fitness, health, springtime, warmer days with longer light), and all the specs on how to get the things, install them, adjust them, then..look at them and wish it was warm or cold or morning or night or the weekend or at work or... 

it's okay. 

it's fine. it will be fine, just like it always has. like i told my friend who asked about being ready to be a parent, living life in preparation to be an example to someone, a provider, a source: you're never ready till it happens, and then, you're ready. tonight, everything was put into perspective, as it usually is, every night around 7pm. there were no wheels, seatposts, carbon fiber, grams, spoke counts, or stem lengths to be figured and planned and calculated. there was a little girl with brown hair to put to bed and be made cozy. (to behold a sleeping child is to know absolute peace.) 

forget everything else. it all works out in the end.