Wednesday, August 29, 2012

And My Eyes Were All Happiness

Storm flow leftovers

It's the bike I ride the least, but it needed to be ridden. To make my peace with the carbon fiber, a tenuous truce with the phenomenology of stuff-obsession. A test? A tryout, let's say. A hot Phoenix summer afternoon, trails and tunnels with standing water and mud, some nervous energy to burn-off. A TCT with a purpose. A whirlwind tour of three cities on a bicycle in the heat of the afternoon. Let's roll.

Indian Bend Wash performed its flood relief function, debris caught on the path fence

Water station, cold oasis on a hot and humid ride
I sought hills, to spin the gears and see if lighter weight made some difference. I ran over rough spots, down washes and through new gullies to check the frame's stiffness and compliance. I spun high rpms and tried swoopy turns on long runs of smooth blacktop to push it a bit, to gather some empirical data points, to run out some street miles to see what I could learn of characteristics of carbon fiber, some parts of this bike, on the road. 

It wasn't a race. It was an exploration of possibility.

This could have easily been a ride about stuff, the mechanicals beneath me, and about my reflections on the stuff, the black fibrous weave, the air hardened steel, the physicality of the tires running on asphalt. But I didn't make it that. I was shame-free on this ride, lone, pedaling hard but not tracking the speed, feeling hot but not taking the temperature. 

At the start: let's be honest, some work stress, some fatigue, some reluctance or resistance to ride, overcome by going for a ride. Looked in the mirror in the morning: is that me in there? Behind those eyes? Those were some serious "You really need a bike ride" eyes. Those were some light-has-gone-out, what's-going-on-here type eyes. There was some bike tuning up to do first, which is the warm-up. Torque the crank bolt that had loosened just a bit. Spoke tension. Melting handlebar tape. Eyes still not lit up. Got to ride, John, got to ride.

Seven years old, I think, still hasn't failed explosively

I put in the miles. Ate the Sport Beans with four bottles of water. Poured it over myself and shivered at the shock of it. An hour and forty-five minutes of good riding in bright sunshine on a capable machine. I can speak to that. Of that I can converse.

The real point is, though, as I poured my melted self through the door into my house and cooled down beneath the ceiling fan, still drinking even more water, I thought, what about those eyes now? Yes I felt good, but I didn't expect much, and neither would you, if you had studied my peepers assiduously pre-ride. Yikes, you may have said. Too far gone, past relief. But in the reflection of myself post-ride I was pleasantly surprised, that somehow a focused spin through some slightly flood and mud soaked lands on a semi-carbon fiber bike had charged up the joy batteries a bit. And my eyes were all happiness.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Eggbeater Rebuild and Economic Shame

Old pedals, new innards
"A society that is seriously committed to freedom from desperate conditions faces many conceptual and practical problems. We can reasonably speak of a decent minimum--of enough food for basic nutrition and shelter from the elements. But human deprivation often involves relative rather than absolute poverty. As Amartya Sen explains, 'In a generally opulent country, more income is needed to buy enough commodities to achieve the same social functioning.' For people to 'lead a life without shame, to be able to visit and entertain ones friends, to keep track of what is going on and what others are talking about, and so on, requires a more expensive bundle of goods and services in a society that is generally richer, and in which most people have, say, means of transport, affluent clothing, radios or television sets, etc.' To participate in a community, you need the commodities that most people have, 'and this imposes a strain on a relatively poor person in a rich country even when that person is at a much higher level of income compared with people in less opulent countries.'" --from The Second Bill of Rights, by Cass R. Sunstein, p. 190. The Amartya Sen quote is from "The Standard of Living", my bolding.

This quote was something of a shocking revelation to me. It's basically a statement about fashion, in the sense of what everyone else believes they need to buy currently in order to fit in and be cool, but it adds a harsh, nasty twist: if you want to be part of community, you have to buy the same stuff everyone else has, else you won't be able to keep track of what's going on with everyone else because you won't be able to talk to them about those things without the shame of appearing unable to afford to buy them. If you want to hang with the carbon fiber kids, and want to avoid the shame of riding your lugged steel frame ten speed from 1973 that your uncle gave you for free, you best run out and drop $5000+ on a new C-frame racing bike. Nevermind the explanations or frame material preferences. They* don't want to hear about your adventures in refurbishing an old steel bike, not really, they want to discuss their invisible headsets, bulging bottom bracket stiffness, weave overlay patterns and so on, and since you won't be an invested member of those conversations, you'll be, by definition, excluded. *I know anytime "they" is used, there will be exceptions, there may be some novelty interest in an older bike that's still rolling around. But when it comes to mutual validation in rallying around justifying to one another the expenditure while confirming its coolness and speed, an outsider without the goods is just that.

Old pedal disassembled

By often riding three bikes that cost me $100, $100, and nothing, I face exclusion and shame simply because I appear to be unable to afford the stuff everyone else* in the dedicated cycling community has. *Again, I know that's an inaccurate generalization, but, for example, not far off from the truth I experienced at the Not One More Foundation ride of honor. Lacking the ability to demonstrate to the assembled cyclists (vast majority with carbon fiber racing bike shaped objects) my actual economic buying power or credit score directly, the stuff I wore and what I rode spoke for me, and said "NOT ONE OF US." Just fascinating. Anyway. On to the pedal version of this phenomenon.

Old pedal cleaned up, new parts going in

This most certainly applies to pedals, too. I ride either platforms, or Crank Bros. Eggbeaters, basically. I think I'm up to four sets of Eggbeaters at this point. My commuter fixie has platforms with Power Grip straps. The other commuter has some nice touring platforms. For a lot of the riding I do, I am more and more convinced that special shoes and clipless pedals are more trouble than they are worth. I will stick with the clipless for mountain biking, but anyway, there I go again with the reasons and explanations for why I don't posses (or don't appear to, anyway, I actually possess an alarming collection of parts on shelves) the correct stuff for "serious" riding. The casual glance by the serious rider at my platforms yields immediately the two conclusions which I've experienced many times that validate the quote: either I don't know, or can't afford them. 

Scottsdale bike shop that goes from this conclusion straight to the economic shaming, you know who you are. But possibly now I can't blame them entirely for their snobbishness, since this is apparently fundamental economic behavior. That they profit from customers who spend stupid amounts of money on the latest/lightest/stiffest in cycling technology may be beside the point: we want to belong, we can't help ourselves, we want to be able to talk about it with those who already possess it, and so to avoid the shame we buy it. Or, do often enough to make it a fundamental characteristic used to determine who's in, and who's out.

Which explains so much to me, about me, while I'm working on these pedals. The rebuild went fine, the helpful video on the Crank Bros. web site made it simple to do, and the only hitches were that the old bushings seemed better than the new ones so I left them in, and the seals didn't make complete sense either way I put them in. It all worked out well, though, and the play that was present with the old parts was completely gone with the new parts installed. With the new parts and fresh grease, they felt really good, ready to go onto one of the steel mountain bikes. See, it's bad enough that I don't have a carbon fiber frame mountain bike to be able to open with a fellow C-frame possessor conversation, I would tend to go the opposite way and ask how well the plastic mountain bike frame handles rocks getting flipped up by the tires and smashing into it, a conversation I'm certain no C-frame possessor wants to hear. Is that just my shame talking?

But I actually can afford a carbon frame mountain bike! I could buy some carbon fiber pedals if I wanted to! No, really! But it's not about that, which is why the Sunstein quote hit me right between the eyes. It's no use trying to explain to the community why you don't possess the commodities everyone else in it has. It's no use trying to overcome the assumption of economic shame with good reasons. Once the visual evidence has been adduced, once that key first impression of ignorance of what's cool, of what things your supposed to have, and/or poverty has taken root, there's no overcoming it.

This came as something of a blow to my idealism. Here I was, riding around, assuming that we have more to talk about than the stuff we buy. But it actually turns out to be the key: we spend more than we need to because we need to belong. Here I am, rebuilding ten year old pedals, which still seem perfectly good by the way, and my greasy machinations turn out to be a function of perpetuating my own economic shame. Sure, I had fun doing it. And I'm still a curmudgeon when it comes to buying stuff that lasts and can be repaired vs. the latest popular crap that will just get thrown away in a year or two.

You may already see the rub, and the conclusion, coming, but here it is anyway. Say that I find a community of cyclists who aren't driven to buy the latest/greatest/lightest carbon fiber racing shaped objects for usage other than actual racing. You're out there, I know you are, you Rivendell riders, you handmade custom frame lovers, you fellow old fixed-up ten speed riders, reuse/recyclers, bicycle commuters, utility cyclers, tourers and campers. I've met you. Hello there! What are you riding, it looks interesting! But listen to us already, talking about the stuff we've bought. Is that truly the glue that holds a community together? Commodities? Don't we have something else to talk about besides the stuff we bought and how it rides? It may be the case. I want to find out either way. Can we talk it over for ten minutes first, without checking out each other's stuff first, though? Meet on some level, neutral playing field unadorned and unbiased by economic prejudices? Or is that so core that it's who we are, living in a material world? 

The implications are staggering. Brazing up my own frame is looking more and more necessary. Yeah, it would still be stuff, but it would be stuff that I made myself, which I would consider as being imbued with and demonstrative of a value given to it by me greater than that created by pushing the BUY button on a web site. Talking about how I made it, and the challenges I faced, perhaps with others who do the same, well, that's one way out of the commodity basket community crisis I'm having. Another is to just get out the credit card, and join in. But I've never really been much of a joiner.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Saturday morning while everyone sleeps

Drinking strong coffee with the cats, wearing headphones listening to electronic dance music spinning around the room jumping up and down, and still worrying about the spike I left behind. I should ride back out and pick it up. Should I? Or just keep dancing.

Extra large spike IMBL


Thursday, August 23, 2012

Nurturing an Enduring Capacity for Delight

Clouds in the street

When I awoke from my back surgery in the hospital several years ago, I was overcome with a feeling of delight, and it wasn't just because of the morphine and other drugs. This feeling of delight was made more vivid by the setting, and with contrast to the anxiety/fear sensibly connected to having someone dremel around inside your spine. Add in the bonus of having the surgeon tell me that my dura had torn during the surgery, which can happen, so I would have to lie immobile for at least 24 hours until I stopped leaking spinal fluid (hopefully).

But none of the negatives really mattered, because when I woke up, my back felt right. Which was stunning, actually, because it had felt wrong for so long, utterly screwed up and often wracked with excruciating pain, so to wake up and find that it felt normal, in spite of the recent cutting and dremelling around my spinal cord, enforced immobility, leaking dura and whatnot, was delightful.

You never know where you'll find it, so make ready for it

The purpose of this anecdote about my surgery was not to activate squeamishness (note the distinct lack of MRI photos of bulging discs, impinged spinal nerves, and obviously screwed up vertebrae herein), but rather to provide a significant background experience which contributed greatly to my conclusion that delight is as much (or more) in the eye (or spinal cord) of the beholder as in the object of delight.

This is relevant to me personally since it has struck me lately that a capacity for experiencing delight is not a given, but in fact can be lessened, decreased, diluted, slowly eroded away by time, etc, by all the many potential sources of resistance to the feeling of delight out there, and in here (points at own head). Life, I think, may have the ability to suck the delight right out of you, if you let it.  

Angles, the big picture, mindset, a bike ride home: bring on the delight

Sources of delight may not be constantly present. I understand. Or, at least, omnidelight is not the present topic. Awareness and openness to delight, though, a mindset conducive to experiencing it, an openness or seeking of it, appear likely to me to increase the chances of not overlooking something more than worthy of the firing of your primary delight neurons.

Sometimes, I think back to that hospital, one of my least favorite places on earth mind you and I've been to some pretty unfavorable spots on this planet, remember the delight I felt at the sense of rightness in my back, and I wonder: what, other than me, is standing in my way of discovering delight on my ride today? Who, other than me, is responsible for nurturing an enduring capacity for delight?

Monday, August 20, 2012

The River Told Me Not To Drink Bottled Water

Unfortunate collection of plastic garbage in the Arizona Canal at 7th Street

Most of the way into the summer, and I am more or less used to riding in the heat now. Sunday afternoon ride started out in the heat of the afternoon, riding into the sun, with a dry wind blowing, and I still felt strong riding Bip along the canal. My knee is indicating more rain coming this week, which is good, since we need it. Still very quiet out there, plenty of solitude to be found riding a bicycle along the canal path in the summer in the afternoon in Phoenix.

I was reminded by Iron Rider's comment about the first time I read the book Siddhartha. I was young, probably 22 years old, and was at a party at a friend's house late at night. I was going through some bookshelves in the house, and came across the book by Hermann Hesse. Paging through it, I was drawn in, and decided to start reading it, right there. Sitting in his basement, I read it straight through in a couple of hours, not wanting to put it down. A few people came by looking for me, but saw that I was totally wrapped up in it, and left me alone. I read it again this weekend, as a look back at an old friend from a new perspective. I can still see myself in that basement reading the book, and let me tell you, it was a very different experience reading it now, as you might expect. Essentially, my young self identified more with the young Siddhartha, while now I understand more of the middle and older man. All of which makes perfect sense I suppose.

The passages where the older Siddhartha listens to the river had me stopping a few places along the canal to listen to the water for a bit. This isn't about what I heard in the simply flowing sections, though, but rather what I heard and saw at 7th Street, where a Great Pacific Garbage Patch-like gyre of floating plastic refuse had collected. As the empties jostled and rolled in the current up against the gates, they made quiet bop bop bop sounds, not unpleasant, until I looked at them, and saw the nastiness.

There's some kind of twisted irony in empty plastic water bottles trashing up a canal system that was built for billions of dollars to carry water to a dry desert land. I guess it's not just water bottles, I see POP cups and other forms of colored sugar water product containers, an aluminum can or two, even a foam meat tray. All that plastic refuse can't be good for the amur catfish, or the duck families that call the canal home. And what about the yards, gardens, citrus groves, and fields downstream that use it for irrigation?

It was hard to hear the river speak with all that plastic bobbing around in it. I think I heard the river choking. Or maybe it was throwing up its hands and laughing at us, still trashing the planet even though we know better. Or maybe it was quieting down, storing up its river rage, preparing its answer for what we've done to it.

I think the young me, way back then, reading Siddhartha straight through in my friend's basement, held onto the belief that the older me, many years later, and particularly the older me's children, would live in a world that was cleaner and greener, where humans had learned the lesson of not just using something once then discarding it wherever it happened to land. Oh well. Sorry, younger me, and older me's kids. We didn't. Same old humans, same old river, same old use-it-and-throw-it habits. You can laugh at it, if you have the capacity to laugh at folly. That, along with picking up whatever trash you can reach and putting it into the trash receptacle ten feet away, is the only sane response. That's what it sounded like the river was saying to me, anyway.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Sky bars / lines / the quiet ride home

Quiet and easy
Riding home, I wonder where everyone has gone, because the road is empty, the sky is quiet, and it's just me and my flatland fixed gear commuter rolling along. In the still air of a hot afternoon, not much is even moving out there. The bike is setup and tuned well enough that the loudest sound it makes is the tires rolling along the pavement, which change pitch noticeably, trending towards silence, when I roll onto newly paved blacktop. The pannier sometimes rubs and squeaks against the frame when I roll over bumps, a distraction I want to remove, somehow. Riding headlong into the low sun. I'm fixated on the clear sky, perhaps raised in my awareness because of the stillness, nothing to distract or detract, and I wonder what it would look like with my handlebars and frame interposed. When I stop to see if something can be done about the squeaky pannier, I just hold the camera low to give me the view, then check the playback. Angles and lines, somehow startling and calm at the same time. Cool. I ride on and the pannier still squeaks. My solution: avoid the bumps, riding on smoother roads. If only. As if. That's sky bars, lines, and the quiet ride home.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Only the Pure of Heart Shall Pass

He stops 4 ton vehicles with a small flat piece of metal on a stick

Who are you?

I am the flag man. Who are you?

I am the bike commuter.


Hi there. What is your lot in life?

I man the flag. What's yours?

I commute the bike. What are your tools of choice?

Lightweight safety orange flag. Hard hat. work boots. Nerves of steel. A sign which I spin in circles to balance the flow. Patience. You?

Lightweight yellow fixie commuter bike. Helmet. Street shoes. Frames of steel. Pedals which I spin in circles to balance the flow. Patience. What are your methods?

Day one of the drain project

I make eye contact with drivers. I watch for openings in oncoming traffic and time my changes so that smooth coordination and fair alternation of passage along the route is achieved in a safe and civil manner. Communication is key. Clear and direct signals. I make my intentions known. You?

Ditto. Can I ask you one last question?


Why haven't you spun your sign around in like five minutes? There's quite a backup developing here. Maybe you should let some of the drivers who are honking and idling in this summer heat go ahead. The impatience is palpable. They are beginning to wonder, in short, what the hell is going on. If it wasn't so hot out, they might roll down their windows and begin gesturing or yelling in your general direction.

For the cement fabric of the city shall be sliced up, run through with trenches, and plated with steel.

I care not about their honking, gesturing, or would-be yelling, for I have come to an understanding, a key decision in a moment of clarity, standing here in the sun, spinning my sign.

An understanding. A moment of clarity. Here? Flag man for the drain project? Tell me, what is this key decision?

Thank you for asking, bike commuter. I have decided that only the pure of heart shall pass. The unworthy must wait. Must sit and idle in the sun, as it were.

I understand. The concept is easily grasped, flag man. However, I must then ask yet another question: how can you distinguish the pure of heart from the unworthy?

Ah, but you must know, bike commuter, if anyone does! Those who honk and gesture, simmer and steam, yell and fall apart, immediately assume the worst of each others' motives while sitting in their comfortable air conditioned vehicles, listening to digital music over six speakers, and able to reach out and speak to anyone in the world, or text, or check their--you get the idea, those who so readily lapse into anger and violent irrational thoughts, is it not obvious that they are not pure of heart? While lacking no thing, with the world's history of art and information and all communication at their fingertips, still they reach for the caveman club in the face of one man with a spinning sign on a stick? And that they should not pass, for their own good, and the good of others? 

Bike commuter thought for a moment. I'm unsure, flag man, of the wisdom, or advisability, of what you're up to. Myself, I've never felt qualified to make such judgements. But I have to wonder, are you going to let me pass? I'm not yelling, or gesturing, or losing it because of sitting here so long, and in fact have enjoyed talking with you. May I proceed?

Flag man's looked at his spinnable sign, which trembled just for a moment. Yes, your heart would seem to be near enough to qualify. Ride on, bike commuter, and do good in every moment.

Thanks, flag man. You going to let them go, too? They're really going to pop their corks if you let a bicycle go but not them.

Fear not, bike commuter, my shift is almost over, and our drain construction labor almost done for the day. The steaming drivers shall be on their ways soon enough. And I'm confident that eventually, they will understand how it works around here, how it is with the flag man. Honking, gesturing, yelling have no value at my station. Civility and cooperation, equanimity and compassion, are required to pass this spot. Commute the heck out of that bike, wouldya?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Year of Living Draingerously

Oh, the Lafayette bike lane is closed, I wonder for how long...

Whoa there! A year? Is that an actual year, or a project plan year (approx)?

It's intended to control floods. The Lafayette Interceptor drain and outlet project, IMBL! Stay tuned for exhaustive coverage of this ongoing project here, for the Year (approx) of Living Draingerously! Will the bike lane really be closed the whole time? Will I have to seek alternate routes to ride? Is it finally time to go full cyclocross and just take the canal the whole way? What will all that canal dust do to my chain and other parts? 

OK, no actual concerns. Should be no problem. Just in case, though, I now have the hotline number. I actually appreciate the "Approx." since it's a clearer indication that these things take time, and that time is not always precisely knowable, until you come to know what you don't know when you put the sign up. Approx.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Green Assimilation In Yo Face

Flying through concrete and steel space, the green probe sought out new regions of fertile dirt, in vain

Broadway Green, sculpture with nature, Steel and Green, it was all a little disturbing to have it elevated and stuck in your face like this. Do not touch, also, a maddening sign on something so urgently needing to be touched, at eye and hand level, in a pedestrian region in and around Times Square. It works though, it really does: think green. Lifted, elevated, you can't avoid this visual pitch from the living breathing leafy chlorophyll demographic: if this looks out of place, u r doing it wrong.


Friday, August 10, 2012

Park It Here, Bicycle People

Bike racks seen along the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail line, New Jersey

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Cloud City, NYC

A real city on a hot summer day is a connected series of shared spaces, common or private, dark, or sunny,

bringing people together, on bicycle rides and on the subway, and in crowded art museums,

riding up elevators to the stairs to the roof, to see a sculpture that pulls cities into the clouds,

on stairs and inside constructed modules to rub shoulders with strangers, share ideas and surprises,

to reach out with wonder and be awed by glass, steel, and to be humans together, in multifaceted awe.

People watching art watching people, roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gather, see, connect.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Play City, NYC

In a small park, people are invited to choose from this table....

...and add to this table, to re-imagine the city around them.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

On the Bridge, Brooklyn, NYC

Some lovely, crowded, Brooklyn Bridge bike and ped action. Hot summer day. Heavily duct taped cables.

Viva la Canada!

As expected, lane markings were considered suggestions.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Man Playing Piano, Washington Square, NYC

It rained earlier that morning, and I was concerned that another sudden downpour would be bad for the instrument.
He must have rolled it there on those wheels, but how far?
There was a peregrine falcon moving from tree to tree overhead, a large female I think, a remarkable creature.
The pianist was hawking his CDs, and had five gallon plastic buckets for donations. We sat and listened for a while with a small, appreciative crowd, while others in the park followed the flapping shadow through the trees.
Plastic buckets, a backpack, a man walking past in pajama pants, a baby grand piano in the park. It all seemed to fit together somehow, and to ask about any of it seemed unnecessary.