Saturday, September 30, 2006

Critical Mass

I got to Westlake Center about 5:30 yesterday. Some 300 people with bicycles, probably half or so affiliated with Critical Mass, about half friends and family of Susanne Scaringi, a young woman cyclist who was killed on Wednesday in a bike/car collision, were milling about waiting for the CM ride to take place.

Many of those who knew Susanne were wearing freshly-made t-shirts with her picture and nickname, “Nanne Girl” on them; that really choked me up. There was a slightly awkward moment when her brother, in thanking everyone for coming out, asked people to join him in prayer, but what the hell, he’d just lost his sister, so whatever he needed to do was okay.

The impressive mass of cyclists eventually flowed from the Center and around downtown. I felt like I was pedaling through molasses as we oozed forward; it was a friendly molasses, though, with lots of familiar faces and bikes.

The ride took us, at its incredibly leisurely pace, to West Seattle and the spot where Susanne was killed. There, we participated in a lovely candlelight vigil that would have been lovelier still had the giant news truck covering the event turned off its diesel engine.

Afterwards, a group of .83 riders joined me at the Beveridge Place Pub to drink up the remaining beer credit I had from the Patchkit Alleycat last weekend. We rode as a group to Alki Beach, where Susanne’s family was continuing a small memorial service for her.

My favorite part of the evening was riding in a formation from West Seattle back downtown; I got separated from the group for a while and had an adventuresome solo trek before meeting up again near Pine and Third.

The evening was capped off at midnight with a race around Greenlake, no lights for the brave.

I got home at 2:00; eight fun, funny, and poignant hours out and about on two wheels.

Surely there are bikes in Susanne’s heaven.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Stumped by the Lump

I was getting a thump-thump from the back wheel of my Saluki that I only noticed coasting down smooth asphalt. It wasn’t enough to bug me most of the time, and never when I was pedaling, but it was sufficient to mess up the bike’s feng-shui, to put in the back of my mind a vague annoyance that drew me slightly away from wanting to ride it and which also made me feel, after an hour or so in the saddle, as if I had a slight flutter of the heart.

I thought at first that the bead of the tire wasn’t set sufficiently in the rim—I’ve had occasions where the inner tube begins bulging out the side and makes for a very bumpy ride—but eyeballing it, I couldn’t see anything.

Just to be sure, though, I tried deflating the tire and pumping it back up very slowly, making sure the bead didn’t shift at any point. But I still got the thump-thump when I road.

Spinning the wheel, you could see a place where the tire rose up a little; this led me to believe that maybe the rim was out of round.

I removed the wheel, took off the tire and tube, and put the rim in my truing stand. It looked like it was just a tiny little bit out of round, maybe two or three millimeters at most. Both Alex at 20/20 and Brian Parker at Ti Cycles said they thought that wasn’t enough to make a difference; it was probably something with the tire.

I tried swapping the front tire with the rear, but I still saw the lump. I installed another brand of tire; the lump was still there.

Finally, I took the wheel over to 20/20 and had Alex adjust the roundness of the rim—a few millimeters was all, but guess what: the reinstalled tire rolls lumplessly.

My rim had a pea; I guess I’m a princess.

Thursday, September 28, 2006


I went to see the band Rancid last night and had a good time, although not nearly as much fun as most of the rabid fans there.

It was heartwarming to see a group that means so much to so many people; I appreciated the showmanship of Tim and Lars, and the musicianship and songwriting skills of all four members; and it particularly warmed my heart when they did the one song I was most familiar with, the old Operation Ivy Tune, “Unity,” but I felt a more like an anthropologist than a real member of the tribe.

That’s on me, of course, not the band, but it make me think how much a person’s affection for a group depends on the context. Had I spent hours in my room with Rancid cranked up so that I, too, could sing along with every song they played, I would have been right there in the mosh pit with my fellow fans; as it was, having never even owned Rancid album, and having always—unreflectively, and with a bias that comes from I know not where—sort of believed that they were the sell-out version of OpIvy—I was pretty much on the periphery, emotionally as well as physically.

It seemed to me that, for the true fans, Rancid is way more than a band; they’re like a symbol of a scene, a state of mind, a commitment to something—even if that’s only to being a fan of Rancid. I appreciate that, even if I’m outside of it.

I got to wondering whether any musical group plays that same role in my own current consciousness; as a teenager in the early 1970s, King Crimson certainly did, and maybe Devo for a spell a few years later.

Today, though, I can’t think of any band around which any scene I am (or aspire to be) a part of is organized.

I guess cycling does that for me these days.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Free Fastow?

As today’s NY Times puts it: “Andrew S. Fastow, the former chief financial officer of Enron, whose schemes to defraud the company made him a symbol of corporate corruption, was sentenced Tuesday to six years in prison for his role in Enron’s collapse in 2001.” His original plea bargain was 10 years, in exchange for cooperating with investigators, but the judge in the case reduced Fastow’s sentence, as I understand it, for several reasons: First, because Fastow had been the “subject of great persecution,” including anti-semitic threats; second, because the former CFO seemed genuinely penitent; and third—and this is the one that’s a kicker to me—because his wife, Lea, had already served a year in jail for tax fraud.

Now, generally, I’m no great fan of harsh punishments for criminals. I’ve claimed that I’d be willing to let the guy who stole my bike go scot-free if only he’d return it. But this seems very different.

My bike thief was a drug-addict street person who impulsively stole a bike and (probably) fenced it for a quick fix; Fastow was a slick corporate exec who masterminded a complex scam that resulted in thousands of people losing their jobs and savings. Now that they’ve been caught, I’m sure they’re both sorry about what they did, but I’d venture to say that Fastow enjoyed the fruits of his criminal activities a lot more when they were happening than my bike thief ever did.

And while I feel sorry that Mrs. Fastow also had to go to jail for fiscal misbehavior, I don’t see why her being a scofflaw, too, means that her husband ought to get off any easier. Most criminals surely come from criminal backgrounds, don’t they? Does this mean that Clyde should go free because Bonnie’s serving time? Do her sons get off because Ma Barker’s in the hoosegow? Should Jenna and Barbara have their DUI’s thrown out when Daddy goes to jail for war crimes?

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Perfect Attendance

Every year or so, you see a feature newspaper article about some kid who managed to not miss a single day of school all the way from kindergarten to 12th grade. You’re expected to be impressed by this and think something like, “Now there’s a lad who knows the importance of making a commitment, who appropriately values education, and who’s really going to go places someday.” And indeed, though I’m amazed whenever I run across such a tale, I also can’t help thinking that the guy ought to have cut himself some slack. There’s surely something to be said for showing up, but there’s spontaneity, too. Great to be the guy who’s always there, but sad to also be the guy who has nowhere else to go.

Nevertheless, I’ve set out for myself the same general task: I’m trying to go 327 straight days writing a 327 word essay for the blog. Lame, sure, but equally random and arbitrary projects have earned people plenty of fame, fortune, and personal satisfaction. Flagpole sitters, people who row boats across the Atlantic Ocean, teams that set up the world’s longest domino drop, an unemployed chef who cooks every recipe in Julia Child’s The Way to Cook.

I haven’t missed a day since August 5th, which makes it about 50 in a row; in order to hit 327, I’ll have to go all the way to about July 2nd, 2007.

I’m sure I can’t possibly have something to say every day of the week until then, but having little or no content has never stopped me in the past.

I think I’m more likely to be waylaid by concerns over being lumped in with that pathetic perfect attendance kid. It’s bad enough to be so stuck in your ways that you never miss a day doing what, after all, you’re already required do; but it’s way weirder to keep on doing what you never needed to do in the first place.

Monday, September 25, 2006

First Day of School

I start back to teaching today, after a hiatus of about four months; that’s the longest I’ve gone without being in the classroom since I started graduate school in 1994. So, I’m a bit nervous about whether I still know how to teach. I think I’ve had too much time to reflect on the role of the instructor this summer; I’m a little concerned I’ll be second-guessing myself the entire time.

First day of classes follow a pretty standard script, though: we introduce ourselves, talk about the syllabus, take on the big-picture concept of the overall course. Students check each other out and in spite of themselves, choose the seats they will likely sit in for the rest of the quarter.

My goal this year is, more than ever, to try to create experiences where learning matters. I’m increasingly becoming more fed up with talking and writing as assignments; I want students to do something. This is probably because I want to do something; I’m hoping they inspire me to be less of a blowhard and more of an agent for positive change in the world.

As a teacher, I think that I make a huge difference in my students’ experiences; however, I’m constantly reminded that my effect is much less. A student contacted me last week, certain I had been his instructor, asking for a syllabus to a class that I didn’t even teach.

This morning, about 7:50, I got an email from a student telling me she wouldn’t be in class today at 8:45. Imagine my concern when, as far as I knew, class isn’t until 1:15. A few moments of panic ensued while I checked the online catalogue while pulling on my socks and shoes in case she was right about the meeting time.

As it turned out, though, my impression of when class meets is the correct one. I may not remember how to teach, but I can still read a time schedule

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Right Up There

My wedding day. Mimi’s birth. The 327 Patchkit Alleycat 2006.

If you’ve seen the movie, Afterlife, you know this project: Design a theater piece that illustrates the happiest moment of your life, the one memory you will carry with you into eternity.

I’m not saying last night would be it, but there was a moment at the end of the evening that definitely ranks up there.

The race had been run and a good time was had by all, especially me. Weather was perfect, maybe even too sunny and warm. First place went to a man wearing a cast on his leg, Seth Holton. The kids all got hats. I’d drunk a bunch of beer with my family and friends.

We’re riding home through the neighborhood: me, Mimi, Jen, Mimi’s best friend, Ani, her pal, Delany, and Ani’s Dad, Elod, with three year-old Elek on the Trail-A-Bike. As we pass Madrona Playfield, a spontaneous cyclocross ensues. Round and round the playground we ride, circling the basketball court, the picnic tables, up and over the berm surrounding the swingset.

I see the three girls pedaling furiously, laughing as loud as me, in the warm first Saturday of fall night, while the little guy on the rear of his dad’s bike throws his head back and holds his handlebar one-handed like a rodeo cowboy. He’ll probably only remember the feeling, some day in 2050 or so, when he’s on his bike with his family and friends, but I’ll have that picture in my mind forever.

That’s what I wanted to do: share the bike love and pass it on.

I overheard Alex at 20/20 Cycle talking to a guy in his shop the other day: He said something like “Find the thing you love best to do and just do it.” There’s nothing I love better than riding bikes with loved ones.

When I do my scene for the afterlife, there’s probably a kid on a bike in it.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Race Day

Lying in bed, pre-dawn, fretting about details for the 327 Words Patchkit Alleycat today, I thought I’d get up and go over them—perhaps to settle my brain—and then, I hope, retire for a nap before the day really gets started.

I think I’m all set up.

I got the spoke cards made and the manifests printed yesterday.

The cards look great; they’re probably a bit bigger than I would do next time and I should have included Cranked Magazine in the list of our friends, but other than that, I’m well pleased. Shawn Granton’s art shines under the lamination.

The manifest seems clear enough. It’s 327 words long, anyway.

The prize list is filled in, too—tires, tubes, lights, and lube from Velo, hats and socks from Recycled—and with some copies of the new Cranked, I can be 327 there, too: 3 money prizes, 27 others.

The big unknown remains the number of riders who’ll show up. Could be 10, could be 80; I’ve been predicting 40, but we’ll see. It looks like it’s going to be dry today; that might help turnout. I sort of wish now I had asked for pre-registration; on the other hand this makes it a bit more exciting—although probably contributes to my pre-dawn fretting.

I enjoyed running around to the shops yesterday dropping off patches and vulcanizing fluid, that’s one version of my dream life these days: do a little writing in the morning, and then bike around and talk to people in the afternoon.

Riding home from West Seattle last night after dropping off stuff at ABR and making final arrangements at the Beveridge, I kept having that safe feeling of being in the midst or other riders. That comes, I think, from having group cycling experiences like .83 rides and alleycats on the order of what I hope today turns out to be. (Or, it could have been the joint I smoked heading up Fauntleroy.)

Friday, September 22, 2006

Bad Yogi

I was pretty hungover today at yoga practice. (Still am, in fact.)

I went on the .83 bike ride last night and had a wee bit too much to drink. (Now, there’s a funny concept, and one assessed only in retrospect.)

It was a great time, punctuated by two high points:

1) Gliding down First Avenue in tight cycling formation, hitting all the lights right on yellow, one after another.

2) Being led to a secluded observation platform on Harbor Island (I think), hanging out in panoramic view of the Seattle skyline, drinking beer and getting rowdy—at least insofar as people playing beer can baseball with a U-lock and engaging in random nutsacking qualifies as rowdy—while the miraculous Daniel Featherhead miraculously flew (apparently) to the beach below.

So when I woke this morning, dry-mouthed and headachy, at 5:30AM, I thought I might as well get up and go to the studio: I couldn’t feel much worse and perhaps I could sweat out the booze with a few stretches.

I usually practice at home on mornings-after; I tend to go easier on myself in the living room than the shala and I generally skip the inverted poses that really get the hungover head throbbing, but since tomorrow’s a moon day and because with all the morning meetings this week, I’d only made it to the studio once so far, I decided to ride over to AYS.

I’m never quite sure what the respectful gesture is: do I express my devotion to the practice by showing up in whatever state I’m in or do I stay home unless I’m relatively pure?

I was paranoid about sweating beer on everyone, but I couldn’t smell any and even Jen didn’t wrinkle her nose when gave her a good-morning hug back at home.

Oddly, I had a good practice, at least in terms of flexibility. But that could be due to the four Excedrin I popped before leaving the house.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Requiem for a Rambouillet

I realize it’s silly to be so sad over the loss of an inanimate object, but I still can’t help mourning the theft of the Rambouillet.

I think I’m through the denial phase of the grieving process and am now into the bargaining stage: I have this idea that by organizing the Patchkit Alleycat, and in doing so, giving back generously to the local cycling community, I will thereby appease the Cycling Gods so that they, in their infinite wisdom and power, will see to it that my beloved bike is returned.

I don’t just miss the physical object (although those beautiful curly orange lugs still haunt my dreams); it’s also that the tangible expression of memories and meaning is no longer in my bicycle stable.

Buying the Rambouillet was my treat to myself for getting the fulltime teaching job at Cascadia: a grown-up bike for a grown-up career.

Building it entailed acquiring parts from nearly every bikeshop in Seattle: cranks from R&E, pedals from BikeWorks, shifter pods from Recycled, bars from Free Range, seatpost from the late great BikeSmith; I even effected a rapprochement with the much-maligned Gregg’s in purchasing cables and housing.

And I recall rides: Flying around and around my block, in single-speed mode, slightly drunk, the day I got the frame. The first long ride I took, south to Kent, with fellow-Rivendell rider, Dan Boxer. Climbing the ski basin road all the way to the top, last summer in Santa Fe. An early Sunday morning wake n’ bake ride this June in Seattle on which I figured out secrets of the Universe which now escape me. Countless rides home from school in all weathers to see Jen and Mimi.

And the pride I felt when my then three and a half year-old daughter spoke her first word of French: “Rambouillet.”

So yeah, I care way too much about the bike, but it’s also certain that whoever has it now doesn’t care nearly enough.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Bicycle Maintenance

I’m riding home yesterday after my sodden morning commute and slowly but surely, my chain begins to feel more and more slack. This strikes me as weird; it’s brand new and I’ve already shortened it once so that even in the unadvisable small/small combination, the links aren’t hitting the chainstay. Are the springs in my derailler going? Seems unlikely, but what else could it be?

Soon, I can no longer backpedal; any attempt to do so kicks the chain off the cogs, and then after another mile or so, I have to keep pedaling constantly in order to keep the chain tension constant so that it doesn’t skip off; it’s like riding a fixed gear, although not so elegant.

I keep stopping to noodle with the derailler; it’s still tightly screwed to the hangar; so whatever’s going wrong, at least I don’t have to worry about losing the part.

By now, I can’t even shift, so I limp home on the smallest cog and bring the bike downstairs to see what’s going on.

I release the gear cable and remove the derailler from the bike. After poking around on it for a bit, I discover that the upper jockey wheel, over which the chain normally runs, is completely stuck—it doesn’t spin at all.

Eureka! (I think.)

I remove the jockey wheel, clean it, grease it up, and put it back on the derailler: now it spins freely. The derailler goes back on the bike, the gear cable is reattached, the chain put back on and given a light treatment of lube. I do a bit of readjusting of the gears, which are now shifting smoothly up and down.

The chain is plenty tight and my bike is ready again for the road.

The repair took about half an hour, afforded me the satisfaction of figuring something out and fixing it, and was entirely free.

In a car, I’d still be waiting by the roadside for AAA.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Rain Ride

I got caught in a pretty good (pretty bad?) downpour on the way to school this morning. Fortunately, I had my rain jacket, pants, and booties; unfortunately, I didn’t have my helmet cover. My body stayed relatively undrenched, but my head was soaked when I got to the office. A student in the bathroom looked quite askance at me as I dried my hair with paper towels.

I actually like riding in the rain. For one thing, it keeps the riff-raff out and allows me to feel especially smug about being a fulltime bike commuter. For another, I love gliding across the freeway overpass and seeing miles of cars stacked up in rainy-day traffic.

I also like the sounds: the pitter-patter of raindrops on my helmet, the squish-squish of tires over the wet road, the shiver of me timbers as rivulets of waters roll down my neck and back.

It also seems that I go a wee bit faster in the wet; perhaps there’s less rolling resistance or something, or maybe I just ride more quickly to get out of the rain.

There are two main things I don’t like about cycling on rainy days. First, I get tired of all the dressing and undressing: gearing up to head out, stripping off the soaked stuff when I arrive. Lots of times, we get these intermittent showers; invariably, I’m either under-geared or over-geared at the outset of the ride; just as invariably, as soon as I put on my wet weather togs, the rain stops and as soon as I take them off, it starts again.

Second, especially, as winter wears on, I get tired of the soggy cheese smell that all my gear, especially my gloves, takes on. Sometimes, I’ll be sitting at my desk and I keep getting whiffs of limburger; it’s only when I take out my lunchtime cheddar cheese sandwich that I realize it’s been my own moldy fingers I’ve been smelling all along.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Concrete Disappointment

We’ve been waiting six weeks—all through the strike at local concrete companies—for the day to arrive when, at last, we can have the slab for the backyard studio building to be poured.

Unfortunately, it was raining this morning, so our concrete guy called at 5:45 AM to say that we needed to cancel delivery of the mud; now, we’ve got to wait another week and a half before we can try again—and hope that it doesn’t rain that day.

To top it off, it’s sunny now; had the pour been scheduled for this afternoon, I imagine it could have been done.

My question: how disappointed am I supposed to be about this?

After all, it’s not like this means the project won’t continue, and even more, it’s not like this means that anyone is dying or even injured or even emotionally scarred in any way, and yet, I do feel bad about the delay. I realize that anything I’m feeling about this is all my own doing, but it’s hard to shake it.

Small disappointments add up: UPS still hasn’t delivered the Saluki from the bike shop in Bend, Oregon where I left it after my stay there (it’s now almost three weeks since I expected it); the Rambouillet is still missing; my most recent haircut is a lousy one; and so on—these are all trivial matters, but when combined, induce grouchiness in me.

And then, I’m made grouchier still by the realization that I’m such a petty person that such trivial matters make me grouchy.

The key, I think, is to find the humor in this. And certainly, there’s something fairly amusing about being the sort of fellow who gets worked up about such things. If I were watching a movie about myself and saw foot-stamping and hand-wringing about these sorts of minor annoyances, I’d be cracking up.

It would only be really funny, though, if I were played by Johnny Depp.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

New Drive Train

I finally dealt with the drive train on the Miyata.

It had been years since I replaced the chain; the cassette was old and worn; and even, to my surprise, the middle front chainring was also toast. I’d been putting up with intermittent skipping under load for a long time, but now, since I’ll probably be riding the Miyata more regularly (in the absence of the Rambouillet), it was time to do something about it.

I knew I would have to replace the cassette along with the chain; I’ve been collecting eight-speed “Megarange” cassettes from swap meets for a while; I’ve got four of them. For some reason, though, I’ve been averse to using them; it’s like I want to have them, just in case, but don’t want to waste any on a bike.

Consequently, I tried, at first, to get by with the used one, but I immediately got skipping with the old cassette and the new chain. Even when I put on the new one, though, I was still getting chain skip—but only on the middle front—this is how I figured out I needed a new chainring.

Alex at 20/20 Cycle fixed me up with a fresh middle chainring and once I installed that—along with a replacement big ring I had lying around, no more skip. What a joy to be able to mash the pedals and not fall off onto the top tube. It’s a mystery why I put up with that for so long.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t taken the time to really adjust the derailler, so this morning, when I was out riding, I overshifted into the spokes and had to take the wheel off to free the chain.

This afternoon, I did the adjustments I should have done before. Now the bike is shifting perfectly.

If I were a more patient person, I would have done it right the first time.

This way, I learned my lesson, just incrementally.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Model World

Mimi woke up today intent upon building a model.

Fine, as an alternative to all-day TV watching, I’ll support that, even if it means driving thirty minutes south to the nearest hobby shop. (Why there are no such stores in Seattle proper vexes me.)

Entering into Skyway Model Shop in Renton (or, officially, Skyway), was like walking into something of a time warp, circa 1965. We saw lots of brand-new kits, but plenty from my own youth, too, including several Big Daddy Roth hot rods and even my childhood favorite: a plastic assemble-yourself guillotine, complete with a victim whose snap-on head is “severed’ by the falling “blade.”

Mimi bought a Revell model 1/32 scale model of a 1962 Corvette Stingray convertible. (I scored a 1967 Barracuda, to be assembled at a later date.)

We brought the kit home and spent two alternately satisfying and frustrating hours working on it. The directions were adequate, but the manufacturing of the plastic pieces left a good deal to be desired. Many of the plastic tabs did not line up with their associated slots and most of the extruded knobs were too big for the holes they were intended to fit in.

Nevertheless, with the aid of an X-acto blade and copious amounts of Testor’s glue, we were able to complete assembly of the Corvette engine—even though we had to get a bit creative with some of the smaller parts, customizing the motor in our own way.

Overall, we both enjoyed ourselves, but I do think it’s a rather strange way to spend an afternoon. I know what will happen: when we finish the car, it will be paraded around proudly for a short while. Then, it will sit on Mimi’s dresser for a few days. Eventually, it will be retired to her bookshelf, and finally, after gathering dust for months, it will be forgotten and tossed out.

Perhaps it is an authentic model of the real world after all.

Friday, September 15, 2006

To Catch a (Bike) Thief

My old friend, (and if the truth be told, for a few heady months back in the heyday—at least for me—of hippie-fagdom in the Seventies, my old boyfriend), Larry Livermore, has become, of late, what I would call a neo-neocon, (at least insofar as that entails a commitment to personal responsibility, law and order, and Enlightenment values) and I say good for him; I’d much rather hear Larry’s thoughtful fulminations than what emanates from others who share his Conservative inclinations (although for the life of me, I still like Peggy Noonan).

I, on the other hand, remain much more of a bleeding heart (at least insofar as that entails a belief that social conditions play a leading role in people’s behaviors and that values, while not entirely relative, are deeply informed by culture) and while I don’t consider myself nearly as articulate a commentator on social issues as Larry, I do have this example to share that helps to illustrate where I’m coming from.

The night before last, the cops arrested a prowler in our neighbor’s back yard. It’s almost surely the dude who stole my bike. Same M.O. (he rode up the alley on a—different this time—beater bike), same night (Tuesday, again), same intent (he was pawing through my neighbor’s garage for stuff.)

I came outside in time to see him slumped in the back of the cop car. Earlier, I had wanted to punch him in the neck.

Now, I just want my bike back.

I don’t even know if the guy should be punished. If it’s just to exact retribution for his crime, I dunno; and if it’s simply to deter other would-be bike thieves, then that seems like an unjust violation of his human dignity.

I’m sympathetic to the Oakland strategy that Larry ridicules; in my version, if this guy gets me back my bike, give him a job; if he doesn’t, then sure, punch him in the neck.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Missed the Bus

Few things make me feel more like a loser than missing my bus, which I did this morning. I’m blaming it on a change in the schedule, which had the former 7:37 leaving now at 7:29, although I’m not entirely sure that’s true. In any case, I showed up after the one I hoped to catch had left and was forced, therefore, to hang out an extra half hour—time I could have spent (since I was now going to be late to work, anyway) reading the paper, doing yoga, or sleeping.

I tried not to beat myself up too much about it—in the past, I would have at least kicked the nearest newspaper box—but I still couldn’t help but be dismayed that I didn’t manage to complete this simplest of tasks: just show up on time!

Additionally, as it turned out, the subsequent bus was late and then got stuck in traffic, so when all was said and done, it took me nearly two hours from my home to school; usually, it’s just an hour door to desk on the bus and I can ride my bike in about an hour and twenty minutes.

The lesson here, I think, is to balance the prospect of quicker transit by bus versus the assurance of a set travel time by bike. Essentially, I got greedy this morning; I should have taken the sure thing via cycling rather than banking on the possibility afforded by the bus. Let this be a reminder to me: slow and steady wins the race, even though the finish line of that race this morning was an all-day meeting.

Maybe I did make the right choice after all—or at least the choice that I would have made had I known the outcome beforehand. Apparently, I wasn’t quite as ready for vacation to be over as I thought I was.

Maybe I didn’t miss the bus at all; maybe it missed me.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

What Is Philosophy?

I’ve got both an undergraduate and an advanced degree in it, so you’d think I’d know what philosophy is.

Or maybe, like Socrates, you’d say my admission that I’m not sure what this thing I’ve been studying and teaching for several decades really is represents the appropriate philosophical attitude.

That’s what I’m hoping.

Still, I was talking to my neighbor about my work, and he stumped me when he asked what philosophy is and how it differs from other intellectual pursuits.

My standard answer is that philosophy has two parts: a content and a methodology.

The methodology is not unique to philosophy; it entails a willingness to reach conclusions based on the application of reason. In philosophy, we’re supposed to assess the justification for any given claim and decide whether it makes sense to accept it. Simple appeals to authority are to be rejected or at least assessed on some other grounds. “Because I (or God or the President or even Socrates) said so,” doesn’t cut it.

The content of philosophy is, however, more or less unique to the discipline. Philosophical questions are those that cannot, in general, be answered by simple observation or measurement. Philosophers tend to be engaged in speculative inquiries, questions like “What makes something true? Or beautiful? Or good?”

Sometimes students get frustrated with this; they point out to me that the definition of such terms can found in the dictionary. “Here’s what truth is; it says right here! Now, can we get back to something that makes a difference in the world?”

I’m quite sympathetic to that feeling; lots of philosophy is just so much intellectual hair-splitting, but even then, I think philosophy encourages us to do something extremely valuable:

It encourages us to think about thinking.

You may have seen this bumpersticker: Don’t believe everything you think.

Thinking about what you think to determine whether you really do think it: to me, that’s the essential attitude of a philosopher.

I think.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Golden Smog

My sister is a much better rock fan than me.

Her tastes are both more refined and more catholic than mine; she likes more different kinds of bands than I do and she has more information about them than I ever would. When she goes to shows, she usually knows the group members’ names and something about their discography; she can point out when they’re playing a cover version and which band originally did the song.

I, on the other hand, just sort of like what I like.

That’s not to say I can’t give a complete accounting of every album—including the player line-up—King Crimson ever made, or cite the year any given record by fIREHOSE came out, but I don’t have that breadth of knowledge across the range of Anglo-American rock n’ roll my sister does.

She also tends to have a better appreciation for the art of rock music making than me; while we both admire thrashy punky stuff, she holds in higher esteem than I do people who can actually play and sing well. And this is especially true if they’ve been around for a while and have honed their chops in lots of live dates and recordings.

So, I think she would have really enjoyed the band I saw last night, Golden Smog, a bunch of musicians, mostly from Minneapolis, who can really crank it up and out and sing and play in tune all at once.

Since the ticket I got through my friend Brian at TI Cycles was free, I was set to be easily amused by however the band sounded, but even so, I think they were pretty good. Some of their songs were a bit too countrified for my ears, but I liked the ones that were more power-poppy.

They even did a Bowie cover tune, which was my favorite moment of the show. I can’t tell you the name of the song, but my sister could.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Grape Ape

I rode—well, sorta—in a bike race yesterday called the Grape Ape. It was organized by a sweet guy who goes by the name Billy Dotcom, whose friendly, supportive manner made me feel right at home, even though—as a race participant—I can’t exactly say I fit the standard model.

Most of the riders were serious professional cycling types—messengers and bike shop employees—and although the event was all in good fun, it was obvious right from the get-go that I was way outta my league. A couple of riders were talking beforehand about just getting back from the national Cycle Courier Championships in Philadelphia last week and pretty much everyone there had that casual leanness that comes from riding all day long. Folks were nice enough to me as we were getting ready to race and pleasant in conversation at the after-party, but I did feel like something of an outsider, which—after all—I was.

I didn’t even complete the route, which basically swung from Capitol Hill around Lake Union; Mimi had a soccer game that I wanted to see, so I bailed from the race after the first checkpoint. Nevertheless, I was made welcome by Billy at the after-party (held at the Funhouse bar) and stuck around for a couple beers and a free-to-riders barbecue.

What struck me most about the event was Billy’s generosity in putting the thing together. At sign-in, he provided all the riders with a Curious George goody bag filled with candy, noisemakers, a grape-flavored condom (which Mimi, rummaging through the bag for sweets found baffling and amusing), and a hand-silkscreened t-shirt. There were loads of great prizes—a track frame, wheelsets, cogs, locks, beer cozies—all of which Billy financed himself.

He’s inspired me to try and expand the prize list for the Patchkit Alleycat. I want to do my best to give back to the cycling community—even if I’m not entirely part of it.

Sunday, September 10, 2006


Mimi, her best friend, Ani, Jen and I went to see the band Devo last night at the Paramount theater here in Seattle. A fine time was had by all, even though we had neglected to get any dinner in the kids before we left, so there were some moments of low blood sugar cantankerousness. We managed, though, to ply the youngsters with sodas and Red Vines to get through the show and then went our for Belgian frites afterwards, which made everyone feel much better.

The boys from Akron put on a lively and entertaining concert, doing all the old faves, including “Jocko Homo,” “Girl U Want,” “Uncontrollable Urge,” and “Mongoloid,” among others.

I had seen pictures of the new jumbo-sized Mark Mothersbaugh, and was worried that it would be like watching the portly Vegas Elvis, but he moved around stage just fine, and his hair, though grayer than in the old days, still flopped charmingly over his glasses when he got worked up. Bass player Jerry Casale did some of his signature robo-moves and while, overall, the choreography wasn’t all the impressive, it wasn’t embarrassing, either.

There were only a few moments when I felt like people I would have laughed at in the 1980s who were going to see a Rock n’ Roll Revival show.

To get in the mood for the evening, we watched a couple old Devo videos on Youtube. I was especially amused, then, when—during “Jocko Homo,” Mimi imitated Mark Mothersbaugh’s hand motions from that old piece. It cracked up the guy standing next to us, too.

In the lobby before the show, at least three different people told Mimi and Ani how lucky they were to be seeing Devo live. “Do you know how long, I’ve waited to see them?” they asked.

The kids were unimpressed; the grownups may have been waiting 20 years to see their heroes play live; for the youngsters, though, it’s been a lifetime.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Stoner Seniors

My favorite news story of the week reports on a recent survey indicating that drug use is down among teenagers but up among baby boomers. David Murray, special assistant to the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, conjectures that it’s because today’s 50- and 60-something’s have brought with them, “like baggage,” their habits from the Sixties and Seventies, when drug use among youth peaked. He and his boss, John Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, laud the news regarding reduced illicit drug use by teenagers, but engage in a plenty of hand-wringing over the rise among older folks.

But if the latter news really bothers them, I think they’re in for some hard times.

I predict that drug use among seniors will only continue to rise as more and more baby boomers transition into retirement and old age. Freed of the responsibility to get up every morning and commute to work, more and more children of the Love and/or Me decades will return to the habits of their youth and turn to altering their states of consciousness with greater variety and frequency.

Unlike Murray and Walters, I don’t necessarily consider this a bad thing. You’ve got to fill up your retirement days somehow; my grandfather liked to drink wine and fix toy steam engines; my dad drank martinis and worked on stained glass art; if I spend my “golden years” getting stoned and playing with bicycles, what’s the difference?

I’m also not convinced it’s good that drug use by teenagers is reportedly going down.

Several interpretations are possible.

First, it may just be that lying by teenagers is on the upswing. If I’m seventeen and stoned, I’m not going to tell the truth to a governmental survey anyway.

Second, perhaps illicit drug use is down because legal drugs use is up. And, if it comes to a choice between Prozac or pot, I would prefer the kids just get stoned.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Bike Gang

I ride from time to time with a group of cyclists who go by the name of .83, which I’m told refers to the total mileage covered in one of their early rides, cut short by cold weather and a warm bar. It’s a loose collection of relatively normal but somewhat offbeat folks who like to ride bikes, hang out together, and, as the website says, “tip back a cold one”—although I’ve seen no particular aversion to a lukewarm one, either.

On .83 rides, we tend to have a healthy disrespect for traffic laws; red lights are usually treated as merely “slow down and look” lights and stop signs as simply suggestions. I think this is okay, given that (as I read it) we’re out to have fun and be a bit naughty rather than exhibit exemplary cycling behavior, but also because it seems to me that the slightly higher moral ground one attains by urban cycling in the 21st century, affords an agent the right to bend the rules a bit.

This is a contestable claim, of course, and turns on whether cycling does earn you a step (or in the case of .83, a stagger) up morally but consider, for example, last evening when, as a group, we violated the countywide burn ban by having an open fire in the Fremont fire pit. I argued that because, as cyclists, our carbon footprint was smaller than automobile drivers, we had a right to “spend” our credits on a fire. (It was pointed out to me, though than the ban is to protect against wildfires, not global warming.)

But still…

We capped off the evening with a dip in Lake Washington, which broke laws—or at least UW regulations—against after hours facility use and swimming in a boating lane (so the police who rousted us claimed), but no one went to jail or even got a ticket.

That’s because we rode bikes there, of course.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Pretty Good vs. Fairly Evil

I’m not going to obsess over the stolen Rambouillet, but it’s still top of mind, and there was a further development yesterday that got me wondering whether doing more or less the right thing more or less most of the time isn’t just for suckers; thieves and sociopaths have the right idea: the meek may inherit the earth, but it’s gonna be stolen away from them by the bold.

And the Rambouillet thief is nothing if not bold.

When I found the beater mountain bike that I conjectured he had ridden up on before ditching it and upgrading to my bike, I Kryptonite locked it to a wooden pallet in the alley. On the bike, I duct-taped a “reward for return of stolen bike” notice thinking that if the thief came back for his beater, he would see it locked, despair of freeing it, read the reward notice, have a change of heart about my bike, and return the Rambouillet in exchange for the reward and having his bike unlocked from the pallet.

Instead—and in broad daylight, because it happened sometime between 2:00 and 4:00 in the afternoon when, ironically, I was out dropping off reward notices at various bike and pawn shops around town—the thief returned and apparently, simply ripped his beater right off the pallet and carried it—(he would have had to, the rear wheel was locked to the frame)—down the alley and back into whatever hole he had emerged from.

So, now I’m out my bike—and a lock—while the thief gets it all.

I’m reading this book right now that I rather like, The Kite Runner, and in it, the protagonist’s father reduces all forms of evil—lying, cheating, rape, etc.—to a species of stealing. I’m not sure I entirely agree, but certainly, taking what isn’t yours is the essence of many bad deeds.

So howcome right now the bad guy’s laughing and I’m moaning like this?

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Stolen Bike

Aw, man, someone crept into our shed last night and stole my Rivendell Rambouillet. (This one's not mine, but mine looked quite similar). I thought I heard something in the backyard when I was putting Mimi to bed, but the dog didn’t bark, so I ignored it.

What’s weird is that I had a dream just as I was falling asleep that I was riding my bike—not the Rambouillet, an old touring bike I no longer have—slowly up a hill and some fat guy pulled me off of it. I tried to punch him in the neck, but that’s when I woke up.

I haven’t had a bike stolen since 10th grade, and it feels just as lousy now. I halfway think if someone was so desperate they had to jack my ride, I’d be willing to give them the money they’d get for fencing it—(don’t tell them that, though.)

The other weird thing is that someone left an old beater mountain bike—partially spray-painted, obviously hot—in the alley by our neighbor’s house. So, did the thief ride up on that one, ditch it, upgrade to the Rambouillet, and ride away?

I’m kicking myself for not locking the shed last night; I’ve gotten careless about that of late. And in part, that’s what I hate about this almost as much as losing the bike: the feeling that it’s my fault somehow, that either I deserved it or at least that I’m complicit—and to the extent that I benefit from an unjust social structure, I guess I do. But that sucks.

Like Pee-Wee in his Big Adventure, I keep picturing the thief riding my bike and it makes my blood boil. They used to execute horse thieves; bike thieves deserve at least a swift kick in the saddle.

Of course, the good news is, no one was hurt, I have my health, and I’ve still got other bikes. But if I see the thief on the Rambouillet, I'm punching his neck.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

End of Summer II

Today is Mimi’s last day of summer vacation; I’ve got another week of freedom, but the writing is on the wall: summer’s over. I’m sad about that, but resigned to the inevitable. My biggest worry is that I’ve forgotten how to teach—although that’s probably something the students should worry about more than me.

I’ve been wondering what I’m going to say when people ask me about “what I did last summer.” None of my ambitious projects came to fruition: I didn’t finish the new Leider and Shapiro book; I still haven’t defended my dissertation; our backyard studio has yet to be built; and I never did an authentic wake n’ bake—although there were three or four afternoons when I found time to pause for that peculiar mode of reflection.

On the other hand, I did write pretty consistently on the blog; I managed to spend countless hours just hanging out with the family; I read half a dozen novels; I rode my bike almost every day; and I put away a good amount of beer, mainly Rolling Rock.

Mostly, I got a taste of what life might be like if wasn’t tied down to a job. I see that I’m probably lazier and more self-centered than would be if I weren’t so lazy and self-centered. But I’m also, I hope, a bit more patient and forgiving than I might have expected. At any rate, I’ve come, this summer, to be more or less satisfied by more or less whatever has ensued.

As I cast my eye on the upcoming school year, I’d like to retain something of this summer mood; I’d like to stay balanced between ambition and acceptance and I’d like my classes, insofar as possible, to flow as naturally out of the quotidian reality as my days have these last few months.

Of course, there’s still that nagging wake n’ bake; but then, I still have another week before my contract officially starts.

Monday, September 04, 2006

State: Fair

Yesterday, Mimi and I, along with her best friend Ani, Ani’s little brother, Elek, and the siblings’ parents, Lisa and Elod, went to the Evergreen State Fair in Monroe, Washington. The kids rode the Wacky Worm rollercoaster, won inflatable toys on the midway, and ate corndogs and shaved ice; the grownups carried stuff, shelled out money, and tried to keep smiling after discovering the fairgrounds had no beer.

On the one hand, I appreciate the unalloyed money-grubbing consumerism of the fair; the barkers are all about getting their money from your pocket into their own. But it made me sorta sad to see the level at which the game is played. Mimi paid three bucks for “chance” to climb a swinging rope ladder, ring a bell, and win a bike. The carnies didn’t even make it fun for her with snappy patter or clever deception; they may as well have taken her money and told her to run along for all the effort they put into it.

Even the dozens of booths selling miracle home-improvement and cleaning products seemed tired. Usually, there’s theatrical magic in some guy showing off his Ginzu knives or Super-Chamois; yesterday, the only thing remotely entertaining was an old couple hawking flax seed products for health and well-being; that they were both morbidly obese, however, tended to cut into the appeal of their pitch.

I ate pretty well: a couple of corns on a stick, a “Super-Spud” baked potato, hold the “super,” and a bag of fresh-roasted cashews. I was underwhelmed, though, by our state fair’s signature dish, Fischer Scones, which were basically half-dollar-sized doughballs sandwiching a fistful of freezer jam.

Maybe the native cuisine charms of Washington state are harder to capture than those of other states whose fairs I’ve been to; nothing came close to Minnesota’s walleye on a stick, or Wisconsin’s creampuffs; Mimi had a caramel Washington apple that looked good, but there wasn’t a whole pavilion dedicated to them.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Should Not Should

I spend a fair amount of time not doing what I think I should be doing. Instead of cleaning the house, I sit around reading. Instead of reading philosophy, I read a novel. Instead of reading a novel, I flip through a magazine.

Or, I write a piece for the blog when I ought to be working on the new book Richard Leider and I are now under contract for.

This makes me feel sort of guilty, but the overriding emotion is more like nervous fascination: I’m curious to see how far I’ll push it before the rising tide of responsibility overwhelms me and forces me into more appropriately productive behavior.

I wonder if any other animals than human beings go through this. Does my dog, when she’s lying in the front hall, think, “I really should be outside chasing a ball?”

I didn’t used to be this way; as a kid, I always did my homework as soon as it was assigned—the sooner it was done, the sooner I wouldn’t have to worry about it. Now, however, I’ve become something of a procrastinator. (Perhaps in the back of my mind I’m thinking that, at my age, if I put onerous tasks off long enough, I eventually won’t be around to have to do them.)

My hippie side tells me that you can’t not be doing what you should; whatever you’re doing is what you ought to be doing. But then here’s me thinking I should be thinking that when I’m not.

I’m watching Andre Agassi in obvious pain as he struggles through his third round match at the U.S. Open. The commentators are conjecturing whether he should be playing or not. But if he weren’t, then they’d be wondering whether he should, so the question seems inescapable either way.

So since everything we do is potentially questionable; maybe the only thing we ought not do is question whether we ought not do what we’re doing.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

A Job, Well, Done

Yesterday, I washed a few of our house’s windows, inside and out. The second-floor rear even required that I use a ladder, which I had to pull from its inconvenient storage spot and put back when I was done. The cleaned-up panes look pretty good, but they’re not perfect: when the sun shines through, you can still see a fair number of streaks.

I thought about redoing the work, but then decided the heck with it. The thing is, the windows look better than they did before and another cleaning will only improve them incrementally. Even if I go through the trouble of another round of Windex and newspaper, there will still be a few streaks and even if there aren’t, that level of perfection won’t last past the first rain.

So, I’m satisfied with a job, well, done.

I’ve long believed that anything worth doing is worth doing poorly. Lots of times what matters is to just do the thing, to go through the motions, to simply show up. This isn’t to say that there aren’t occasions when extra effort is called for, but it seems to me that much of the time, what’s adequate is adequate.

Last night, Mimi and I watched two hours of Simpson’s episodes, an evening that won’t be featured prominently on my Parent of the Year application. On the other hand, she got fed with relatively healthy food—cream cheese with grape tomato halves on rye crisp crackers—we didn’t argue very much, and bedtime eventually arrived without a great deal of controversy.

It wasn’t a perfect night, but it worked.

The worry, I suppose, is that I’ll come to be satisfied with whatever, and so won’t do anything, but I’m not too worried about that.

The upside of having low standards is that most tasks become less daunting. If you know you’re going to be satisfied with whatever you do, then it’s relatively easy to be motivated to do things.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Expert Among the Novices

I am doomed to never be better than pretty good at the things that I do.

Whether it’s yoga, philosophy, bike repair, skiing, flute or accordion playing, stand-up comedy, you name it, I forever rise to a level of better-than-average competence, but then plateau. I’m never able to achieve true mastery; I’m always the person who can impress beginners, but never one who stands out among true practicioners. In fact, I generally don’t even cut it with those who are really good; I may be the expert among the novices, but I’m always the novice among the experts.

I probably shouldn’t complain; it’s way better than being lousy at everything, but I find it confounding. I’ve invested lots of time and effort in lots of things, but I never seem to get over that hump between pretty good and really good.

On beginner slopes, for instance, I can ski like an expert; on expert slopes, though, I’m reduced to skiing like a beginner. As a home bicycle mechanic, I can impress my friends with all that I know about bike repair; when I’m among real mechanics, though, I’m just an idiot with a cone wrench. I know five (well, more like three) easy pieces on the accordion; if you’ve never played, they sound pretty flashy; on the other hand, if you have any professional experience with the squeezebox, you’ll recognize right away that I’m just a poser.

I tend to be a quick study; many things come relatively easy to me, but then I hit a limit. I’m the hare in that famous race; eventually, I’m left behind by those who take it slow and steady.

If I were truly talented, I might be considered a Renaissance man; as it is, I’m just a dilettante, a jerk of some trades, master of none.

My solution is to excel at something no one else does.

Thus, the 327-word essay, of which I am the master. For now, anyway.