Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Things That Don't Suck, Part 1

While chatting off-blog with fellow virtual scribe Scott of Landscape Cycling fame, it dawned on me that my bike-centric blog focus could turn this site into a profound bummer over the next few months. After all, how many creative ways are there to whine about attempting to ride through a Midwestern winter? So, to cure my (and your) seasonal affective disorder, I thought I'd turn my attention to some of the non-bikey things taking up my brain-space now that the riding (though it continues) isn't worth talking about.

BOOKS: I just finished The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. Sounds like the feel-good hit of the year, right? Actually, it's fascinating look at what might happen if, through some mysterious fate (mass illness? alien abduction? insert your own B-movie plotline here) were to remove humans from our planet in one fell swoop. How would our cities give in to entropy? How would the plants and animals left behind re-colonize in our absence? What works of art would be preserved? How long until our untended nuclear power plants melted down? How long until our impact on the global climate faded? Weisman extrapolates from what we know about the world before us, what our engineering marvels are designed to endure (and what they can't), and even what is currently happening in the places we have abandoned (such as the Korean DMZ and Chernobyl) to craft a simultaneously disturbing and beautiful "future history" of Earth without its most familiar inhabitants. The section on how our houses will collapse hit a bit too close to my 91-year-old home and the ongoing struggle to maintain it. I was especially impressed by the even-handedness of the writing; what could have been a shrill "humans are evil" environmental screed came across as remarkably balanced and apolitical (with the required disclosure that your humble narrator can be kind of a greenie weenie, and thus may have missed a touch of screed as he was agreeing with it.)
MUSIC: I put The Crane Wife by the Decemberists on my iPod about a week ago, and it's all I've listened to since. I'm at a loss trying to describe this album -- while it hints at things I'm familiar with (from Emerson, Lake, and Palmer to Jack White to the Shins to the occasional Zeppelin-esque riff), I can't toss off a quickie comparison ("it's like [insert band] with a hint of [insert another band]") that does it justice. The sound and lyrical sensibility is anachronistic yet perfectly modern. And in the era of the iTunes "viral single" -- where one song is all you need, never mind something as silly as an album -- these ten tracks hang together as a cohesive, too-big-for-one-bite experience.

TECHNOLOGY: Since I mentioned my iPod, let me just say damn the Gen-X stereotypes and full speed ahead: I like my iPod in terribly unhealthy ways. I know the white color with all the white accessories was just a brilliant branding move by Evil Emperor Jobs ("Hey, look, white headphones! That guy's got an iPod!") which also allowed a hundred other companies to overcharge for basic audio accessories because they are a) white, and b) "designed for iPods", but still, kudos. Because even though I'm acting as a branded tool every time I wear those stupid white headphones, they also tell the people around me, "That guy is listening to music, thus he cannot hear me, thus I will not speak to him." It's my very own Cone of SIlence! There is just no better gift you can give a loner agoraphobe. (Double bonus in December, it even allows a loner agoraphobe Jew to avoid the relentless onslaught of Christmas music spewing from every corner. Cute kids' choir, your mouths may say Jingle Bells, but all I hear is Motorhead's Ace of Spades. Damn, what's the HTML for an umlaut, anyway?)

See, I'm feeling better already!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Knowing My Limits

Rugged week on the commuting front. I consider myself fairly tough (or stubborn, or stupid) when it comes to riding in cruddy weather, but the sub-zero temps and 20- to 30-below wind chills on Monday put me in the car. I kind of like having all ten fingers and all ten toes attached, thanks. Tuesday was OK for riding, since the temps came up and we weren't barraged by any more of that silly frozen precipitation.

Yesterday morning, we had fresh snow (AGAIN), but when I got up, our block had already been plowed. Now, I'm not all that critical of Des Moines municipal services (the new single-stream recycling rocks my world in a nerdy environmental way), but after most storms, our little block of Iowa heaven is the last one to feel the scrape of a plow blade. Former neighbor, driveway sharer, and frequent blog-commenter Steve F. can probably attest to that (Aside to Steve: Any time you, Kathy, and Conor want to shovel your former driveway for old time's sake, c'mon over.) So when I saw that our street was scraped down to a studded-tire-friendly layer of hardpack, I figured I was golden for the commute.

Not so. The street at the end of our block? Miserable squished powder, like riding through sand. So I jogged over to a semi-main artery into downtown, one that's almost guaranteed to be plowed. No such luck. I was fighting to keep my line through the slop the whole way in, crawling along at single-digit speeds in the single-digit temps. Insult to injury? As I was starting up after waiting out a red light, another biker absolutely FLEW past me -- ruining my delusions of bad-arse grandeur: "This sucks, but I'm out here doing it, unlike the rest of those wimps."

Is it April yet?

Friday, December 19, 2008

2009's To-Do List

I won't call these "resolutions" (which would only make me feel guilty when I didn't do them), just some things I'd like to try next year inspired by my "stuff I liked in '08" musings.

LIMPSTRONG 3.0: I've managed to pull off two self-contained centuries since snapping my femur in 2007 and creating the fictional LimpStrong Foundation for the Femorally-Challenged. LimpStrong 1 and LimpStrong 2 were both successful enough that I feel almost obligated to make this an annual event. So, I will get another century in for 2009. Note that I'm not making any promises that LimpStrong 3 will be on the fixed gear like I did last year, since that didn't quite work out. However, one of my '09 goals will be...

MORE DISTANCE RIDES ON THE FIXED: I like fixed-gear riding. Simple as that -- no cliched "Zen connectedness with the bike" crap, it's just something I enjoy. I'm a relentless bike futzer, unable to leave well enough alone, so a simple bike that denies futzitude is a good mental exercise for me. But for the most part, I'm a short-distance fixter, getting my mental exercise in commutes and around-town errands. I'd like to stretch that a little in 2009 and do some of my longer rides on one non-coasting gear. A key element in that goal will be...

ACQUIRING A BIKE THAT'S OLDER THAN ME: My current fixie, wonderful though it may be as a commute bike/adult BMX toy, is not the most comfortable thing to put between my tuchus and the road for more than about an hour. Thus, I'm saving my pennies to (hopefully) liberate a classic Raleigh International frameset from pal Steve K's stable. Methinks it will be a much more pleasant fixed for extended jaunts. Heck, maybe its skinny steel tubes will let me experience the mythical "planing" that Jan Heine and the Bicycle Quarterly crew are pursuing like an elusive cycling Sasquatch.

(Vintage Raleigh with Nonplussed Cat, courtesy of Steve K.)

MORE TANDEM RIDES: Maybe I'm just imagining this, but 2008 seemed like an off-year for two-seater cycling. The floods in the Spring wiped out a lot of the local trails that Carla and I usually haunt, which probably had a lot to do with it. Bummer. I really enjoy spinning the miles with my spouse, and there's no better way to do it than on the tandem, whether we're hammering to catch someone or just tootling downtown to the Farmers' Market. I promise, Carla, we'll take the long bike out a lot more in 2009.

I've said it before, I'll say it again. Being an uncle rocks. And I'm even more stoked now that there's going to be Nephew 2 to complement Wonderful, Wacky Wilson, the redheaded eating machine. I can't wait to tow that cute little goofball around in his bike trailer, just like my late-Dad used to tow me around when I was that age.

MORE BLOG VOLUME, HIGHER BLOG QUALITY: As much as I've tried to deny it, I do have an itch to write, and it's a good salve for my sometimes-scattered sanity. So, dear reader(s), my promise to you is that I'll try to have more to say next year, and it will be (more) interesting to read. It might be here, it might be next door on Veloquent, it might be as a guest star on a pal's blog (anybody? Bueller? Bueller?), it might be on that old-fashioned paper stuff, or it might be somewhere else entirely, but I'll keep slapping words together to see if they stick.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Tried & Liked In 2008

It's a long-standing tradition over on the iBOB mailing list (a joint I've haunted for years, despite my Groucho-Marxist fears of joining a club that would have me as a member) to reflect on the (usually) bike-related things that worked out for us each year. Rather than suck up the bandwidth over there, I figured I'd bore reader(s) of The Cycle with this year's list.

PINNED BMX PLATFORM PEDALS: Maybe I'm slurping down Grant Petersen's Rivendell Kool-Aid (stop me if I start tying twigs to my bike with discarded bits of twine), but these were a revelation. If you have wide feet, wacky-shaped feet, toes that point anywhere but straight ahead, or any other below-the-ankle malady (I have all of the above), you owe it to yourself to try platforms with whatever regular old shoes your freak feet find comfortable. Even the cheapo $15-$20 ones with cast-in pins beat my clipless setup for comfort and convenience. The fancy magnesium ones can even get surprisingly light, for the weight-weenies in the house.

CLIP-ON FENDERS: If that last one got the Rivendellistas and iBOBerinos to move closer on the Group W bench, this one will have them all moving away again. To the true fender fan, the partial coverage of a clip-on fender gets about as much respect as the clip-on tie. Heck, you could be shunned from a Bicycle Quarterly paceline if your fenders don't wrap far enough to drag their mudflaps on the ground like some sort of static electricity discharge strap (maybe the combination of generator hubs, wool jerseys, and leather saddles builds up a charge?) But, despite being the Rodney Dangerfield of fenders, a set of clip-ons found their way aboard my fixed gear this Fall and have more than earned their keep. They aren't doing much to protect the drivetrain (it's a fixie -- what's to protect?), but they're keeping the slop off me while clearing the studded tires with room to spare. That's really all I could ask.

BREWING COLD-PRESS COFFEE AT HOME: I've been a little bit lax chronicling my caffeine addiction here, despite touting it in my "who is this guy?" mini-bio to the right. In short, I drink a lot of coffee. A stunning amount. Sure, I tell my doctor "one cup in the morning and one in the afternoon," but only because he hasn't wised up and asked how big the cup is -- it may actually exert a slight gravitational pull on the smaller cups in the cabinet. The first time I tried cold press, it was like a cocaine addict trying crack -- or so I'm told. But I thought could only get the stuff outside the house from my local caffeine dealer. Not so! Follow normal "startup" procedures for the French press, use cold water instead of boiling, stew in the fridge overnight, press, and voila! Homebrewed liquid crack. (Warning: If you don't have a caffeine tolerance, sip gently. Without the tongue-scalding reminder to drink in moderation, it's way too easy to chugalug this stuff and twitch like a raving lunatic. Ask me how I know.)

KEEN NEWPORT SANDALS: The sneaky buggers at Keen actually crept into my bedroom one night, made plaster casts of my mutant feet while I slept, and shipped them off to the Keen factory with the following instructions: "Make size 10 like this." That's the only way to explain how these things fit me. Pair 'em with a set of platform pedals (see above) and I'm golden. I tried the clipless version too (the Commuter), but it seems they cast some other mutant to make that size 10 (I still have them for sale, if that particular mutant or one like him is reading and wants to make an offer.)

CHAIN WAXING: Let's not start the Great Chain Lubrication Crusades/Inquisition here.
I'm not trying to convert anyone from the First United Church of Prolink or Our Holy Mother of Blessed Boeshield. How you choose to lubricate in the privacy of your own home is your business. I'll just say that I've been cleaning and lubing my chains with a couple bucks' worth of paraffin and the tiniest dribblet of Triflow in a Crock Pot this year, and I'm sold.

HOMEMADE WINTER GEAR: The helmet liner Carla made for me was another revelation: warmer than it should be for its weight/bulk, remarkably stink-resistant, and when I wasn't 100% satisfied with the prototype from the stock pattern, she just sat down and cranked out V2.0 based on my feedback. Next on the needles will be a pair of open-source S'mittens thanks to a pattern from Natalie at Sweetpea Bicycles.

I think that's it -- up next, things I want to try in 2009!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Beware the Conspicuous Ninja

Obviously, any ninja can get the jump on you if he's sneaky and dressed in all black. It's a special brand of ninja who says, "I can get to you even in this revoltingly bright vest that guarantees you'll see me coming a mile away!" This guy even went so far as to say, "I'll be there at 5:33," thus giving away any hope of surprising his foe.

What you're seeing is pretty much everything new about my winter cycling wardrobe for the '08-'09 frigid season. The zipper on my old shell crapped out, so I found this bruise-colored thing on mega-clearance at a local discount store. Despite being...

  1. arguably designed for golf (a sport I don't even understand enough to write a post about how I don't understand it),
  2. a product of the Great Importer of Swoosh-Encrusted Crap Made In Chinese Sweatshops, and
  3. darn near impossible for drivers to see in stock form,
...I must grudgingly admit that I like it lots. It's a waterproof "soft shell" (whatever that marketing nonsense means) with a waffle-patterned fleece inside that seems to trap a lot of warm air -- and if anyone knows about hot air, it's me. Plus, it only has one very subtle swoosh (must be why it was so cheap, since the Great Importer of Swoosh-Encrusted Crap Made In Chinese Sweatshops charges by the swoosh), and it doesn't make me look like (much of) a bike dork when I'm not on the bike.

The obnoxious vest is a Carhartt hi-vis number made for construction workers that I picked up from G and L Clothing -- a locally-owned store in my 'hood that also
happens to have a Web presence. Frankly, the reflective vests that are supposedly designed for runners and cyclists cannot TOUCH this thing. It makes my eyes hurt to look at it. I got the idea when I was riding through my neighborhood and saw a kid wearing one on her walk home from school. You couldn't not see this kid. So, I thank her parents for keeping both her and me safe. (Aside: G & L is also a great source for non-bike-specific gloves, hats, and long undies that work better for biking -- and are way cheaper -- than a lot of bike-specific stuff. Construction workers and farmers don't screw around when it comes to staying warm and frugal simultaneously.)

Finally, there's my ninja headgear. This is V2.0 of the helmet liner my wife made for me last winter. V2.0 is longer in the neck (good, since my jacket lacks a high collar) and made of 100% merino wool rather than V1.0's wool/mohair blend. The merino version isn't as warm as the mohair, but it's still plenty warm, and it's also less likely to give me hairballs.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Almost Forgot...

After this, I promise to lay off the mushrooms (magic or otherwise) for a while.

It's my favorite annoying mushroom-related viral/bizarre Web video.

(This baby makes noise. And gets stuck in your head. And is pretty much guaranteed to annoy your co-workers if you happen to be stealing time and bandwidth from an employer right now. You've been warned.)

No, I don't get it either.

But I can't stop watching.

I've Got Fungus!

Huh. Maybe I'll send that headline back for a rewrite. Of course, Steve F. already stole the fungi/fun guy pun that I was waiting to unleash, so I got nuthin'.

Unappealing as it sounds, my career as a mushroom farmer is off to a thrilling start, at least by mushroom-growing standards.

Harken back to November 21, the date that my box o'shrooms was supposedly going to "mature." Thus, the great unveiling (and pay no attention to that bald spot -- I swear, it's a camera trick):

Knowing that the anticipation may just kill several of my more frail readers (and I can't spare any), I'll cut directly to the big reveal:

That's right... it's a BOX OF DIRT!

At this point, I'm sure you're wishing for smell-enhanced Web access, because who doesn't love the smell of moist mushroom mulch in the morning? Smells like... victory.

Fast forward again (can you handle such an action-packed thrill ride? it's almost as exciting as watching mushrooms grow!) to today, December 4, and you'll see that I now have a...

Wait for it...

wait for it...

A box of DIRT!

Oh, but all you doubters, look again.



A little bit closer...

That's right. MUSHROOMS!

As Stephen Colbert would say, "I accept your apology."