December 6, 2022 Comments Off on On the way to church one morning …
It’s a commonplace that the worst drivers are people on the way to church, surpassed only by the angry people on the way back. How many times I’ve been riding and been buzzed, flipped off, cut off, or otherwise harassed by someone going to church I couldn’t count if I tried.It was always so puzzling. How could someone en route to goodwill and love for humanity try to kill you? And even harder to understand, how could someone who’d spent the morning reflecting on religious messages be completely indifferent to the life of, to say nothing of being wholly enraged by, a person riding a bicycle?As it so happens, I found out.There I was, riding my bike to an early morning AA meeting, which is very much like going to church. There’s a lot of talk about dog and spirituality, and the bulk of the meetings are built around the fellowship of people sharing mutual problems and providing support. I was thinking about the meeting and of course, on my bike riding along PCH during the morning traffic, I was in a hurry. For me, in a hurry always means paying zero attention to anything except cars except cars that might hit me, and in the process going as fast as I possibly can.Shooting up the gutter, splitting lanes, running lights as long as the coast is clear, anything to obviate having to brake, slow down, or pause for the other guy. As I shot across Torrance Blvd., an irate motorist honked and flipped me off. “Fuck you,” I thought smugly, acing the intersection and continuing without having to so much as ease off on the pedals.This behavior continued all the way to the meeting, where, arriving a few minutes early, I was able to compose myself and really focus on the upcoming event. That’s when it occurred to me: had I been doing anything different from all those drivers I’ve cursed so many Sundays past? Though my bike hadn’t really endangered anyone but myself, this behavior had infuriated, confused, startled, and perhaps even frightened a whole bunch of people. On a bike, the worst thing that can happen to the rider is getting hit, but for a lot of motorists, hitting someone can also be incredibly traumatic, and it’s safe to say that no one that morning had gotten up hoping to start the day with a cyclist on their hood.As I began to string together the countless instances in which I have outraged drivers and violated the traffic laws, it dawned on me how that morning my single-minded mission of reaching a place of sanctuary and healing somehow justified being a dick to everyone outside the sanctuary’s walls. How would I have felt if one of those drivers had been a fellow AA member? I’d have felt stinging remorse.This rumination led to another, which is that a lot of what passes for cycling is thinly disguised, poorly executed anger management. Dropping your “friends,” establishing a hierarchy, shelling people out of the lead group, combining with allies to frustrate your enemies, and a host of other actions are, at base, not much more than polite aggression, and not even all that polite. And when the fireworks result in someone falling and getting hurt, how many times have I seen the group ride away? How many times have I been in one of those groups? Many.Two units of knowledge that I’ve picked up in AA have helped me understand better what’s going on. One is this question: are you simply rebelling? I latched onto this bit of wisdom from a guy who described how he’d come home to find that the police had cordoned off his street due to a crime scene. Enraged at not being able to park in his own garage, he did the logical thing (for a madman) by crashing the police barrier and getting charged with a couple of felonies. In my case, the fuck-you shown to motorists as I sped to my meeting was just another way of setting myself apart from the herd, letting planet Earth know that I was so special I didn’t have to abide by their silly vehicle code.The second nugget I picked up is this: you need to get right-sized. A woman was talking about her anger and about how furious she was at some inconsequential thing, when a friend called to tell her about how the friend’s spouse had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. “That,” she said, “got me right-sized real quick.” As much as being rebellious simply to stick it to some Imaginary Man, holding myself out as too big to bicycle normally in traffic was a case of having seriously delusional ideas about my importance. Why was I more important than some guy who’d been sitting patiently at the light for several minutes? Why was my timeliness to get alcohol counseling more important than a nurse on her way to the hospital? Why was I so big, so outsized, so terribly awesome that several hundred people on the way to work had to get the fuck out of my way, lean on the brakes, get scared out of their skin?And the more I thought about it, the more I thought that laying down rebel arms and shrinking the ego isn’t the worst thing that could happen. Especially on the way to church.
December 3, 2022 Comments Off on I’m no alcoholic
Despite having been to three weeks’ worth of AA meetings, I’m still struggling like hell to get my foot up on AA’s First Step. This is the one where you admit that you are powerless over alcohol and that your life has become unmanageable.
Sometime in November of 2014, I quit drinking with the promise to my family that if I ever drank again, I’d go to AA. About six months ago I restarted my drinking program but had no plans at all to follow through on the promise.
The event that triggered my sobriety went like this. I had been at a cyclocross race all day with friends. I had quit my race and started drinking beer around 10 o’clock. My friend was driving so I kept drinking all the way back to Torrance, where we met my wife and went to have pizza. I’d had four or five IPAs by then, which was enough to get me totally sloshed.
Amazingly, the pizza joint served beer, which I thought would go really well with all the beer I’d already had, so I ordered another beer. My behavior deteriorated. Everyone was embarrassed, and through the fog so was I, but not enough to stop drinking. Plus, the more I ate the more it would absorb the alcohol and the more sober I’d become.
Eventually I became so sober that I fell asleep on the table, reviving only when my friend and wife carried me out of the restaurant. My point here is to show that I was not at all powerless over alcohol. I was in control the entire time. That spittle coming out of the side of my mouth? That was controlled spittle, sir.
The abstinence that followed wasn’t my first brush with sobriety. The previous time I had quit drinking involved the Red Bull Tavern in Redondo Beach. I had gone there to meet two friends, one of whom was a drunk and the other of whom drank a lot. They were late so I had a beer. Beer is nothing, right? I suppose I should mention RIGHT NOW that my reaction to alcohol has always been slightly different from other people I know. I metabolize it instantly and get an immediate effect of drunkenness. It doesn’t take much and it never has.
I’ve never gone on a multi-day bender and have only rarely consumed what most people with severe Alcohol Use Disorder would consider a lot of alcohol at once. The most beer I’ve ever had in short succession is four pints, not even enough to meet the definition of a binge, which is five drinks in two hours. I’ve never had half, or even a quarter bottle of hard liquor, except for one time that a friend and I split a bottle of aquavit over dinner, with a beer and a couple of glasses of wine preceding. I vomited all of it, and dinner, over the third floor railing of his flat onto the parking lot below. The most hard core sprees I’ve ever been on have involved drinking two or two-and-a-half bottles of wine over the course of an evening, with beer or sake sprinkled in. In short, lightweight.
I say this because the last time I quit drinking, though I willingly called myself an alcoholic, my idea of an alcoholic has always been the classic one, the compulsive binger portrayed in the AA book, and the people in my own family who consumed massive quantities of alcohol over periods of days, weeks, years, lifetimes. My grandfather Jim could drink a fifth of Old Forester a day, and most days he did. My uncle Phil chose to keep drinking rather than abstain to receive the possible life-saving treatment for his esophageal cancer. I never saw my father stop drinking once he started, never heard him say “I’m good,” “That’s enough for now,” or “Maybe later.” When offered another drink, he always said “Why, thank you, don’t mind if I do!” or his favorite line, “You’re a gentleman and a scholar!”
My point is that although since my last dry spell I’ve called myself an alcoholic, and I follow everyone’s lead at AA meetings by introducing myself as “Seth, alcoholic,” deep down I haven’t believed it.
But back to the Red Bull Tavern. When my friends showed up, we had a couple of bottles of wine and steaks. I don’t know how much I drank. It wasn’t a prodigious quantity, but I could barely stand upon leaving. My one friend offered me a ride home. He was visibly concerned, but too drunk himself to force me into his car. The other friend had arrived drunk, gotten drunker, and would keep drinking at home. What happened to me was my business. In any event, I can now answer the joke “What do you call three lawyers in a bar?”
Punchline, and it’s not very funny: “Future defendants.”
The drive home was less than three miles, but I was living in PV on Via Zurita and I was terrified of getting stopped. I was shaking in terror the whole way home. When I safely parked the car I swore “Never again.” That lasted, like most of my abstinence periods, for 5 years or so, during which time I had not a drop, and didn’t even want one.
See? I wasn’t an alcoholic. I was in control. Driving completely drunk and not getting a DUI and losing my law license was proof that I had, uh, control.
The time I quit drinking before that I don’t really remember, nor the previous time. What I recall is that I always quit cold turkey and was completely fine for a period of years, at least five, often longer. And when the drinking resumed, it was always the same gradual process, never the textbook AA’er who goes instantly from one sip to massive, multi-day binge.
My alcohol habit, which to me didn’t fit the test of alcoholism, was gradual. Once I’d started drinking again I’d go months having a beer or two a week, or a couple of glasses of wine a week, and then the intervals would shorten, always over months so I knew I was in control, and then after a year, sometimes two, I’d have a regular habit: at every day’s end, never the beginning, I’d finish up with enough alcohol to be completely drunk. And it only took a relatively small amount. See? That’s not alcoholism.
It was about six months ago that I was lost on a Forest Service road. We’d been riding all day. We were destroyed. We’d had to carry our bikes over barbed wire fences and high, wooden ones more than six feet off the ground. Our GPS didn’t work and we were pretty sure we were trespassing, so running across anyone was going to be really bad.
When it seemed like we were close to where the road should have picked up again, as we were pushing our bikes in a dry creekbed, practically dying of thirst, we saw an encampment of hunters. Thirsty and not caring if we got caught, we haled them. Two guys came over, smiling. “Want a beer?” one of them said.
I know I had “Yes” written all over my face. I took it and drained it, the best beer I’ve had before or since.
We got home many hours later and I was fine. I didn’t crave a drink or even want one. But I had been behaving badly and the stress was wearing on our relationship. A few days later, I decided to have a beer and see if that made things better, and surprise, it did. For me.
But it didn’t make it better for anyone else, because I’m a mean drinker. Alcohol in my case takes what’s there already and intensifies it. I’m a mean person by nature, haughty and misanthropic, arrogant, vain, insecure, and cruel. The alcohol ratchets all those things up, and as my drinking went from a few beers a week to a beer a night to two beers every night, I realized that I was back in the trap.
But I was in control. Right? I could quit anytime, and I did. There’s a longer story here and I intend to tell it, but for now I’ll just say that I found myself in a huge family fight, and one of the only people left on earth who cares what happens to me said this: “You promised that if you ever drank again you’d go to AA.”
I nodded and stormed out, thinking “That was then, this is now, FUCK YOU.”
How I got from “Fuck you” to AA is another story, and again, it’s one I fully intend to tell, just not today. Today I want to finish with the obvious, which is that to belong in AA you have to be an alcoholic who wants to quit drinking, and to be an alcoholic according to them means that you have no control over alcohol. It doesn’t mean that the first drink leads to ten more in two hours, although it can. All it means is that once you start drinking, things eventually fall apart, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. In their words, you’re “powerless over alcohol.”
In my third AA meeting, a newcomer like me said, “Frankly, I’m still having trouble calling myself an alcoholic.” That made me wonder because her story was so typical–booze, booze, booze, all day, all the time.
“Of course you’re a fucking alcoholic,” I said to myself. And then the speaker’s words started to sink in, because I was still having trouble calling myself an alcoholic, too. But what was the difference? She drank a lot all the time and it was ruining her life, I drank a little all the time and it was ruining mine. She couldn’t stop, I couldn’t stop. She had come there because of her family, I had come there because of mine. She desperately wanted to quit and so did I. Most germane of all, we were both at a meeting of people who were all admitted alcoholics, who had experience with all kinds of alcoholism, and no one was telling us that we were okay. To the contrary, they were telling us that we weren’t.
I further thought, if I’m not an alcoholic, what am I? Someone who drinks uncontrollably in small amounts until he has destroyed everything and everyone around him? How, exactly, is that different from “alcoholic”?
Or maybe I’m someone who drinks just enough to let down my guard and show the world what a cruel, mean, and nasty sonofabitch that I am? Hasn’t that made my life completely ruinous? And isn’t that the second part of the AA definition of an alcoholic, having no power over alcohol such that life becomes unmanageable?
The only escape hatch left is that “I’m just an asshole, sober or drunk.” Unfortunately, being an asshole is completely compatible with, and almost always exacerbated by, being an alcoholic. Same thing, by the way, for being a narcissist, a sociopath, or what in the good old days was called “crazier than a shithouse rat.” Alcoholism pairs well with each of these noxious flavors, and is mutually exclusive with none.
But what does “alcoholic” really mean?
When AA started in the 1930’s, it broke new ground by identifying alcoholism as a medical condition rather than a moral defect or a failing of willpower, beginning the decades-long process of making alcoholism less stigmatized, and making it socially acceptable to seek treatment. Yet at its core, AA identifies alcoholism as a deep personal failing, and more importantly, requires drinkers to accept that they are in a sense helpless and hopeless sinners when it comes to drink. Indeed, AA is clear that the people for whom their program won’t work are those incapable of rigorous honesty. Salvation for sufferers lies in following the steps, in honesty, and giving themselves up to a god.
That’s one reason sitting in a meeting and introducing yourself as an alcoholic feels strange. It’s hard to imagine a group of cancer survivors going around the room and grimly saying, “Jim, cancer patient,” with other patients sometimes catcalling and saying “Yeah, you are!”
It’s also hard to imagine a group of people with lung cancer taking turns as they recount their first cigarette or their first exposure to asbestos, and ruefully talking about how many packs a day they smoked or how many ship boilers they worked on. But in AA, the meeting’s core activity is to talk about what you were like before AA, what happened, and how you are now. This ever-changing narrative is almost always described in painful terms of terrible human failing, and the awful consequences to oneself, loved ones, friends, and society.
In short, AA may begin with the premise that you are in the grips of a disease, but this particular disease has distinct moral qualities, and the only way to cure yourself is to focus on “defects of character,” which you exhort a god to remove, and which you publicize to others. It wouldn’t make any sense if you told someone with lung cancer that his cure lay in telling everyone about stealing cigarettes from mom’s purse and then making amends, but somehow with alcoholism, people act as if it does.
Nor do people simply act as if it works. For a whole lot of people, AA puts their drinking into permanent remission. There is much scientific argument about AA’s true success rate, but everyone agrees that its methods work for many, and if you go to enough meetings no degree of cynicism can overcome the reality that the process has helped a lot of people either control or completely abstain from incredibly destructive behavior. One study has even quantified it, showing that attending 27 or more meetings your first year is correlated with a high degree of sobriety.
In a way, AA makes it hard to get to its own first step by using the word “alcoholism,” which is not a medical term anymore. Current science calls it Alcohol Use Disorder, and like most disorders it occurs on a spectrum from mild to moderate to severe. Crucially, Alcohol Use Disorder is free from pejorative connotations, blame, or moral judgment of any kind. “I’m Seth and I have a moderate case of Alcohol Use Disorder” is a lot easier to say than “Seth, alcoholic.”
It’s easier to say because if alcoholic means someone with absolutely no power over alcohol, I’m probably not that guy. True, it gets worse with time and eventually becomes uncontrollable, but you can’t say I’m powerless when it’s gradual. The idea of being powerless over alcohol is problematic for other reasons, primarily because if you have no power over alcohol, how is abstinence even possible to begin with unless you posit that a benign god will direct your actions every waking second. If this is the case, why go to AA at all? Won’t the benign god eventually take care of you? Or is it a benign god that only works through AA?
If AA shows anything, it’s that people have great power over their addictions, and that despite relapses it’s possible to enter complete remission with regard to Alcohol Use Disorder. What AA doesn’t show, or try to show, is that alcoholism is susceptible of cure. Their stance is that alcoholism is a permanent disease that can only be managed through abstinence, despite no medical evidence of any kind that this is true, and despite overwhelming evidence that it can be managed for many people through a variety of interventions and that it’s a disorder on a spectrum, not a physico-moral infection incapable of cure.
Yet you can quibble over numbers and success rates and measures of remission, but for a lot of people AA works. And it begins with a kind of abasement, a prostration of the self and the will to the demon alcohol such that we admit we are powerless even though we clearly are not.
This is no different from many of the deceptions we buy into when we make decisions with terrifying consequences. For many, abstinence is the only thing between them and death. People who charge a beach, leap out of a trench, run into a burning house, submit to high-risk surgery, or give up everything they have to be smuggled over the border in the back of truck have to tell themselves that what they’re going to is better, even when it often is not. And people who try to succeed in a harsh system, be it prison, the gulag, an exploitative factory, the corporate ladder, or life at a large law firm, must, like the alcoholic at AA, recognize that at some level they are powerless in the face of some external threat, be it hunger, homelessness, or death–in order to adapt to the system, accept its regimen, and “work the steps.”
The difference is that working the steps in prison means not getting beaten to death or spending your life in solitary, whereas working the steps at AA means you radically increase your chances of a better, more sober life.
It’s wise if you’re going to enter an institution, formal or informal, to give yourself up to its tenets. The institution will change you, not the other way around. That’s the definition of “institution.”
Humiliation or recognition?
One reason it’s humiliating to call yourself an alcoholic is because of the word’s moral associations, and because it is connected with drinking run amok. At AA, these are precisely the things that have to be addressed if you’re going to recover. And while it seems like calling yourself a bad name is needless denigration, for a lot of people it really is “the first step” because it’s the point at which they admit they have a problem.
Unlike cancer patients, who quickly accept their diagnosis, people with Alcohol Use Disorder may deny the condition until it kills them. Organic diseases often carry with them their own indisputable effect on the functioning of our minds and bodies, but alcohol is almost unique in that many times even its most extreme abuse is accompanied by a complete unwillingness to admit that there’s even anything wrong.
With alcohol, it’s a case of “to begin at the beginning, you first have to begin.” And as one AA member said, she went from humiliation at having to get treated for her problem to self-confident at having recognized the problem, accepted the problem, and sought treatment. “There’s no shame in addressing what’s wrong and trying to get better.”
Another member added that seeking help is a source of strength, whereas hiding your head in shame isn’t. As every person with a bad drinking problem knows, the anonymity of alcoholism is largely fictional anyway because few things are as public, obvious, and noted by those around you as drunkenness, its consequences, and its casualties. Just because you think no one notices how much you swill doesn’t mean they don’t notice, and for the people who end up at AA due to a plea deal or the ultimatums of families/friends/employers, far from being anonymous, your alcoholism is often a matter of public judicial record.
Whether you call it Alcohol Use Disorder or alcoholism or simply “I drinks a bit,” AA nails it when they say that recovery begins with some sort of recognition that you’re in over your head, you can’t handle this by yourself, and would somebody please help?
At its root the humiliation of calling yourself a drunk is less the social stigma and more the insult of telling yourself truths you’d rather avoid. This isn’t to say that lots of people have found success with a different approach, or that AA works for everyone, or that ‘fessing up to your powerlessness is some kind of forced denigration that all must go through. It’s simply to say that regardless of how you get started, dealing with the “cunning and baffling” qualities of alcohol means you’ve got to honestly appraise where you stand versus where you wish you were standing, followed by an equally honest assessment of whether your approach has worked, is working, or has any prospect of working. For AA that process is simple, close to what one member called an oxymoron: you can’t fix the problem unless you admit that you have it. Duh.
I know a guy who has been in AA for decades, and many years ago he was the first person I’d ever heard describe the process of going from classic alcoholism to complete sobriety. The last time I quit drinking he had said to me, “Frankly, I never thought your drinking problem was that bad.” His words stayed with me all these years, comforting me that whatever my problem was, it wasn’t alcoholism. However, in retrospect, I misheard him, likely intentionally. He didn’t say “Your alcoholism wasn’t that bad.” He said “your drinking problem.” As time has passed, I’ve realized that even though you’re an alcoholic, your Alcohol Use Disorder admits of degrees. Some alcoholics are starving and homeless, some incarcerated, some institutionalized, whereas others may “simply” be miserable people who nonetheless have hearth, home, food, and family in some greater or lesser degree. Others still may have their disorder in check for the nonce, with dimmer and grimmer prospects as time goes by. And of course there’s the AA message, which is that you can be an alcoholic and stone cold happily sober.
A fella can dream.
December 1, 2022 Comments Off on The 0th Step
Alcoholics Anonymous is a recovery program with twelve steps, plus one if you include the “Thirteenth Step” … google it. Each step (except that one) forms an integral part of the program, and although participants are supposed to logically progress from one step to the next, in practice they never do, and as AA continually reminds you, “Take what you need, leave the rest.”
But what about not being able to even take the First Step? Doesn’t that leave you with a scenario in which you’re “Taking nothing, leaving everything”? And if so, why bother going?
AA’s First Step is to admit your powerlessness over alcohol and to admit that as a result of this condition your life has become unmanageable. This is for sure a step I’ve been unable to take, despite lots of evidence to the contrary, and like many people who founder on AA’s program in the first days, weeks, or years, this core idea of one’s alcoholism is inordinately hard to accept, regardless of how often we notice the correlation between booze and catastrophe, get told that we have a problem, or repeat the mandatory AA daily self-introduction: “Seth, alcoholic.”
Getting to that first step is hard because there’s so little discussion about what comes before it, which is what I call the 0th Step. In short, the 0th Step is the one where you a) step into a meeting and b) recognize that it is a meeting for people with a drinking problem. Seems simple and rather obvious, but it’s not.
A couple of weeks ago I was talking to a guy who had left one career in search of another. The first and second careers were totally unrelated and he had zero training in the new field, an endeavor that requires highly specialized training and education. He had begun studying on his own, and after a year realized that he was going to need formal training, so he left his secure but unsatisfying job, despite the financial pressures of quitting, in order to get the schooling he needed.
His self-study had given him a leg up, and his earlier career had given him people skills that are sorely lacking in the IT field, and after a couple of months at school, and the relentless submission of job applications, he lined up a series of five interviews. One of those became a job offer, but due to his thin qualifications, the job and pay that were offered were different from the job he’d applied for. Regretfully, he declined.
Rather than being demoralized about the results, he simply redoubled his efforts with the conviction that the right job would come. My guess is that it will. But regardless, he has ascended beyond the 0th Step. That was the step where he realized that his current job sucked and that however hard it was going to be, he wanted to do something different.
In that vein, we talked about the true size of the applicant pool he’d beaten out for those interviews, because it was vaster than the many people who sent in resumes. The true applicant pool comprised the people who never even applied, and even more significantly, the people who wanted to get into IT just like he did, but had never so much as cracked a book. In other words, the 0th Step, as daunting as it seems when you’re there with your foot on the threshold, already means you’ve taken a stride far broader and more purposeful than the countless people who have never graduated beyond wishful thinking.
I’ve experienced it in my own life in other areas, like the time I failed the California Bar Exam. It was crushing, to say nothing of the shame I felt at having let my family down. Of course, I gathered my strength, took the test again, and passed on the second try, and though my sense of failure wouldn’t let me consider it at the time, simply failing the exam meant I had gone way past the 0th Step. That step involved deciding that I wanted to go to law school in the first place such that I was willing to study and pay for the LSAT, to say nothing of actually getting into and out of law school. It’s the conviction that you want to do the thing even though you don’t know what it entails that is at the heart of every 0th Step, whether a job, a relationship, an investment of time, the purchase of a bicycle to get fitter, or the decision to have a family. It’s an endless list.
Circling back to AA, there are many people including me who may feel like they don’t belong, or that the program is a bad fit, or that they’re destined to fail because they can’t even take the VERY FIRST STEP.
I’d argue that if you’re at an AA meeting, you already have.
November 28, 2022 Comments Off on Have you ever had to deal with someone like yourself?
I was listening to a guy in AA talk about his relapse, how he was sitting in a park with a fifth of whiskey watching the sun go down. He’s a manager and spends a lot of his time dealing with employee problems. As he sat there he was pretty despondent. His long (for him) period of sobriety was down the drain, and now he was getting quietly stoned with no other purpose than oblivion.
He got to thinking about a confrontation he’d had with an employee earlier that week. The employee refused to admit he’d done anything wrong, or that he ever did anything wrong, and instead foisted all the difficulties off on management, other workers, the nature of the job, you name it. Towards the end of the fifteen-minute interview, which was going to end in either termination or another chance, the manager guy pulled out what he called his “nuclear weapon.”
“I always save this for the last, and only for the worst employees. You’d be amazed at how often it works. After going back and forth and both of us being totally exasperated with the other, I looked at this guy and said, ‘Tell me something. Have you ever had to deal with someone like yourself?’
“The guy looked at his feet as it sunk in, and finally, pretty shit-facedly, he said, honestly, ‘No.’ So I told him to think about that and I’d give him another chance. And you know what? It worked out.
“So here I was, getting bombed in the park, and I dropped the nuclear bomb on myself. ‘Have you ever had to deal with someone like yourself?’ Frankly, I hadn’t. And if I ever did run across anyone like myself, I have no idea what I’d do, how I’d handle it. That gave me real insight. Start looking at myself as someone I’d have to deal with, and then see if that changes my approach. It does. It kind of works.”
After he finished speaking, I thought long and hard. I’ve never had to deal with someone like myself. I’ve never even known anyone like myself, by which I mean so perverse, so angry, so ready to lash out, so unreflective, so wholly inconsiderate of how others feel, so completely indifferent to how my actions affect others, so fully ensconced in meeting my own whims to the exclusion of everyone else’s needs … and if I ever ran into someone even vaguely like myself, what in the world would I do?
Fate, as they say, provided an interlocutory answer.
I had come to a hill, three hours into an arduous ride during which time I’d minded my own business and no one else’s. I hadn’t looked at the smattering of other cyclists when they passed or were going in the other direction, save to note that they were in fact on bikes.
At the bottom of the hill a rider flew down in the opposite direction, and as I began going up I heard the sound of whooshing wheels and of pedals pushing a fast-moving chain over gear teeth. “Ah, he’s doing intervals,” I thought.
Suddenly his speed dropped to almost nothing and the rider pulled up next to me with his front wheel even with my pedals so that he could see me but I couldn’t see him without turning my head. “Obviously someone who knows me,” I concluded. “I’m supposed to look back now and make eye contact.”
But I didn’t. I kept my slow pace and so did he for ten or fifteen seconds, which is a lot longer than it sounds until you realize you’re being stalked. Finally, he pulled up almost even to me and I glanced out of the corner of my eye.
It was someone I knew, all right, and his face was twisted with rage. I steeled myself for the onslaught, expecting a torrent of profanity or a slew of insults. Instead of either, enraged almost to the point that he couldn’t speak, he yelled “Why haven’t you been answering my texts?” I hit my rear brake, and made a hard left up a side street. “Have a great day, dude!” he sneered.
My heart was pounding because this guy was me. Angry, explosive, thrilled to have cornered his prey, and relishing the slaughter. A couple of weeks ago it would have ended badly; at the very least it would have ended worse than it did.
But as Pogo used to say, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” It took a wholly new mindset to use my newfound wisdom and simply walk away, though technically I was riding. The ability to recognize your own worst traits in someone else, and then do something different from what you’re expected to do when all your buttons have been pushed, isn’t easy, but then again, nothing worthwhile ever is.
November 26, 2022 Comments Off on The crazy look
I was listening to a guy in AA talk about the crazy look. “You know what I’m talking about,” he said. “You’ll say something or do something and people will stare at you for a second, maybe they’ll blink their eyes like ‘Did he just say that?’ and then they’ll be looking at you like you are completely fucking crazy. Well, I’ve learned something about that look,” he concluded. “It means you’re acting crazy.”
I pondered that for the rest of the meeting, thinking about all the things I’ve written and said and done, and how often people have stared at me in disbelief. I’ve always interpreted that stare to mean “You’re amazing,” or “You’re brilliant,” or “That’s so funny,” or “Wow, I wish I could be like you,” but upon reflection it was none of those things. They were looking at me like I was completely crazy because I had done something that was, well, completely crazy.
After considering this revelation I resolved to start paying attention to the crazy look and using it as a cue. “Maybe if someone is looking at me like I’m crazy, I should stop doing what I’m doing and see if they stop looking at me that way.”
Down at the supermarket we have the awful self-check scanners, you know, those things they put in to 1) lay off employees 2) increase profits and 3) make you do the work you thought you were paying someone else to do.
I hate them because I hate machines and computers and because I hate doing what I’m paying someone else to do and most especially because the little machine always tells me I’m doing it wrong. Replace the item. Bag the item. Take the item off the scanner. Confirm the quantity. Re-weigh the item. Key in your number. Don’t remove your card. Insert your card. Nor am I the only idiot; they have one full-time person whose job it is to manage us idiots, which is of course lots cheaper than manning six checkout lanes.
One of the Idiot Managers is named Samuel. He hates us and I think we hate him. When we get stuck on the machine he walks over and begins giving us instructions as if we’re kindergartners, although no kindergartner would be as inept as I am on this thing. To make it worse, his voice is fake friendly and he never explains anything. Instead of saying “Hey, dumbshit, you have to press the start button first to get the thing to work,” he says “Remove your items from the scanner,” and then when you fumble trying to make the thing work, he repeats it again, just like the machine, and he won’t get to the next step until you’ve done exactly as he instructs.
He is relentless and merciless and no matter how many times you’ve been there he never says, “Hey, moron! Back for some more grief?” No, he’s always friendly-hateful and he beats you down until you have obeyed his every step. When the process finishes, Samuel, who has been standing behind you the whole time, walks away to the next poor soul. “Have a nice day,” he says, which means “You are very stupid and we both know it especially those people next to you who scanned 50 items and a small cow in the time it took you to buy a coke.”
Yesterday, though, my head was still swimming from the Thanksgiving traditions of grief, conflict, abuse, sorrow, and rage, especially rage. I had told myself that my only goal at the supermarket was to get in and out without getting angry, and there I was, locked in a lost and hopeless battle with Samuel. As he said, “Remove your items from the scanner,” for the fourth time, I put up my hands, which were shaking.
“I can’t do this,” I said, and walked out. The saddest part of it was that in addition to my onion, bottle of shampoo, and bell pepper, I’d also left one of my greatest personal treasures, a purple shopping bag from the 99-cent store that I’d found on the side of the highway on a bike ride, adopted, and brought home to raise as my own.
As I held up my shaking hands, out of the corner of my eye I saw Samuel, and you know what he was doing? He was looking at me like I was crazy. And although I continued on out the store, I learned a very valuable lesson when he gave me that look, and I employed it the following day when I returned to re-purchase the onion and the bell pepper and the shampoo: I used the checkout lane, which had a smiling lady at the register and a pleasant older fellow in front of me chatting about something pleasant. The sacker even asked me about my Thanksgiving and happily told me about spending the day with his family.
I wished him a happy holiday season and New Year, and the smiling checker handed me my receipt.
No one looked at me like I was crazy.
November 19, 2022 Comments Off on Yulogy
I was thinking about Joe on my way home from my second AA meeting this morning, a place I refer to as “Church for Drunks.” AA might have helped him; dog knows he had a drinking problem. I was also thinking about the multitude of ways he had inspired me and wish that I’d been able to connect with and inspire him. That’s the thing about death, it makes you think about life. And I suppose vice versa.
In that vein, I wondered about Joe’s life and how to represent it?
The general method is to put together as many kind phrases as you can, omit the bad truths, and speak to your own hopes and fears about the future. I’m not sure that does the dead justice. I’m sure it doesn’t do justice to Joe Yule. If you can’t talk boldly about how someone died, how can you talk at all about how they lived?
When Joe headed out the exit door, he left a one-word note, economical with words to the very last: “Sorry.”
The easy conclusion, and the narrative that got pushed, was that Joe was clinically depressed, and somehow this darkness brought about his demise. It may be true, but I never saw it. In fact, I never saw anyone more typically in good spirits than Joe. I saw some very hard drinking, maybe there were other things as well. Whether it was alcoholism, drugs, clinical depression, or some combination, or something else entirely, makes little difference. In the end, he succumbed to a disease of the mind. In the end, no one could help him. And in the end, he left a lot of sadness and a lot of loss.
This is hardly how he should be remembered. The demons should be acknowledged, but Joe deserves to be remembered for his success. It’s not just a matter of the tired old trope “that’s what he would have wanted,” it’s a matter of how he actually lived. His successes, great though they were, are less important than the fact that he lived life successfully. He decided what mattered, hewed to it with little or no compromise, and called it quits when, in his mind, it was quittin’ time. Success isn’t monuments or bank accounts or lines in Wikipedia. Success isn’t a point in time. Success is a process.
From my vantage point, Joe was always succeeding, no matter the setbacks. He claimed his life as his, delegated it to no one else, lived and died accordingly.
When I met Joe in 2006, I didn’t even know that I’d met him. It was a remote introduction, so to speak. I had just moved to California, and the lawyer I was working for had just purchased the building in San Pedro that Joe had sold as part of his divorce. It may not mean anything to you, but the interior of the building was so unique, so beautiful, so elegant, so tasteful, so open, so relaxing, and so quiet that the new owner changed absolutely nothing aside from hanging a couple of new pictures. Even the posters in the bathroom were left as-is.
This was one of at least two offices Joe put together that I had the pleasure of being in. The other was on Catalina, when, at the height of his design business, he had rented office space. This small office too was exceptional beyond words. It was as if a design fairy had flown in the window, waved her magic wand, and left the interior so cozy and welcoming that you never wanted to leave. It’s easy to say that things ooze taste, but his spaces, whether personal or business, did.
Joe had that sensibility, the sensibility of real taste. Not the affected adoption of modes and images in order to impress others, but an innate vision of the external world that screened out the sharp edges, the odd, the awkward, and the ugly, and spit back a refined image of how things should look and, if you followed his fucking advice, would look.
In this attitude resided Joe’s vanity, a vanity born of having had what he always described to me as a rough childhood. His belief that in the design world everyone else was off the back, and in Joe’s case, having the sensibility to back up his own talent, was always an integral part of his outlook when it came to his field of graphic design. As he liked to say, “My goal in kit designs is to beautify the roadways.” He succeeded, wildly.
Joe was a first-rate bike rider, despite his legendary falls. I actually nicknamed him “Junkyard” because he had so much metal in him, the result of so many surgeries. His worst recent crash, about ten years ago, occurred as he rode to Telo along Lomita. There is a short section overhung by trees, and the sudden darkness makes it hard to see the road, which had a brick up against the curb. Everyone saw it but Joe, who fell and horribly broke his elbow.
He recovered of course, but the fall wasn’t an accident. For years Joe had refused to wear prescription glasses in public, and had refused to buy the thick prescription sunglasses that would have prevented this and other falls. He fell that particular day, as he later admitted to me, because though he might have terrible vision, but he couldn’t bring himself (yet) to wear glasses. Joe cared how things looked, and Joe cared how Joe looked, but he didn’t ever blame that fall or any other misfortune on anyone but himself. He had a kind of total responsibility for his life in that way. Who doesn’t want that success?
Joe worked incredibly hard to succeed, just as he worked hard to be perceived as successful, yet he never talked about money or even seemed to be impressed by, or in search of it. Joe always drove a nice car, dressed impeccably, and rode the nicest bike. If there was ever any desperation in Joe’s life, you had to know him intimately to see it. Few of us did; he owned a hip cottage just a stone’s throw from the beach and exuded confidence in what he had done and where he was going.
The worst medical issues, the direst financial problems, the toughest break-ups, he bore them all stoically and with good cheer. If you were looking for a depressed shut-in or for someone who took life on the chin, it wasn’t Joe, though he had every right to be. The son of a firefighter who Joe told me had beaten him throughout his childhood, Joe used to ruefully, though also somewhat proudly, tell of the time that rebellion against his dad began when he started a forest fire. Now that’s the Joe I could relate to.
I could relate because he had the tenacity and fight of an abused kid who somehow made it through the flames of childhood to actuate his dual loves of cycling and art. He graduated from Denver’s most prestigious art school and at a fairly early date moved to California. Joe didn’t become the kit design icon until the early 2010’s, when his designs for Cynergy and Ironfly, and his legendary Donut Ride kit made big waves. From that point on, everyone wanted a Joe Yule kit. Turning down work was just as big a part of his job as accepting new projects.
Before that, however, he was an accomplished bike racer. I’m not sure if he ever won a race, but the reality about cycling is that if you’re racing against your peers, you rarely if ever do. When I met Joe, he was a fixture and a force on the Donut and on the Sunday ride up PCH to climb the canyons. He was never first, but he was always in the front, and what speaks more to his character, he never shirked.
Many a time we’d be drilling it home on PCH with only two or three people willing to take a pull. When Joe’s turn came, he always hit the front hard and gave it his all to keep the pace, even if it meant getting shelled when he couldn’t latch back on. I respected that so much more than the people who were content to sit and let others do the work.
Joe exhibited that same approach on NPR, a ride he did up until the last few years of his life, and a ride he helped start in the early 1980’s when it left from Hermosa Pier and was simply called “The Pier Ride.” Joe was no sprinter but he knew that real bike racers ride their strengths as well as their weaknesses. He took more hard pulls on NPR than anyone that I ever saw, the more impressive due to his climber’s build. When it came to descending, Joe was extraordinarily good. I never, ever came close to following his downhill line or holding his wheel on a descent.
Whether it was his Colorado background or, more likely, his decades spent memorizing every twist of every LA canyon, he went downhill like no one else. He was without fear and couldn’t be beat on the technical descents.
As a bike racer he believed that if you’re going to prance around in race kits and ride a nice bike, you should pin on a fucking number. Into his late 50’s Joe could occasionally be seen, not especially fit, toeing the line at the local CBR crit or at Telo. I respected his commitment to bike racing and his willingness to race even when it was going to hurt like and hell and there was no possibility, none, of a good outcome.
Joe’s ethos meant that he knew what few do, the joy of what it looks like from the front. He reveled in it and gave it up only at the very, very end.
This attitude, his consistency, his ability, his willingness to train, his good looks, and his affable nature all came together with his breakout kit designs to make him a leader. In a few short years Joe began designing for the World Tour through Jonathan Vaughters’s Garmin-Chipotle team, and I’m not sure anyone ever understood what that meant to Joe.
It wasn’t simply the big time, or even the biggest time. Vaughters is obsessed with fashion, looks, and design. His own clothing reminds me of fashion plates like the Duke of Windsor or Tom Wolfe, eccentric, daring, bizarre, sometimes miraculously good, other times not so much. For Joe to have the approval of such a design-sensitive boss at the World Tour level was the ultimate mark of success in his field.
And Joe was ahead of the design times. He pushed the concept of complete design integration, matching everything from helmet, clothes, gloves, socks, frames, even bar tape. The World Tour started looking different after Joe began working with Garmin, and his relationship lasted for years.
Domestically, everyone took notice. People copied his designs and more importantly they copied his simplicity. Slapping ten fonts and twelve sponsors in seven colors on a jersey was out, and has stayed out. Like aping Columbus’s sail to the west, once people saw how kit design could look and should look, it was easily copied. But having the sense to create and innovate, well, that’s why we remember Columbus instead of Vespucci.
It’s easier to understand his gifts when you know how magnificent he was as an artist. His sketching was unparalleled, his drawing magnificent, his typography stunning, and his light touch with colors were all hallmarks of a life dedicated to beauty and interpretation of beauty. He often moved slowly, but his strokes were so deliberate, so well considered, that it was always, always, always worth the wait.
If Joe was an innovator in design, he was a leader of the cycling community as well. Joe was the person who first set up shop at the Manhattan Beach Starbucks, after which it was reverentially called the Center of the Known Universe. People were attracted to Joe because he was funny, ironic, understated, a remnant of the Golden Age of Cycling in the US, wise, unimpressed, always willing to listen to your bullshit, never mean or gratuitously cruel, had a very clear idea of his Old Guy Riding a Bike status, and happy to help make you look good. With Joe around, you felt successful. If anyone invented cycling in the South Bay, it was Joe. Everyone else, me included, simply copied badly. And by the time we started copying, he’d already moved on. He knew what success felt like and preferred new challenges to old laurels.
No one laughed harder at Joe than Joe himself. His last few years in LA he formed “Team Big Banana” with the slogan “Stay moist!” It was a casual ride that went off on various days, and which was usually accompanied by a hilarious e-poster invitation, sometimes with ridiculous people dressed as bananas, always with a quirky phrase or slogan to let you know that he was serious, but please, please, don’t take this too seriously. His kit designs for Big Banana were classic Joe: striking in their understatement. His Friday coffee rides were the highlight of the week for many, and however casual the faux club, there were plenty of 100-mile days up and down PCH to test your legs. To see people happily following him as if he were the Pied Piper, dressed in his designs and looking way better than they deserved, you had to acknowledge his success with people and the energy he got from being around his friends.
Which brings up that other facet of Joe’s personality: he was fascinated with the appearance of success and having money, but cared relatively little about either. Everyone who ever worked with Joe, especially his business partners, eventually threw up their hands in frustration because of his allergic reaction to deadlines and because, more importantly, he was stubborn about letting clients get too involved in the design process. He took your input, never your direction. So many people never got their hands on a Joe Yule design because if he sensed you were too much of a meddler, you never heard from him again.
Joe’s attitude to design was that he knew best and if you interfered too much, you’d simply never get your design, ever. Joe was an artist and had huge issues with selling his work and with letting other people unduly influence it. I always had great working relationships with Joe because I told him generally what I wanted, and he did the rest. And the funny thing was, he rarely sent a bill no matter how often you’d hound him for one. I’d always have to ultimately ask him the price and send him a check, and I think many people knew that about him and took advantage of it. These things, the very characteristics that made him so good, hurt Joe’s business and kept him in a perpetual financial squeeze.
This was part of his spiral: less work, so less money, so less work. By the time he died, he had mostly run out of clients, and, typical Joe, he wasn’t about to ask for help. He took responsibility for his affairs in the most brutal way. He hung himself because he couldn’t scrounge up the $100 he owed for back rent.
Of course, what Joe needed wasn’t more admiration and more money, though he would have survived with both. What he needed was therapy second, and a way to quit drinking first. AA might have helped, and for all I know he tried it. It’s hard, though, to imagine Joe entrusting anything to a “higher power” or submitting himself to a god in whom he didn’t believe. Joe made a living out of what he believed in, and he didn’t see fit to change things up at the end. In a way he reminds me of Christopher Hitchens, dying of cancer, and just as much an atheist facing death as he had been facing life. When the process is a success, the outcome is nothing more than a footnote.
People flocked to Joe because he was lovable, funny, brilliant, a curmudgeon. Known for his design skills, I’ve never heard anyone praise his writing, but some of the funniest things I’ve ever read were in emails from Joe. He was scathing, scalding, witty beyond belief, well read, and surgical with the pen. He carried this wit to so many of his kit designs. The back of his Donut Ride jersey had a pocket that said, “Officer Knox Foundation,” a crack at the jackass deputy who made a career of ticketing cyclists on the hill. Joe was funny, funny, and then funny some more. The harder you looked at anything he did, the more you appreciated his keen sense of humor and his irony.
People loved Joe because he didn’t play the victim. Bad shit happened and he usually chalked it up to his own boneheadedness, like refusing to wear prescription glasses on his bike. And they loved him because he didn’t make a career out of attacking and tearing down others. He might have thought your kit design was ugly and you should have your Photoshop confiscated, but he never said it, certainly not in public.
When things had really gone to shit, Joe shocked everyone by deciding to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, backwards, at the end of summer. It ended predictably, with a friend picking him up and helping coordinate his final removal to Colorado with nothing left except a few possessions, a rental car, and a U-Haul.
Joe dug a deep hole and the only person who could have ever dug him out was Joe. If I’m sure of anything, it’s that Joe’s mother, siblings, and family loved him deeply and did everything that they could to help him deal with his ailments. Though Joe never asked for help, he was the recipient of it from many people. No friend was ever truer, was ever more of a friend in need, than Gus Bayle. And people like Bob, Michelle, and others did what they could, if not to dig him out of the hole, at least to unstintingly give him enough shovels to start a digging museum. As tellingly, Joe’s circle was so large that there were countless others who would have come if called. Waiting for Joe to call, though, was a bit like waiting for him to ask your help designing a logo. You were in for a long, long wait.
This candle had a large dose of self-respect and lived by its own drumbeat. The bright light he shined on us was intense and brief, and now that it’s out, it’s out forever. We can learn from the light that was, and love Joe for what he really did, how he really lived, and for the success he left behind. We must.
November 16, 2022 Comments Off on Wiggins loses knighthood, demoted to “Dude”
Bradley Wiggins, winner of the 2012 Tour de France and the most decorated Olympian in British history, was stripped of his knighthood this past Tuesday and demoted from “Sir” to “Dude.”
Dude Wiggins, whose financial woes have resulted in claims by creditors in excess of $1M, lost his title after the new policy of “Peerage Review” was instituted in October by neo-monarch King Charles. According to the Royal Office, “His Majesty no longer wishes to reward bone-idle wankers, and has begun a process whereby titles and assorted flimflam will be purged from the rolls when a recipient behaves egregiously for an Englishman, which sets the bar quite high.”
Dude Wiggins, as he is now officially known, was circumspect. “My cycling career, you know, I could give a shit. The gold medals were pawned for beer way back when. No one believes I won the Tour clean, not even me. My real calling is social work. That’s where I can make a difference. And how are you gonna help some kid in the projects if he’s always having to call you ‘Sir’? ‘Dude’ is way more practical. It’s what people call me anyway.”
Sir Mick Jagger and Sir Elton John could not be reached for comment, but their spokespersons reported they were “laying low for a while.”
November 15, 2022 Comments Off on Welcome back, Kotter
Kristie and I went for our first ride together in the South Bay since I don’t know when. We had just turned off PV Drive onto Via Anita when we heard voices behind us.
Via Anita is a little steep and if you bear left, which we did, it’s a little steeper. The voices behind us trailed off as they chose to continue the flatter, easier way, and we peeled off to the climbier juncture with Via La Selva. It was nice, just the two of us pedaling slowly along.
After a bit we saw the riders ahead of us who had taken the shortcut. There is the smallest of inclines and they were going even slower than we were, if such a thing was possible, but it was, so we passed by.
Now here are three facts: 1) cyclists hate getting passed. 2) cyclists hate getting passed by a guy in wool pants, sneakers, and a raggedy beard. 3) cyclists really hate getting passed by a skinny chick in tennies and Lulu’s. 4) cyclists are basically dicks.
Okay, that’s four, but you get the point.
The gaggle must have felt silly in their expensive fat suits and pro bicycles, because they pushed hard to catch us, but since they were already on the limit going slower than a broken bus, it wasn’t going to happen, especially since there is a steep little pitch that their combined assets weren’t getting over without a winch.
So they did what wankers everywhere do, which is take the shortcut and try to head us off at the pass. That failed, and they found themselves chasing hard on Via Campesina leading up to the golf club as Kristie and I gaily chatted. We had completely forgotten about them until we heard the telltale wheezing of ancient duffers making a last stand on Flog Hill, where Kristie happens to hold the QOM out of about 25,000+ attempts by other riders. We looked at each other. “Really?” our eyes said.
As we crested the top, Duffer No. 1 answered with an emphatic lunge, pulling Wank Move No. 2, which is sit and gag to the top then lunge and hammer on the downhill. One by one they passed us, heads down, assets in the air, and downhill victory pretty much strewn all over the pavement like a blown diaper. Last in the straggle gaggle was a lady I’ll call Ms. Nose on Stem, because she was so pinned matching our snail’s pace, then having to catch her speedy slug-buddies that she couldn’t even raise her eyeballs in their sockets, which was a problem because this road that she rides multiple times a week has a giant chughole that’s big enough to swallow small children, and with her head drooping and assets swaying she rode straight into it with a “Wham!” heard ’round the world, or at least ’round the peninsula, or at least to us it was loud enough to sound like carbon being detonated by dynamite.
Caught unawares by her own unawareness she wobbled just in time for her front tire to go “Kapow!’ as the whole bike shimmied like a 15-lb. toy being manhandled by a 175-lb. blind child, causing her to pull the pro biker move of slamming on the brakes. In front of Kristie. Who shouted, “Hey! Don’t slam on your brakes!” To which she yelled back, “Fuck you, bitch! I got a flat!”
You know, like they do in the Tour.
Mutual fuck yous were exchanged all around and we continued on as Battleship Nishiki, listing badly to starboard, ran slowly aground on the side of the road.
So nice to be back. I bet it’s going to be nothing but hugs and lullabies from here on out.
November 9, 2022 Comments Off on A little foray
My trip to Mexico and parts south didn’t happen, but I did enjoy a marvelous 7-day pedal from the sierras down to LA and San Diego counties.
The first day was easy-hard, a 45-mile hilly pedal from Wofford Heights to Lake Isabella, then along the Kern River until the twisting, narrow, 13-mile descent through the canyon to the outskirts of Bakersfield. The hills are rolling and far from difficult, but the drop down the canyon is teeth-gritting as the road is extremely narrow with little to no passing room. Traffic was light and there were no close calls, so it went by beautifully.
Camping at Lake Ming was great. I got the best site in the campground, parked under a massive spreading tree that made my tent look like a speck. The campground was mostly empty and the sunset on the river shimmered and hung in the air for what seemed like hours. I sat on the river bank and marveled.
The next day, a 40-mile, utterly flat ride to Buena Vista Lake, was easy and relaxing and pleasant. My route followed the Bakersfield bike path such that I was on streets for less than ten minutes the entire day. The police have “cleaned up” the encampment of unhoused people along the dry riverbed. I got to watch a special police crew in a 4-wheeler harass and shake down an old man and woman, the last remnants of what had been a very big community. It’s so funny that the “cleaned up” river is still an empty waterway, drained by the insatiable thirst of the Central Valley as it cultivates items that man cannot live without, such as almonds, which take about 1.1 gallons of water to produce each nut. With 8% of California’s total agricultural water supply devoted to these life-sustaining nuts, it’s well worth it, and so much more important than living space for free people.
Lake Buena Vista was also mostly empty, a testament to the wisdom of traveling through the Central Valley on a weekday in late October, when temperatures are bearable and people are doing something else. My neighbors were a family living in their RV. The teenage son sat in a folding chair, bored beyond belief, playing with a remote-controlled car.
Day Three was going to be one of two character builders. At just around 40 miles it wasn’t long, but it was uphill all the way from Taft to Maricopa, and from there it was really uphill as you have to cross over from Kern into San Luis Obispo County, then slog the last four miles up a broken rode to Ballinger Canyon Campground. I was nearly out of water and a nice guy gave me a bottle as his buddy regaled me with the story of the time he and a gal rode their mountain bikes for fifteen miles and how it almost killed them. “I was better looking than you,” he added, setting the bar as low as humanly possible.
At the campground I fell in with a group of dirt bike riders, some of the nicest people I’ve ever met on any tour. They fed me, gave me plenty to drink, and offered up the warmth of their campfire while telling me a whole slew of stories and sharing some profound wisdom. One of the guys, the eldest, told me about estrangement from his son. “You can’t beat yourself up about it too much,” he said. “You have to accept that it’s their path, and it’s the one they’ve chosen. They can’t live your path. You can’t live theirs.”
I will remember those words a long time.
I will also remember the fresh tuna steaks. One of the guys had landed a 110-pound bluefin off the coast of San Diego a few days prior, and their cooler was filled with giant cuts of toro and maguro on ice. With a little black pepper and a dash of olive oil, the grill was soon sizzling with some of the best fish I’ve eaten in years. Although the party continued until late, I crawled into my sleeping bag around seven due to Character Building Day Two, which was the ride from Ballinger Canyon to Ojai.
Not too long, at 60 miles it was all uphill the first 20 miles, after which it was extremely uphill for about six, and then downhill with rollers all the way to the 10-mile descent, which I cut short at Wheeler Gorge Campground. I’d had to don long wool pants and a heavy jacket as rain and cold had set in with a vengeance. At the entrance a guy in a lawn chair, camp host John, was sitting next to a blazing fire. “Could I borrow your warmth for a minute?” I asked.
“Sure!” he said, taking in my appearance. “Would you also like a hot cup of coffee?”
I nodded mutely, drained from the ride and the wet and cold, and he vanished into his RV, returning with a piping hot cup and ushering me into one of the empty chairs. I stayed with him and his wife for most of the night, talking and laughing around the fire, until they finally gave up and invited to a marvelous dinner of grilled chicken and vegetables. The proverbial kindness of strangers is far from proverbial, at least in my experience.
The next morning John insisted on driving me to town for donuts, and I agreed because 1) downhill so not really cheating and 2) donuts. Topped off with sugar, fat, and hot coffee, we said our goodbyes and I continued on to Ventura and then to my campground on PCH at Leo Carillo State Park. The next day was Sunday, which coincided with Phil’s Cookie Fondo, so there was a continual stream of riders for much of the pedal down PCH. After taking a long break in Long Beach to see my grandkids I headed south, intending to meander as far south as I could, but heavy rain and bad weather forecasts left me sodden and bereft of the kind of motivation you need to tackle something like that.
Instead of doing the obvious, which would have been to persevere, I threw up my hands and declared defeat, secretly glad at having an excuse to turn around and head back to LA, the roof, and the warm bed that awaited. In retrospect, I’d been more or less constantly on the move for almost two-and-a-half years, working remotely and very remotely and sometimes super remotely. I’m not one for stasis, but a dash of stability might be in order. My divorce has been final for months, and although traveling solo is one thing, being alone is something else entirely.
The alarm rang and I didn’t hit snooze. Back to life.
October 14, 2022 Comments Off on Morning sounds
The dawn call of a dove is more complex and lovely than any piece of music ever made.
But “The Way You Look Tonight” by Wes Montgomery ain’t too shabby.