The smooth road of memory lane

December 19, 2020 § 3 Comments

My day began with a car ride. Matt stowed my bicycle in the back of his pick-up truck and drove me over to the Enfield area in Austin, where I met my mom for a cup of coffee. It was a beautiful morning, cool and a little humid with a sunny Central Texas sky overhead. After coffee I decided to ride over to the former site of Freewheeling Bicycles in West Campus, where I purchased my first road bike, a 1982 Nishiki International with Sun-Tour and Diacompe components.

The little strip shopping center was razed many years ago, along with most every other small building in West Camus, and replaced with a giant residential building. But the big stones could not cover up my memories of riding up to the shop to meet my friends for another epic ride into freedom and competition and adventure.

After that I rode over to Congress Avenue where I began seeing something that I had not seen in the hundreds of miles since leaving El Paso: homeless people. Austin is much more friendly than West Texas simply because of the weather, the infrastructure, and the comparatively liberal approach to people who are down and out. I chatted with a shoeshine man named Alvin from Longview, just 36 miles away from my mom’s hometown of Daingerfield in East Texas. A well dressed woman walked by and Alvin said, “Have a blessed day.”

She ignored him. He turned to me and said these words:. “People think they have it hard, but they don’t know what hard is. People think they have it hard, but they are blessed. People think they have it hard, but they have it easy. We have it easy, brother.”

My shoes didn’t really need shining, but I tipped him $10 anyway and told him I would come back by on my way back through Austin. “Have a merry Christmas and God bless you my brother. We have it easy so let’s enjoy the day.” He had not had a customer all morning.

Two blocks up, there was a guy in a long Santa Claus hat trying to cross the street. His name was James. We started talking and he was cheerful and eager to chat. “I am going to be a crane operator,” he said. “The course costs $4000, and that is a lot of money, but do you know how much money those guys make?” He pointed to a crane atop one of the buildings being raised. “That guy makes $70 an hour. That is a fortune. Can you imagine $70 an hour? I wonder how he even spends it all. But that is going to be me next year, I promise you.”

“Are you okay for money?”

“No, but do you have a cigarette?”

“I don’t, but here is $10, you can go buy some.”

He took the money and smiled. “I am not going to use this on cigarettes, I’m going to walk across the street and get me a $10 hamburger. Man, I’m hungry. Merry Christmas.”

Sitting on a bench behind us was another homeless guy who clearly had serious mental problems. He had listened to everything and watched me give James the ten bucks, looking at the money so longingly and desperately it made me wince. I tried to talk to him but he was very deranged so I gave him a $10 bill which he quickly crumpled and secreted away in his jacket.

After that I crossed the Congress Bridge and rode to Barton Springs to visit my old friend Rick. Rick and I trained thousands and thousands of miles together, and raced together often. Rick was a triathlete as well as a bike racer, and got third place twice in the Race Across America. About twenty years ago he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and he has been battling this terrible disease ever since. When you see a man who used to be incredibly powerful, strong and smart, struggling to tie his shoes or to walk or even to eat, it makes you understand how quickly life can change. We went to Casa de Luz Village and had lunch together. Rick told me this great story.

In his prime, Rick was about six feet tall and at his very leanest weighed about 175 pounds. He was a big, muscular, powerful guy and he had a quick temper. He was never a bully and he never instigated anything, but if people tried to push him around, they got his business end pretty quickly. In those days, cyclists were few and far between and it was common to have the local rednecks throw beer cans, trash, bottles, or to have them spit tobacco on you as they drove by.

One early Sunday morning Rick was training on Southwest Parkway, the road was empty, and he was minding his own business as he rode through a red light. A guy in his pick-up with his wife and kid who were a couple blocks away saw him go through the red light. The guy sped up and drove up next to Rick with the window down. The guy turned to his wife and he said in a loud voice, “Honey, that was a red light back there wasn’t it?”

“Are you talking to me?” Rick asked.

“Yeah, I am.”

“Maybe you should get out of your truck and get a little closer so I can hear you better.”

The guy pulled over on the shoulder and the minute he began to do that, Rick got off his bike and began taking off his cleats. Several years prior Rick had gotten into a fistfight with a redneck and although he had gotten a clear shot at the guy, he was unable to coldcock him because he slipped due to his cycling cleats. The guy had reached into the back of his pick up, pulled out an ax handle and beat Rick over the back and head, breaking a couple of ribs. So Rick knew that the first thing he had to do was get his shoes off.

Now I don’t know about you, but if I saw an extremely muscular guy sitting down taking off his shoes after inviting you to get out and tell him what he was doing wrong I would get back in my car and drive away. But the redneck was not paying attention to some very clear signals that things were about to go very sideways.

The guy walked around and came up to Rick, who simply coiled and hit the guy on the chin as hard as he could. The guy fell backward, stunned, lying on the pavement. The wife began to scream and the child began to cry.

At that moment a posse of about twenty Harley riders came by, and seeing what looked like the remnants of a fight they pulled over, swarming the pick-up driver who was gradually coming to and telling them that he had been attacked by Rick. Of course these weren’t real Harley riders, they were doctors, lawyers, and CPAs pretending to be Harley riders, so no one tried to do anything to Rick, who while listening to the guy lie about what had happened got angry all over again. Rick was also mildly disappointed that the guy hadn’t been more thoroughly knocked out with what had been a pretty clean and solid shot.

While the guy was talking and gesticulating, Rick walked up to him, pushed aside a couple of the Harley riders and punched him again, this time knocking him completely out. The Harley riders were frightened and pulled out their phones and began dialing 911.

Rick put his shoes back on, jumped on his bike and sped away, but on that early Sunday morning with no traffic, he knew the police were going to catch him immediately and he also knew that the driver’s version of events was going to become the official one and that his Sunday morning was going to end in the Travis County jailhouse.

He came to a side street that was filled with empty lots and raced as fast as he could to the end of the street where there was a small thicket. He looked over his shoulder and saw one of the Harley riders at the far end of the street, which ended in a cul-de-sac. Rick picked up his bike and ran through the woods, on the other side of which was another street that was filled with completed homes. In front of one of the homes was a woman getting her morning newspaper.

“Excuse me ma’am,” Rick said, “I was in a little bit of an accident and I kind of hurt myself. Could I come inside and get some water and maybe some aspirin?”

“Well of course.”

Rick went inside, had some water, and the woman’s husband offered to drive him home. Rick accepted, knowing that Southwest Parkway and the streets in the neighborhood were going to be crawling with Austin cops. Rick’s bike was leaning against the man’s pick-up and he walked out to move it, wearing his bicycle kit with his helmet on, standing next to the man at the exact moment that a cop car began driving very slowly down the far end of the street.

And then one of those coincidences or rather miracles in life that we look back on never understanding but knowing that it was really a miracle, happened. At the moment the cruiser got close enough, Rick dropped to his knees, and for some reason, perhaps because he was watching the cop car, the man next to him never noticed noticed Rick crouch. Rick watched the cruiser drive by through the wheels of the pick-up truck, then stood back up at which precise moment the man turned to him, never noticing that Rick had been squatting down.

“Wonder what they are looking for?”

“I don’t know,” Rick said, quickly removing his bicycle helmet, “but it sure is nice to have so much police security in the neighborhood.”

They put the bike in the back of the truck and Rick took off his jersey which prominently said “Bicycle Sport Shop” on it and which was in fact a perfect identifier because he was the only triathlete at the time being sponsored by the shop. They drove down to the intersection of Southwest Parkway, where three police cars were parked. The guy’s truck had a cap on the back, so the bike could not be seen from outside, and Rick was simply wearing his undershirt like any good redneck. The cops watched them drive away.

“You know,” Rick said to me, “that was just a morning where all of the people who had ever thrown shit at me, yelled at me, buzzed me, and abused me were rolled up into that one fat redneck trying to bully me in front of his wife and kid on the way to church. I shouldn’t have knocked him out, and it would’ve been a huge problem for me because I had a warrant out for an unpaid traffic ticket, but still, it felt really good to strike one blow, however small, for the cyclists.”

It felt even better to hear my good friend recount this bit of rough frontier justice being meted out. And as I looked at Rick’s big hands I thought that whatever kind of blow it had been, it hadn’t been a small one.

END

Whites know best

November 13, 2020 § 8 Comments

A friend sent me to a link to this story about diversity in cycling.

The title said it all, “US cycling powers are hoping to create change with a focus on diversity.”

The words were predictive of the story. “US cycling powers” immediately contrasts with something, of course, and that would be the “powerless.” Read a different way, white cyclists are going to fix things up for black ones. Black cyclists will be passive recipients of what white cyclists, who know better anyway, are going to do for them.

Blacks might be skeptical about what the “US cycling powers” have in store. I was skeptical and I’m not even black. One thing that immediately bothered was the word “hoping.” As a good friend who has tried more than 200 cases, most to victory, told me: “Hope is a weak word.”

It’s certainly not a plan, or a mission statement, or anything that Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Maya Angelou, Earvin Johnson, Henry Aaron, Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington, Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, Barbara Jordan, or John Lewis ever built a plan around.

They built plans around goals and commitment to success. They might have had hope, indeed, they were incredible purveyors of it, but it’s not what got shit done. Hope is what you build your spirit around. It’s not what drives execution.

But rather than dash hastily out to get myself a conclusion at Target or TJ Maxx, I did what probably seems weird to a lot of people. I asked an actual black cyclist what he thought about this “initiative” before making up my mind on an issue that affects, you know, black cyclists.

Ken Vinson has had his pulse on racism and cycling for a while, and has been instrumental in putting together Methods to Winning, an amateur bike racing team that is anchored around marquis black riders but that is also diverse in its inclusion of others as well. He understands better than any white person out there what the difficulties are in recruiting black riders, in bringing bike racing out of the purview of “white sport” and into the domain of “diverse sport.”

And truth be told, he is far from the only one. Marty Blount, Travis Wilkerson, and so many more … Los Angeles has numerous men and women who have mentored young black riders; Major Motion and the clubs that have grown of it–Major Taylor Cycling, Cali Riders– have a storied history of finding, funding, developing, and building cycling in the black community. Blacks have been racing and winning at bike racing since the sport was invented; no one has ever come close to surpassing the exploits of Marshal “Major” Taylor. Local cyclists have worked for decades to expand cycling in black communities; the only people who have recently “discovered the need” for “outreach” and “diversity” are … of course … whites. And predictably, they’ve selected white people to go lecture blacks about diversity.

So I reached out to Ken, and here’s what he had to say:

As for the this article, frankly, the telling of our stories, the build out or development and reaching of students and potential athletes, especially at HBCU’s being done by non athletes of color or representatives doesn’t even qualify as window dressing.

I can’t even imagine why a Justin, Rahsaan, Cory or Charon are not contacted in these situations. I can tell you this without doubt–we could rise the excitement and interest quicker than anyone from USAC or EF.

USAC & EF fail to understand the power of representation and there is NO excuse for that especially NOW.

Email exchange, 2020

This response hit me hard because I realized how completely I had failed to understand the real racism of the situation. My first reaction had simply been one of skepticism, doubting that USAC and EF were sincere. After all, both organizations have a long history of completely ignoring diversity, and with USAC, of overt racism.

But Ken’s response made me think a lot more deeply. This really was a matter, again, of white voices silencing black voices, of white “powerful” people telling the story of blacks to blacks and replacing the words of those who have long been stripped of their ability to speak.

And I thought, “Ken’s words are powerful. I have a blog. Set those black words down here and let people read the real voice of a black cyclist rather than imagining, perverting, supplanting, or twisting those voices.”

Then I thought about arrogance.

How arrogant would you have to be to think that you, a white bike racer, could talk more about the challenges of bike racing than a black racer could, especially when the audience is … blacks? Put another way, how would a Jewish kid feel about having a bible-thumping Baptist come to his synagogue and talk to him about the historic challenges Jews have faced trying to overcome global anti-semitism?

Or how would an all-white high school in a small Texas town in the Panhandle feel about having a black professor from an urban university in New York come and talk about the challenges that small rural high school graduates face in big-city colleges … especially when that high school had numerous graduates from their school doing exactly that?

Think of how little credibility those people would have in front of their audiences.

And then think of how fired up the students at a black college would be at listening to the stories of Rahsaan Bahati, Justin and Corey Williams, or Charon Smith as they, black athletes in a white sport, talked about how much success blacks can have and have had as bike racers. Isn’t the point to inspire black athletes to race bikes? To give them real examples of world-beaters, people who took on all comers and won? Then why wouldn’t you choose a black ambassador, especially when fantastic ones are RIGHT THERE?

I went to a talk one evening at Rapha in Santa Monica at the unveiling of the new Nelson Vails kit, and got to listen to Rahsaan and Justin talk about the days of Rock Racing.

It was exciting, riveting, amazing stuff.

But you know what was mind-blowing? Listening to Nelson Vails. That guy has done things that are simply overwhelming. Only black cyclist to ever win an Olympic medal. Only black cyclist to race professionally in keirin in Japan. Only black cyclist to win the professional US track title five times. Oh, and he is a great speaker. Oh, and he was born and raised in the housing projects in Harlem.

What about him? Has USAC forgotten about the only black amateur, and one of the few Americans in history, that USAC ever brought home from the Olympics with a medal?

Then of course it gets you to thinking. Because USAC hasn’t “forgotten” about Vails, and they haven’t “forgotten” about national champions Bahati and Williams. They are explicitly cutting them out, taking away their voice, replacing it with the voice of “the powerful.”

It is not an accident and it is not benign. It is not an oversight. It is part of an entrenched system, a system of racism, that quickly and efficiently adapts to whatever changes blacks demand through activism, law, or struggle.

If USAC and Education Last want to inspire, impress, attract, and motivate black students to get interested in bike racing, they need to reach out and utilize black ambassadors for the job.

Vails, Bahati, the Williams brothers, Smith? They’re only a phone call away. But I’d advise those guys not to clear out their travel schedule just yet.

END

Friends

November 1, 2020 § 8 Comments

I got an email the other day from a friend who reminded me that friendship is “a boat with room for two in fair weather, but only one in foul.”

That sums it up pretty well.

He said that he’d been keeping up with me via this blog, and that he wanted me to know that he felt bad about the left turn our friendship had taken, the foul weather, as it was. Then he did what he needn’t have; he took responsibility for something that was mostly of my making.

So I wrote him back. This is what I said, with changes to protect the innocent and improvements to make it sound a little better than it actually was:

I’ve been thinking about your email on and off since I received it. It made me feel good for many reasons, not least because you’re a great writer who conveys the right things artfully.

It also made me feel good because of the conflict between us that never resolved. I’ve often written things that are mean, cruel, low-spirited, nasty, inappropriate. Worse, I’ve directed those things, from time to time, at people who didn’t deserve them, or even if they did, they didn’t deserve them in the quantity and quality they got.

You’re one of those recipients, and I apologize for it.

When I quit drinking it set my life on full-unravel. The only thing that had been stitching it together was the unreality quilt of the alcohol. My drinking was certainly minor compared to others, but it served the critical function of diverting my mind and time from severe problems.

There was always only really one problem, and it was the rage and anger of an abused kid. I have always been a good enough, kind enough, generous enough, loving enough, funny enough person to redeem myself at the last moment from the judgement of Horrible Person that my angry acts would have otherwise so richly deserved, but towards the end of the death spiral the Anger dial was essentially turned to eleven. All the kind acts in the world don’t make up for being an incorrigible asshole.

Do you remember Deputy Knox? Of course you do. He was the LA Sheriff’s deputy who ran roughshod on cyclists in PV for years. One time he cuffed and stuffed JK for simply talking back to him about a bogus citation. No one was a nastier or worse person that Knox.

One day he saw a cyclist and waved him down, don’t remember who it was. He said, “I know I’m hard on you guys, but I’m not all bad.” Then he opened the trunk of his cruiser. It was full of brand new soccer balls. “I give these to poor kids who can’t afford ’em. It makes a difference.”

When I heard that story I thought, “That’s wonderful. But you are still a complete asshole. You just try to make up for it by doing a little good on the side. But you still suck.”

Hmmmmmmm.

Incredibly, unlike Knox, I have left 99% of my anger in the dumpster, but, and here’s the self-caution, with only 1% remaining I’m still the angriest person I know!

In practice I can deal with 1% much better than 100, and so can everyone around me. And there are great tools and strategies for letting the Good Seth be dominant, strategies I would never have hit on or even known I’d needed had I not quit drinking. It has taken years. Years. And I’m not there yet.

Which brings me back to you.

One of the reasons our conflict was so painful is because you inspired me and led me out of the bar. It was on that drive down to San Diego that you told me about your life. I haven’t ever gone through a program, and you once said to me, “I never thought your drinking was all that bad, Seth.”

But … despite your correct analysis, it was bad enough for me, and I used you as a lodestar to make a change. It took a while, but then again, so does the formation of a galaxy.

How ironic that the person who set me on the path to grappling with my inner pain and failing is a person I can no longer talk to! It was more than irony, it was a waste, silly, a loss, all things you can expect when you get into a childish name-calling contest and both combatants are armed with razor adjectives, high-explosive caricatures, and poisonously good memories.

I’m glad to know that things are going well for you and the family.

Me? I’m still in the early stages of late-stage healing. Splitting from my wife is a daily wound because of my feelings and because it has created so much pain for my kids. But guilt, Jack from Illinois told me (not his real name), is oftentimes part of what you end up with when you do something for yourself even when it is the right thing to do. Sometimes it’s a package deal. With the betterment comes, in some respects, a measure of worserment.

There’s no doubt that I’m a better, healthier person now, and on some days, most maybe, I’d even say I’m a happier person. Most importantly, I’m not an angrier one! It’s a lot easier to navigate the slings and arrows when your heart brims with compassion than with rage. And nothing teaches humility like failing at a 32-year marriage. That’s a pedestal you fall off hard, and the shards are numerous, everywhere, way off in corners like behind the fridge where you are never ever going to get at them.

I am trying to recreate relationships with people who still want them, but I’m also accepting those that don’t as the losses which are part of The Price. I’m also making some good decisions about steering clear of people and situations that drag me back into my role as agitator of the South Bay, or whoever I used to be.

In any event I’m less appealing to almost everyone now that I ride around with a backpack, jeans, scraggly beard, and a whiff of the unwashed. I don’t know if it’s a plus or minus, but I’ve seen several local riders twice or thrice and they haven’t recognized me at all.

Let’s call it a plus.

So … hope our paths cross. We can ride as long as you don’t mind slow, but one way or another let’s get together, even if it’s just coffee.

Thanks again for the email. I’d say something branded like “thanks for reaching out,” but it was more than that.

It was friendship.

END

Celebrate good times (come on!)

July 4, 2020 § 26 Comments

Okay, so I’m no flag-waver. But I’ve always recognized that I was lucky to be born where and when and to whom I was born.

When I was a kid I loved the 4th of July because, firecrackers. And barbecue. And because it seemed a thousand years away from the end of school and two thousand years away from the beginning.

The 4th was always one of those holidays that seemed safe. I didn’t have to pray to the Jesus I didn’t believe in or feel weird because everyone else did. No presents, which was a bummer, but the bonus was that I didn’t have to buy any, either.

Unlike Thanksgiving there wasn’t a giant dead bird in a pan, there was a giant dead cow on a grill. Plus it was hot, everyone was in the backyard, the adults were all drunk by noon, and the kids could therefore do whatever they wanted.

As a kid I had read all the “We Were There” history books in the school library, and especially loved “We Were There at Lexington and Concord.” The Revolutionary War seemed so pure and simple. Evil Britain came to tax our tea parties, so valorous silversmiths fought Indians while building the Transcontinental Railroad as George Washington fought the Battle of Valley Forge as Thomas Jefferson wrote the Constitution and Ben Franklin invented electricity while flying a kite over the Delaware River as King George was slain by Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys over by Mt. Rushmore.

It was an exciting time for a little kid to live, and the 4th was the perfect day to celebrate the final conquest of General Thomas Jefferson at the head of the ragtag American army singing La Marseillaise and Yankee Doodle as they whupped the bloody British at the town of New Orleans.

As I got older and rode my bike more I got more skeptical about everything. I saw things on my bike that didn’t comport with Admiral Jefferson’s siege of Vicksburg and his “damn the torpedoes” assault in Mobile Bay. I turned over “all men are created equal” in my mind as, pedaling, I saw that not only were men created unequal, but far worse, they were treated unequal.

And then as I got really older, the new history about Jefferson’s stature as a benign slaveholder began to trickle out of various scholars’ pens until it became a torrent, then a tsunami. This article in the Smithsonian from 2014 makes it clear that Jefferson was a rapist who ordered the torture of the small children enslaved in his nail factory. His never attempted ideals about the equality of men were, by the 1790s, dead and gone with his arithmetical discovery that simply owning slaves earned a guaranteed 4% profit due to what he termed their “increase.”

In plainer English, this means that he had calculated, had put a number, to the true economic value of slavery, which lay in the sexual intercourse and impregnation of people held against their will, leading to the birth of infants who in turn became slaves and producers of more slaves. The beauty of the equation for Jefferson and every white male slaveholder? Jefferson the pedophile could literally fuck his way to wealth. The more children of child-bearing age he raped, the richer he became. It’s undisputed that the genetic link between Jefferson and his slaves began at least with his father’s rape and fathering of slave children, and that the African and English commingling of genes continued throughout Jefferson’s life. No serious scholar seriously disputes that Jefferson had continual sex with enslaved women and children throughout his life. Because they were enslaved and thus deprived of free will, by definition, there was never consent. Not one time. Never.

So what is it we’re celebrating when say that July 4th is a holiday? Are we celebrating a nation that was founded on a principle, “all men are created equal,” when it’s undisputed that the author of that phrase believed nor practiced nothing of the sort?

Are we celebrating the Constitution, a formalist, legal, slave-holding document dedicated to the maintenance of the slave trade and of slavery?

Perhaps we’re giving a thumbs-up to the “long con” that led to the theft of land and dispersal of Native American communities?

I think that we all need holidays. They’ve been around as long as there have been people, days to celebrate myths, foundational stories, births, deaths, resurrections, and the mysteries of the universe. We need holidays, “holy days,” to remind us that we’re parts of a whole, a whole that we’ll never really understand of fully grasp.

And as I was pedaling up a long hill yesterday, thinking about the evil of my slaveholding forebears, I also thought that we need July 4 as well, as a holiday to think about, contemplate, and reflect on the extent to which this nation exists by the grace of its black citizens, their contributions to our national weal, their ongoing struggle, and our duty, today, to do something about it.

The Independence Day we all need is the the one that gives us independence from the lies of the past and lets us depend instead on what we all know to be right, the simplest law ever made: Do unto others.

END


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Celebrate good times (come on!)

July 4, 2020 § 26 Comments

Okay, so I’m no flag-waver. But I’ve always recognized that I was lucky to be born where and when and to whom I was born.

When I was a kid I loved the 4th of July because, firecrackers. And barbecue. And because it seemed a thousand years away from the end of school and two thousand years away from the beginning.

The 4th was always one of those holidays that seemed safe. I didn’t have to pray to the Jesus I didn’t believe in or feel weird because everyone else did. No presents, which was a bummer, but the bonus was that I didn’t have to buy any, either.

Unlike Thanksgiving there wasn’t a giant dead bird in a pan, there was a giant dead cow on a grill. Plus it was hot, everyone was in the backyard, the adults were all drunk by noon, and the kids could therefore do whatever they wanted.

As a kid I had read all the “We Were There” history books in the school library, and especially loved “We Were There at Lexington and Concord.” The Revolutionary War seemed so pure and simple. Evil Britain came to tax our tea parties, so valorous silversmiths fought Indians while building the Transcontinental Railroad as George Washington fought the Battle of Valley Forge as Thomas Jefferson wrote the Constitution and Ben Franklin invented electricity while flying a kite over the Delaware River as King George was slain by Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys over by Mt. Rushmore.

It was an exciting time for a little kid to live, and the 4th was the perfect day to celebrate the final conquest of General Thomas Jefferson at the head of the ragtag American army singing La Marseillaise and Yankee Doodle as they whupped the bloody British at the town of New Orleans.

As I got older and rode my bike more I got more skeptical about everything. I saw things on my bike that didn’t comport with Admiral Jefferson’s siege of Vicksburg and his “damn the torpedoes” assault in Mobile Bay. I turned over “all men are created equal” in my mind as, pedaling, I saw that not only were men created unequal, but far worse, they were treated unequal.

And then as I got really older, the new history about Jefferson’s stature as a benign slaveholder began to trickle out of various scholars’ pens until it became a torrent, then a tsunami. This article in the Smithsonian from 2014 makes it clear that Jefferson was a rapist who ordered the torture of the small children enslaved in his nail factory. His never attempted ideals about the equality of men were, by the 1790s, dead and gone with his arithmetical discovery that simply owning slaves earned a guaranteed 4% profit due to what he termed their “increase.”

In plainer English, this means that he had calculated, had put a number, to the true economic value of slavery, which lay in the sexual intercourse and impregnation of people held against their will, leading to the birth of infants who in turn became slaves and producers of more slaves. The beauty of the equation for Jefferson and every white male slaveholder? Jefferson the pedophile could literally fuck his way to wealth. The more children of child-bearing age he raped, the richer he became. It’s undisputed that the genetic link between Jefferson and his slaves began at least with his father’s rape and fathering of slave children, and that the African and English commingling of genes continued throughout Jefferson’s life. No serious scholar seriously disputes that Jefferson had continual sex with enslaved women and children throughout his life. Because they were enslaved and thus deprived of free will, by definition, there was never consent. Not one time. Never.

So what is it we’re celebrating when say that July 4th is a holiday? Are we celebrating a nation that was founded on a principle, “all men are created equal,” when it’s undisputed that the author of that phrase believed nor practiced nothing of the sort?

Are we celebrating the Constitution, a formalist, legal, slave-holding document dedicated to the maintenance of the slave trade and of slavery?

Perhaps we’re giving a thumbs-up to the “long con” that led to the theft of land and dispersal of Native American communities?

I think that we all need holidays. They’ve been around as long as there have been people, days to celebrate myths, foundational stories, births, deaths, resurrections, and the mysteries of the universe. We need holidays, “holy days,” to remind us that we’re parts of a whole, a whole that we’ll never really understand of fully grasp.

And as I was pedaling up a long hill yesterday, thinking about the evil of my slaveholding forebears, I also thought that we need July 4 as well, as a holiday to think about, contemplate, and reflect on the extent to which this nation exists by the grace of its black citizens, their contributions to our national weal, their ongoing struggle, and our duty, today, to do something about it.

The Independence Day we all need is the the one that gives us independence from the lies of the past and lets us depend instead on what we all know to be right, the simplest law ever made: Do unto others.

END


Bike hunting #2: The drag-out

June 24, 2020 § 5 Comments

I am pretty danged please to announce that my son and I were able to land his first bike on our second attempt. How it happened was epic.

There I stood, bone-sore, sweat-drenched, and stuck. Behind me was an incline of jumbled boulders and blowdowns; ahead lay a latticework of massive, windfallen trees that choked off the ravine like a pile of giant pick-up sticks. I could see no easy way out.

My only consolation was the bulk of the problem. Tethered to my drag rope was a beautiful 2020 Bianchi, which my son and I had shot several miles back in the Long Beach Mountain wilderness area. The 7-pointer, probably 18 pounds on the hoof, fell not far from a hiking trail. Normally I’d have dragged him out on what I knew was a good path. But my GPS showed I was also only about a half mile from the shore of Lake Long Beach, whose far end was a short canoe-carry from the road. That meant I could come back and paddle the bike out—after what I assumed would be an easy downhill drag.

So my son and I gripped the rope and set off for the lake. It was fine at first. But after a while, with each step, we dropped deeper into a gaping ravine, increasingly studded with jagged rocks and strewn with huge trees, flattened like windblown straw by a long-ago storm.

Some logs lay partially suspended off the ground by the nubs of their broken branches. With these, I heaved the bike close to the trunk, tossed the handle of my drag rope underneath the seat stays, clambered up and over, and finally yanked the carcass through the narrow gap. Others logs lay flat or, worse, crisscrossed. Here, we scrambled atop the trunks, hoisted the bike up, and then dumped it down the far side. Lube trickled out the bike’s side, where my son’s perfect shot had penetrated deeply into the intricate and now-defunct workings of this magnificent beast’s body.

By the time I realized my mistake, there was no turning back. The steep sides of our personal hellhole boxed us in. So we had no choice but to plod on—under one windfall, over the next, again and again and again. The only thing worse than riding a bike over logs, boulders, ravines, and windfalls, is dragging it.

The skin on our hands was burned raw from the drag rope sliding through our grip. Blood trickled down my shin, which had been gouged by a chain ring point when, after hauling the bike atop another huge blowdown, I fell over backward, exhausted, and the chain ring came down on my legs.

Finally, after nearly four hours of this, I reached Lake Long Beach, aching all over and ready to crush my GPS under a boot or launch it into the water, but at the same time hesitant because, $35. As for the bike, I’d pulled a third of the covering off its saddle.

Years ago, the legendary Vermont tracker Scrotal Nadscratcher told me that the hardest part of getting a big bike out of the big woods is shooting it in the first place. He was right, of course. But after the “Damned GPS Drag,” I will never, ever take a downed bike out on a blind bushwhack. I always take the known route now, even if it’s longer.

There’s a curious power in a dead bike in that it has the ability to draw life. Hanging from a gambrel or a post, inside a barn or outside in the aging cold, a dead bike brings hunters away from the fire or out from the tent. It conjures a retelling of how it was hunted and the memories of other bike hunts. Guesses at its age, weight, wheel build, derailleurs, and brakes are offered. And when the chatter eventually dies, the bike is stared at in silence.

One dead bike is enough to bring a camp together, but when Woodrow and I got back to camp, we had four bikes hanging and a fifth on its way. Spirits were high.

The garage was heated by a woodstove, and the room reeked of gasoline. Every time I smell gasoline I remind myself that it’s nothing but napalm in a more innocent state. Sawdust on the floor absorbed all the chain lube dripping out from the carcasses. Next door was the bunkhouse, which was warm and furnished with leather couches and a big screen with the NFL game playing; there’s only one.

There was no question as to which place was more comfortable, but we still chose the rugged outdoorsy indoorsiness of the garage. We wanted to hang out with the guides as they caped the bikes for mounts. We wanted to hear and share stories of the day’s hunts. We wanted to drink whiskey and laugh and rag on one another. Mostly, we wanted to be near the bikes, and not so far from the TV that we couldn’t poke our head in and see if the New York Vixens were still up over the St. Louis Tinseltwerps.

My favorite moment of the night came as two of the guides, Bubba Johnbill Larryjim and Barry de la Pudwhacker, were dressing the fifth bike. They removed the intact heart, sliced off a chunk, and rinsed it off. Then they half-jokingly offered it to Stacy, who had killed that Giant of a bike. She declined with some deft antiperistalsis, but I volunteered. Those in the room who’d eaten raw bike heart (the guides) cheered and shook my hand. Those who hadn’t (everyone else) were revolted. Everyone laughed, stood around in each other’s vomit, and the night kept going until everyone was so drunk that the men looked like women, the women looked like men, and dry-humping a dead bike carcass seemed natural.

I later got a horrible infection and had to have my liver replaced in a dicy operation done in a bivouac with a camp knife and twine, but that’s another story, a story called “The Revenge of the Hart,” and it tells the story about how Stacy, who was a pre-eminent liver surgeon, saved my life by swapping my liver out for a deer’s. We fell in love, of course.

I’ve gone back to that evening many times, viewing the photos on my phone in betwixt saved images from some of my favorite webcam subscriptions. Thing is, this wasn’t an old camp of longtime friends who owed each other money and cheated on their wives with each other’s spouses. This took place at a modest lodge filled with plump guests who’d been acquainted for only a few days but bonded, serendipitously, through Visa and MasterCard. For that night in that garage, with our bike in the heart of the room, and bits of the bike’s heart comfortably lodged in my pudgy tummy, we were a camp of hunters who’d been friends for life.

(With condolences to Field & Stream’s 18 Best Deer Hunting Stories of All Time).

END


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Bike hunting #2: The drag-out

June 24, 2020 § 5 Comments

I am pretty danged please to announce that my son and I were able to land his first bike on our second attempt. How it happened was epic.

There I stood, bone-sore, sweat-drenched, and stuck. Behind me was an incline of jumbled boulders and blowdowns; ahead lay a latticework of massive, windfallen trees that choked off the ravine like a pile of giant pick-up sticks. I could see no easy way out.

My only consolation was the bulk of the problem. Tethered to my drag rope was a beautiful 2020 Bianchi, which my son and I had shot several miles back in the Long Beach Mountain wilderness area. The 7-pointer, probably 18 pounds on the hoof, fell not far from a hiking trail. Normally I’d have dragged him out on what I knew was a good path. But my GPS showed I was also only about a half mile from the shore of Lake Long Beach, whose far end was a short canoe-carry from the road. That meant I could come back and paddle the bike out—after what I assumed would be an easy downhill drag.

So my son and I gripped the rope and set off for the lake. It was fine at first. But after a while, with each step, we dropped deeper into a gaping ravine, increasingly studded with jagged rocks and strewn with huge trees, flattened like windblown straw by a long-ago storm.

Some logs lay partially suspended off the ground by the nubs of their broken branches. With these, I heaved the bike close to the trunk, tossed the handle of my drag rope underneath the seat stays, clambered up and over, and finally yanked the carcass through the narrow gap. Others logs lay flat or, worse, crisscrossed. Here, we scrambled atop the trunks, hoisted the bike up, and then dumped it down the far side. Lube trickled out the bike’s side, where my son’s perfect shot had penetrated deeply into the intricate and now-defunct workings of this magnificent beast’s body.

By the time I realized my mistake, there was no turning back. The steep sides of our personal hellhole boxed us in. So we had no choice but to plod on—under one windfall, over the next, again and again and again. The only thing worse than riding a bike over logs, boulders, ravines, and windfalls, is dragging it.

The skin on our hands was burned raw from the drag rope sliding through our grip. Blood trickled down my shin, which had been gouged by a chain ring point when, after hauling the bike atop another huge blowdown, I fell over backward, exhausted, and the chain ring came down on my legs.

Finally, after nearly four hours of this, I reached Lake Long Beach, aching all over and ready to crush my GPS under a boot or launch it into the water, but at the same time hesitant because, $35. As for the bike, I’d pulled a third of the covering off its saddle.

Years ago, the legendary Vermont tracker Scrotal Nadscratcher told me that the hardest part of getting a big bike out of the big woods is shooting it in the first place. He was right, of course. But after the “Damned GPS Drag,” I will never, ever take a downed bike out on a blind bushwhack. I always take the known route now, even if it’s longer.

There’s a curious power in a dead bike in that it has the ability to draw life. Hanging from a gambrel or a post, inside a barn or outside in the aging cold, a dead bike brings hunters away from the fire or out from the tent. It conjures a retelling of how it was hunted and the memories of other bike hunts. Guesses at its age, weight, wheel build, derailleurs, and brakes are offered. And when the chatter eventually dies, the bike is stared at in silence.

One dead bike is enough to bring a camp together, but when Woodrow and I got back to camp, we had four bikes hanging and a fifth on its way. Spirits were high.

The garage was heated by a woodstove, and the room reeked of gasoline. Every time I smell gasoline I remind myself that it’s nothing but napalm in a more innocent state. Sawdust on the floor absorbed all the chain lube dripping out from the carcasses. Next door was the bunkhouse, which was warm and furnished with leather couches and a big screen with the NFL game playing; there’s only one.

There was no question as to which place was more comfortable, but we still chose the rugged outdoorsy indoorsiness of the garage. We wanted to hang out with the guides as they caped the bikes for mounts. We wanted to hear and share stories of the day’s hunts. We wanted to drink whiskey and laugh and rag on one another. Mostly, we wanted to be near the bikes, and not so far from the TV that we couldn’t poke our head in and see if the New York Vixens were still up over the St. Louis Tinseltwerps.

My favorite moment of the night came as two of the guides, Bubba Johnbill Larryjim and Barry de la Pudwhacker, were dressing the fifth bike. They removed the intact heart, sliced off a chunk, and rinsed it off. Then they half-jokingly offered it to Stacy, who had killed that Giant of a bike. She declined with some deft antiperistalsis, but I volunteered. Those in the room who’d eaten raw bike heart (the guides) cheered and shook my hand. Those who hadn’t (everyone else) were revolted. Everyone laughed, stood around in each other’s vomit, and the night kept going until everyone was so drunk that the men looked like women, the women looked like men, and dry-humping a dead bike carcass seemed natural.

I later got a horrible infection and had to have my liver replaced in a dicy operation done in a bivouac with a camp knife and twine, but that’s another story, a story called “The Revenge of the Hart,” and it tells the story about how Stacy, who was a pre-eminent liver surgeon, saved my life by swapping my liver out for a deer’s. We fell in love, of course.

I’ve gone back to that evening many times, viewing the photos on my phone in betwixt saved images from some of my favorite webcam subscriptions. Thing is, this wasn’t an old camp of longtime friends who owed each other money and cheated on their wives with each other’s spouses. This took place at a modest lodge filled with plump guests who’d been acquainted for only a few days but bonded, serendipitously, through Visa and MasterCard. For that night in that garage, with our bike in the heart of the room, and bits of the bike’s heart comfortably lodged in my pudgy tummy, we were a camp of hunters who’d been friends for life.

(With condolences to Field & Stream’s 18 Best Deer Hunting Stories of All Time).

END


The bad idea fairy

June 23, 2020 § 27 Comments

I first learned about this creature from pro racer and all-round good guy Brian McCulloch, who learned about it from his brother, a combat veteran. “The bad idea fairy,” Brian told me, “comes to you at night and instead of giving you money for a tooth, she gives you a really bad idea, which, the next day, you get up and try to execute. The top guy in a combat platoon spends a lot of time trying to chase those bad ideas away.”

I don’t know how often I’ve been visited by the BIF, but I do know that the staircase in my apartment building is narrow, twisting, and steep, and I do know that the complex itself is built into the side of a very steep hill. I call it the Escher Staircase. I also know that the average American finds walking an astonishing challenge.

I know this because piece by piece I’ve been selling off my furniture on Craigslist. Not that I had a lot of it, but you know, I did have the basics: Couch, bed, dresser, chest of drawers, dining table … Judging from my survey of people who’ve come to get the furniture, the single hardest thing they’ve done recently is walk up the hill and then climb the staircase.

We bicycle riders tend to judge our fitness by how fast we ride or by how many miles we go or by how many trinkets we get and etcetera, but we really are a breed apart. The average American judges itself by how many yards it can walk before gushing a Niagara Falls from ‘neath the armpits. I haven’t heard so much puffing, grunting, groaning, and labored breathing since my first child was born with Lamaze.

But back to the bad idea fairy.

It didn’t make the front page of the Los Angeles Times, but when Joe Yule packed up the trailer and moved back to Colorado, part of the South Bay died. He didn’t have a good-bye party, or if he did, the organizers had sense enough not to invite me. He certainly didn’t send out a good-bye message or a so long, it’s been good to know ya. By the time he left, I’d have to guess that the great majority of cyclists in the South Bay didn’t even know who he was, much less that he had gone.

I, however, did. Joe did a lot of things during his brief reign as King of the South Bay. Honorable mention was his years-long stint as chief designer for what started as the Garmin pro team, later morphing into a variety of other names but always starring the designs of Joe. It’s no exaggeration to say that his design sense, with its clean lines and remarkable beauty, infected the entire peloton in one way or another.

More impressive, though, was the way he killed the demon baby of ugly bicycle clothing and helped re-set the standard that had once ruled when bike clothes were woolen and not subject to the plastic and infinite design of lycra and Illustrator. Classic bike team and jersey designs from the 60s and 70s were pretty because everything had to be embroidered. It was expensive, it was slow, and because of the wool thread you couldn’t put thirty sponsors on a jersey pocket, much less a fish head on a top tube next to a steaming cup of coffee and a cute slogan that said, “Farts on Bikes.”

Joe was the first lycra designer who rejected the idea that more is better, or as he said it, “My mission is simple. I want to beautify the roadways.”

And he did. Using artistic skills honed in the pre-computer days with a pencil and a brush, Joe gradually showed people that although you would always look silly in lycra, you didn’t have to look like a circus clown.

None of that mattered to me, though. I was drawn to Joe because of his biting humor and his utter contempt of compromise. Anyone who ever worked with Joe quickly learned that their opinions about how a thing looked were secondary, if they were lucky. They also learned that time deadlines were relative, relative to Joe’s moods or his passion for the project.

Most of all, they learned to STFU when he sent them a “draft” design, because Joe didn’t do “drafts.” He didn’t crank something out and get it over to you as the first leg of a multi-step, iterative process. He thought long and hard and worked his ass off to get you a design, and if you didn’t like it pretty much as it was, you were a fucking idiot.

This business plan sat poorly with many, but for those of us who knew we had a real, live genius on our hands, two fucks gave we not. We asked, we patiently waited, and we took what we were given. I believe that the countless times Joe graced me with his work, the only corrections I ever made were spelling, and those I even made timidly. In return, Joe gave me the same thing he gave everyone: His best.

Embedded in his art, which is to say his mind, was a keen, wry, biting sense of humor that was every bit as funny as Mark Twain. He had a wit that was second to none, and this I appreciated most of all. His jokes and his humor were so rich and so hilarious that the laughter reawakened every time you saw it. For example, on a small jersey pocket for the Donut Ride, he included the immortal phrase, “Officer Knox Foundation.”

Knox, of course, was the South Bay sheriff’s deputy famed for citing, cuffing, and stuffing cyclists who failed to ride as far to the right as practicable.

About this time last year, Joe, who, like me, appeared to suffer frequent visitations of the Bad Idea Fairy, got the bad idea to take his dog off for a hike from the Canadian border down to Mexico on the Pacific Crest Trail. Many a friend advised him that a late summer start was impossible for such an undertaking.

Others wailed at his lack of training, preparation, and fitness that such a hike, which is foremost a logistical operation, required. Others bewailed the mortal dangers awaiting him at first snowfall in October or late September. Some few remarked that his dog, well accustomed to the fair weather and yummy treats of domestic life, would fare poorly on the rugged slopes of the Sierras. If any of this made an impression on Joe, it was not noticeable, other than in the way that catalyst in surfboard resin hardens the mix.

He packed his shit, hitched various rides to Washington, made his way to the border, and trekked for a few weeks before abandoning the whole enterprise and accepting a ride home from a concerned buddy. He had made his point, though, as he always did, and he made it without the edits, corrections, revisions, and design suggestions of others.

The point? Fuck y’all, I’m going.

Who is left in the South Bay like that? Better put, who in the South Bay ever was?

So the other day, after watching a lady and her husband lug a moderately heavy chest of drawers out the door the night before, I woke up with two little pin pricks on my neck. “Aw hell,” I thought. “I’ve been bitten by the bad idea fairy again.”

And indeed I had been, because the first thing I did that morning was send Boozy P. a text message: “Can you fit my ‘cross bike with a rack that will hold panniers?”

He immediately texted back. “Send a photo of the seat post and seat stays.”

I did.

“Yeah,” he said, “should be no problem.”

Bad Ideaville, here I come.

END


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The bad idea fairy

June 23, 2020 § 27 Comments

I first learned about this creature from pro racer and all-round good guy Brian McCulloch, who learned about it from his brother, a combat veteran. “The bad idea fairy,” Brian told me, “comes to you at night and instead of giving you money for a tooth, she gives you a really bad idea, which, the next day, you get up and try to execute. The top guy in a combat platoon spends a lot of time trying to chase those bad ideas away.”

I don’t know how often I’ve been visited by the BIF, but I do know that the staircase in my apartment building is narrow, twisting, and steep, and I do know that the complex itself is built into the side of a very steep hill. I call it the Escher Staircase. I also know that the average American finds walking an astonishing challenge.

I know this because piece by piece I’ve been selling off my furniture on Craigslist. Not that I had a lot of it, but you know, I did have the basics: Couch, bed, dresser, chest of drawers, dining table … Judging from my survey of people who’ve come to get the furniture, the single hardest thing they’ve done recently is walk up the hill and then climb the staircase.

We bicycle riders tend to judge our fitness by how fast we ride or by how many miles we go or by how many trinkets we get and etcetera, but we really are a breed apart. The average American judges itself by how many yards it can walk before gushing a Niagara Falls from ‘neath the armpits. I haven’t heard so much puffing, grunting, groaning, and labored breathing since my first child was born with Lamaze.

But back to the bad idea fairy.

It didn’t make the front page of the Los Angeles Times, but when Joe Yule packed up the trailer and moved back to Colorado, part of the South Bay died. He didn’t have a good-bye party, or if he did, the organizers had sense enough not to invite me. He certainly didn’t send out a good-bye message or a so long, it’s been good to know ya. By the time he left, I’d have to guess that the great majority of cyclists in the South Bay didn’t even know who he was, much less that he had gone.

I, however, did. Joe did a lot of things during his brief reign as King of the South Bay. Honorable mention was his years-long stint as chief designer for what started as the Garmin pro team, later morphing into a variety of other names but always starring the designs of Joe. It’s no exaggeration to say that his design sense, with its clean lines and remarkable beauty, infected the entire peloton in one way or another.

More impressive, though, was the way he killed the demon baby of ugly bicycle clothing and helped re-set the standard that had once ruled when bike clothes were woolen and not subject to the plastic and infinite design of lycra and Illustrator. Classic bike team and jersey designs from the 60s and 70s were pretty because everything had to be embroidered. It was expensive, it was slow, and because of the wool thread you couldn’t put thirty sponsors on a jersey pocket, much less a fish head on a top tube next to a steaming cup of coffee and a cute slogan that said, “Farts on Bikes.”

Joe was the first lycra designer who rejected the idea that more is better, or as he said it, “My mission is simple. I want to beautify the roadways.”

And he did. Using artistic skills honed in the pre-computer days with a pencil and a brush, Joe gradually showed people that although you would always look silly in lycra, you didn’t have to look like a circus clown.

None of that mattered to me, though. I was drawn to Joe because of his biting humor and his utter contempt of compromise. Anyone who ever worked with Joe quickly learned that their opinions about how a thing looked were secondary, if they were lucky. They also learned that time deadlines were relative, relative to Joe’s moods or his passion for the project.

Most of all, they learned to STFU when he sent them a “draft” design, because Joe didn’t do “drafts.” He didn’t crank something out and get it over to you as the first leg of a multi-step, iterative process. He thought long and hard and worked his ass off to get you a design, and if you didn’t like it pretty much as it was, you were a fucking idiot.

This business plan sat poorly with many, but for those of us who knew we had a real, live genius on our hands, two fucks gave we not. We asked, we patiently waited, and we took what we were given. I believe that the countless times Joe graced me with his work, the only corrections I ever made were spelling, and those I even made timidly. In return, Joe gave me the same thing he gave everyone: His best.

Embedded in his art, which is to say his mind, was a keen, wry, biting sense of humor that was every bit as funny as Mark Twain. He had a wit that was second to none, and this I appreciated most of all. His jokes and his humor were so rich and so hilarious that the laughter reawakened every time you saw it. For example, on a small jersey pocket for the Donut Ride, he included the immortal phrase, “Officer Knox Foundation.”

Knox, of course, was the South Bay sheriff’s deputy famed for citing, cuffing, and stuffing cyclists who failed to ride as far to the right as practicable.

About this time last year, Joe, who, like me, appeared to suffer frequent visitations of the Bad Idea Fairy, got the bad idea to take his dog off for a hike from the Canadian border down to Mexico on the Pacific Crest Trail. Many a friend advised him that a late summer start was impossible for such an undertaking.

Others wailed at his lack of training, preparation, and fitness that such a hike, which is foremost a logistical operation, required. Others bewailed the mortal dangers awaiting him at first snowfall in October or late September. Some few remarked that his dog, well accustomed to the fair weather and yummy treats of domestic life, would fare poorly on the rugged slopes of the Sierras. If any of this made an impression on Joe, it was not noticeable, other than in the way that catalyst in surfboard resin hardens the mix.

He packed his shit, hitched various rides to Washington, made his way to the border, and trekked for a few weeks before abandoning the whole enterprise and accepting a ride home from a concerned buddy. He had made his point, though, as he always did, and he made it without the edits, corrections, revisions, and design suggestions of others.

The point? Fuck y’all, I’m going.

Who is left in the South Bay like that? Better put, who in the South Bay ever was?

So the other day, after watching a lady and her husband lug a moderately heavy chest of drawers out the door the night before, I woke up with two little pin pricks on my neck. “Aw hell,” I thought. “I’ve been bitten by the bad idea fairy again.”

And indeed I had been, because the first thing I did that morning was send Boozy P. a text message: “Can you fit my ‘cross bike with a rack that will hold panniers?”

He immediately texted back. “Send a photo of the seat post and seat stays.”

I did.

“Yeah,” he said, “should be no problem.”

Bad Ideaville, here I come.

END


Don’t feel the reaper

June 17, 2020 § 17 Comments

Back before there was internets and covids, words was a lot of trouble, especially song words. Rock musicians wasn’t great at “enunciatin'” as my grandpa called it, and it was usually impossible to understand anything singers sang. Lyrics wasn’t printed on the album cover because that was precious real estate for cool artwork that consumers stared at between bong hits.

It was hard to even know the name of a song if you were listening to it in a friend’s car on some cassette tape he’d dubbed his favorite music onto. So I went through teenagerdom not knowing most of the lyrics and fewer of the song titles of the music I liked, listened to on the radio, or was forced to listen to by girlfriends and others.

It didn’t matter. I had a solid imagination and could make up the song words on my own. I didn’t need no damn cheat sheet, and most of the time I liked my song words better, even when I learned thirty or forty years later that I’d been singing them all wrong.

For example in Stayin’ Alive, the part that went, “Music loud and women warm I’ve been kicked around/Since I was born”?

I always sang that “Music, love, and wampum warn/See the been kick on the barn.” Maybe my song words didn’t make much sense but neither did anything ever sung by the Grateful Dead, and they were loved by dozens.

One of the songs I recently learned that I had mis-learned was “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” which I hummed for decades as “Don’t Feel the Reaper.” Now I know what you’re thinking. Ick!

But my song words in that case were pretty good because here was the Reaper coming to take you away and the song commanded you not to “feel the reaper,” in other words, don’t give in to his clammy grasp of death. And when you plug it into the other song lyrics, “Seasons don’t feel the reaper,” etc., it kind of works out, a case of getting the lyrics wrong and therefore right.

One song I never got the lyrics wrong to was Alice’s Restaurant by Arlo Guthrie. It came out in 1967 when I was four and my parents played it all the time. I knew the lyrics to the song years before I knew what they meant, thankfully. Arlo may not have ever written anything else worth a damn, but that one song is probably the greatest piece of storytelling set to a guitar to ever come out of a man’s mouth.

It’s in “stereo”

It was the kind of anthem that Bob Dylan never could pull off. Dylan, who idolized Arlo’s dad Woody Guthrie, has spent his whole life trying to be authentic, but he isn’t. He’s just a dude from Minnesota who changed his name and who made a few good songs aping Woody, right along with Springsteen and everybody else.

But Arlo wrote this great anti-war song and Thanksgiving anthem about littering in the tradition of his father on the one hand, and his grandma on the other, the Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt. I think you’ll agree that anyone who can have a hit 18-minute song that takes up an entire side of an LP and includes numerous use of the neologism “father-raper” is pretty darned good listening.

Nowadays you can find every lyric to every song and I don’t like that. If a singer like Arlo says his words crisp and clear it means he has thought about them and he wants you to think about them, too.

If a singer like Jerry Garcia slurs his words like a fart in a jar of honey it means, and yes, Jerry said this when someone once asked him what one his songs meant, “Whatever you want it to mean.”

Which is to say that getting all hung up with knowing the words when the singer couldn’t be bothered to say them intelligibly is like putting lipstick on a baboon’s butt. Wrong item, wrong location, wrong individual. Blobby words you can’t understand, though, let your mind run where it wants to run, which is a good thing, especially for kids, because most often it ends up hopping the fence and running somewhere interesting, uncharted, free.

END


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