The crazy look

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.


END

Yulogy

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.


END

Welcome back, Kotter

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.


END

A little foray

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.


END

American redemption at Gravel Worlds

October 11, 2022 Comments Off on American redemption at Gravel Worlds

Against a stacked field of pro European road riders, Team USA showed why the “unroad” racing in America exemplified by the BWR series and the Lifetime Grand Prix are the finest gravel training grounds on earth.

In perfect conditions featuring an ideal mix of cobbles, dirt, and pavement, US riders Griffin Easter and Michael Garrison pulled off stunning upsets in Veneto, Italy, dominating the world’s top pro riders with a shocking 46th and 76th place, respectively.

“American gravel can go up against the best and win because the fields here have such depth,” said BWR organizer Eddy Marckx. “Our race is the most unique cycling event in America, all seven of them, and they’re each the most unique in their own unique and amazing way.”

Phlimm Phlamm, director of the biggest and richest US series, the Lifetime Grand Prix, agreed. “Next year you can expect to see an American rider in the top 30, no question, and if our elite riders can ever pass a drug test we may crack the top 20.”

Sally Snuffles, noted notary public, pointed to the features of US gravel racing that make it a proving ground for world-beaters like Easter and Garrison. “Look at the results for the Quadrupel Krown of Grafull. Even though the leaderboard isn’t posted anywhere on the Internet, and it’s likely that at least four people are battling for the $35 purse, we can be certain that every one of those retired pro road competitors is going to come back someday and beat Mathieu van der Poel. Our races are that amazing and competitive and unique.”

Teddy Tuba, longtime gravel racer from way back in 2019, attributes American success to tradition. “Here in America we are old skool. We ride hard, play hard, drink hard, puke hard, rehab hard, binge eat hard, and pay ridiculous entry fees hard. Them Euro weenies ain’t never going to beat us. USA! USA!”

America’s top gravel racer, Keegan Swenson, did not participate in the event. According to a spokesperson, he was still recovering from “Crushing the pro elite road field at the world championships in Wollongong,” where he left the competition choking on his dust, narrowly missing a podium spot by 73 places.

—–

END

The dog of small things

October 8, 2022 Comments Off on The dog of small things

I got into photography when I was a kid, shooting in black and white with my dad’s Olympus on Ilford film, then developing the negatives and making the prints at a little camera store around the corner where you could rent darkrooms by the hour. My principal subject was my dog Fletcher. I’m not sure how he liked the photos but when he saw the camera come out he knew it was time to go out into the yard and play.

In my 30’s I began taking photos for my job. I was one of the first people I knew who used a digital camera, a Nikon Coolpix. My mentor, a horrible photographer who was also my boss and mom’s husband, had the typical parochial view of photography: Take beautiful pictures.

Of course all his work was anodyne, lifeless, antiseptic, infinitely edited, perfect. There was nothing that could put you to sleep faster than one of Ted’s slide shows and later, digital photo galleries. He was like Wynyon Marsalis, a genius trumpeter who knew nothing about music. He had art inside himself, which was a good place for it.

This approach to photography was savaged indirectly in an essay I recently read. It didn’t critique travel photography per se but it pointed out the pointlessness of trying to newly interpret any major travel destination with a camera. The thing that has made digital photography ubiquitous is the same thing that has robbed it of its interpretive qualities. When you can take a hundred shots in a second and edit them to perfection in a few more, you are no longer in the sphere of art, which is the sphere of chance, and you’ve landed squarely in the sphere of the Philistines, also known in college as the School of Engineering.

If a picture is simply a carefully designed interpretation of light that leaves nothing to chance and is infinitely tweakable, why do it? Or rather, why give one twisted fuck whether or not it’s beautiful? Since the only role left for the camera is to document, why not simply snap the pic and move on? You and your camera have nothing to say besides an aside to the selfie: This is my amazing body and face, and here is where I was, looking at this perfect thing.

So I decided to cast off Ted’s crippling camera-ism, as represented by all of social media, and strip my phonamera down to its most essential function (besides tracking my every move and thought and purchase). I would allow myself no more than a second or two, snap the photo and move on. No edits and no filters of any kind. What I see is what you get.

It’s harder than you think, snapping and moving on. Your whole body will scream “No! Take more!” and when you sit down to review you will positively shudder at the unflattering images, which shudder will morph into an irresistible urge to hit the edit button. So deeply has Ted’s fake perfectionism worked its way into a lifetime of picturetaking that it’s virtually impossible to break the habit. And indeed for the butterfly I took about fifty pictures.

Old habits don’t die in an outing.

Otherwise it worked out fine. There is plenty of random unfocused capture of subjects that aren’t even proper subjects. No ugly artifacts or distracting items were harmed in the taking of these photos, the collation of which I’m calling “The Dog of Small Things.”

You see, there are a host of tiny oaks that have begun growing since I began watering the trees. Though my brown thumb is omnipotent, I’ve carefully not killed anything and have simply given regular water to what’s already here, and oddly enough, native plants know what to do with sunshine and a little extra water.

In addition to the oak babies, I sprinkled some Sequoia seeds when they began to spill out of a green cone I’d brought home. They once grew all over these hills. Why not in the yard? In 1,500 years or so I might have some really impressive shade to sit under.

I also took pictures of things that no one can see but me, for example the leafy mulberries that may not look impressive but which have doubled in size and which now throw out ridiculous amounts of shade and cover for the birds. Or the dead apricot that holds the seed feeder, a perfect perch for the finches and jays, the nuthatch and occasional house sparrow. Or the shrubs that are now busting out all over with golden berries–this time a year ago they were almost dead. Or the things that were hewn to the ground, now making a fine recovery. These photos of things that are invisible are the best of all.

A more satisfying series of pictures I’ve never taken, unblemished by fake colors that were never there, unamputated of ugly appendages that were, free and naked and running wild beneath the soil and sky, a prayer to just moving on, motherfucker.

—–

END

Getting used to all the silence

October 7, 2022 Comments Off on Getting used to all the silence

After getting divorced and moving away from Los Angeles to a small town in the southern Sierras, things got really quiet. I deleted Facebook a couple of years before leaving LA, and deleted Instagram after one of my bike tours; I don’t remember which one.

The only social media I had left were the comments on my blog, and I finally turned those off, too.

Once I’d left the center of the fake world I’d created, of course people stopped calling, texting, emailing. A couple of fishermen pinged me now and again, not because they liked me but because they were hoping I might provide some entertainment/gossip, or simply so that they could tell people they were “still in touch.”

Even the tiny cadre of people I’d considered friends never called or reached out, which made sense because they weren’t friends. I woke up one day not too long ago and realized that I’m almost completely alone. Over the course of a day I talk to one person, and on a very busy day I speak with two, that’s if you don’t count the brief exchanges at the store or the odd work-related phone call.

They say that being lonely is incredibly bad for you, but I don’t think that’s true for being alone. You can be lonely in the middle of a city of ten million people, but being alone doesn’t necessarily mean you’re lonely, at least not for me, and at least not when it’s by choice.

The biggest benefit to being alone is not having any responsibility for how people react to what I say and do. At first it was a shock, the withdrawal of reactions. But now it is completely normal and relaxing. There was a time when I would have moved to a new place and immediately made friends, tried to be part of the community. Though I’m no recluse, I now avoid any unnecessary contact or communication. People are so noisy. Why would I want more noise?

Because I already have plenty. The scrub-jays, acorn woodpeckers, titmice, ravens, quail, doves, hummingbirds, honeybees, and house finches make a racket all day long, but unlike human racket, it’s very pleasing. The wind blows or soughs, and that’s pleasing, too. Even the ugly barn next door makes odd creaking and groaning noises when the aluminum joints expand in the heat, and the raucous barking of dogs at odd times, the high-pitched calls of coyotes, or the crackle of logs in the fireplace mixed with the purr of the cat, all these noises are noises enough.

I don’t need to hear much else.

What’s more to the point, I’ve become maladjusted to social environments. We went to a brewery last week and it was very uncomfortable simply being around people. No matter how much I tried not to listen, snippets of their conversations wafted in, annoying, empty, vain, vapid exchanges fueled by booze and the kind of loneliness no one wants a slice of. We left quickly.

As someone who has written in this format for more than a decade and been addicted to the chatter generated by his writing, the biggest silence is the silence of readers. Once in a great rare while someone will email me but other than that the biggest payback of writing, which is to hear the praise and the criticism, has vanished. This is of course its own topic, the idea that you can write publicly with little or no feedback from your audience and still maintain interest in it without the dopamine, but after a while I can tell you that the withdrawal goes away and I find myself wondering how I ever survived all that distraction in the first place?

There is still some feedback in the form of viewing stats but that’s optional and it’s anonymous and it’s machine-generated. It’s not noisy and it doesn’t scream “You’re awesome!” or “You suck!”.

When you pull away from the noise you realize that you’re not that important, and that the only people who really care about you can be counted on a few fingers. That your life isn’t the architecture of the 0’s and 1’s you’ve curated online, and that opinions, including your own, are like armpits and assholes: Everybody has ’em.

And of course the less you speak the more you think before you speak. Scarcity creates value. Silence makes you understand why people once spoke so little and why words once had so much heft, why the right word moved armies to peace and the wrong word to war.

Silence also has a way of reflecting back the enormity of the universe and its central message of utter coldness, utter randomness, and its unblinking stare of pitiless infinity. It’s not for the religious, the certain, or the faint of heart.

There was a time when I would have tried to tie this in with cycling first and the South Bay second. There. I just did.


END

Turn left for Antarctica

September 29, 2022 Comments Off on Turn left for Antarctica

The other day I was wondering if there were any convenience stores in Antarctica. Because if there are, it would sure make a bike ride to the South Pole easier. I also wondered if maybe they had built a bridge from Argentina or New Zealand, which would also greatly increase accessibility.

Turns out there is neither, which put a temporary damper on my plans.

And there are lots more hurdles to overcome, such as -136 degree weather, and of course the $80,000 price tag of getting squired all the way to the South Pole on skis while pulling a 160-lb. sled. Even a simple cruise for a few days to set foot on the ice continent will set you back $10k or more.

As tough as all that sounds, there’s an even bigger obstacle, which is getting to Bakersfield.

Bakersfield is the first place I’ll have to stop on my trip out of Kern County. I’ve tried all the different ways to the coast and there are no easy ones from here. They say the hardest step on any trip is the first one, and it’s true. To get to Bakersfield I have to take a winding canyon road that follows the Kern River, then take the main canyon road a final thirteen miles, two narrow lanes that absolutely do not have room for a bicycle.

So you have to pull onto the tiny 1-foot strip to the right of the fog line to let trucks and cars pass, then hop back into the lane before crashing, while making sure that you’re not also hopping in front of a car that’s barreling down behind you. If only there was an invention that could be attached to a helmet or handlebar that would let you see what’s happening behind you.

And before even getting to Bakersfield you have to consider the Bad Idea Fairy Theorem, i.e., is this simply another mad idea that struck me late at night, a manifestation of crazy that under the bright light of midday will be revealed as a super terrible idea that should be disposed of immediately? Seems so, but it’s pretty bright outside and the idea hasn’t dissipated. I mean, lots of people have been to Antarctica before. It’s actually a trendy destination. So what if I get most of the way there on a bike instead of on a plane?

I know, I know. Bakersfield.


END

The old lessons

September 28, 2022 Comments Off on The old lessons

These are the ones you are constantly having to re-learn, which calls into question whether in fact you ever learned them. One of my favorites is Lemond’s line, “It doesn’t get easier, you just go faster.”

I love this because it’s untrue and thus must be committed irrevocably to memory. It does get easier, and you don’t necessarily go faster. In fact, you typically go slower, until you give up cycling altogether in a process known as “death.”

But it does get easier, really, it does. And it gets easier in two ways. First is relatively easier. The second half of the 12-mile dirt climb up Old State Road is the sandiest, switch-backiest, and hardest. Many times in the last couple of miles I’ve seen human footprints, usually with a dog’s, marking out a pleasant 4-mile walk for someone who lives up in Alta Sierra.

But I’ve never seen the person, or any person, ever riding, running, or even walking on the road.

Two days ago I had climbed the 155 and was taking the dirt descent on OSR when I saw the tracks again sans dog. They were fresh. “Oh,” I thought, “the guy is out for a walk.”

I descended for about three miles, still seeing the tracks, until I actually came upon the guy. He was mostly bald, chubby, and mid-40’s old. But here’s the thing. It was already a 6-mile run for him, eight if he’d begun back in Alta Sierra, and it is a damned hard section to run up or down. He waved, and to make matters worse he was running fast, by which I mean faster than I’ve ever run, which sets the bar low.

Still … the longest run I’ve ever done was twelve miles but it was on the bottom section of OSR, yes, in the dirt and uphill, but I turned around about a mile into the really steep and sandy section. Just the fact that this guy was out there running was impressive, let alone his pace, which was humbling. So I started following his footprints in earnest, almost crashing numerous times as I did, disbelieving, as they continued on and on and on.

Finally, when it would have been about a 20-mile run, the tracks ended. I forgot to mention that it was already hot. This guy’s run made my ride relatively easier because it reminded me that running is way harder than riding and that I’d had to screw myself up for an 8-mile climb whereas he’d had to screw himself up for a near-marathon. My ride got relatively easier just thinking about it.

I took the next day off, tired from the crazy climb up the 155, and this morning shouldered a pack that I’d loaded down with about ten pounds of water, and rode up the 155 again. It was so much easier than two days ago, and yes, I went faster, fifteen or twenty minutes faster. This is the second way it gets easier: Although Lemond is right about trained athletes trying to improve their times, he’s wrong about old doofuses trying to dislodge themselves from the clutching embrace of the recliner.

The first time in a long time that I’d climbed the 155 it was bitter hell with a dash of gall and wormwood thrown in. There is a huge difference between something so hard that you barely have the strength to turn your legs over, and having the fitness to ride the same route where the discomfort is pace rather than the sheer effort of not toppling over. It really was easier because strength fatigue is different from fitness fatigue.

Which brings us to the old lesson.

Whether it gets easier and whether you go faster isn’t the point. The old lesson is that you have to get out and do it, period. I thought about that guy pounding out twenty miles on the hardest road I know of. I’ve no idea if he was going faster or if it was getting easier, but it didn’t matter. He knew the old lesson; he’d laced up and done the run.

If I ever see him again I’ll stop and thank him for the reminder.


END

The exoskeleton

September 27, 2022 Comments Off on The exoskeleton

Everybody has one. It’s the form of your life that everyone else sees, including you when you look in the mirror. The exoskeleton is formed by community, #socmed, clothing, job, family role as father, grandfather, son, daughter, mother, and it’s formed by the lattices of language and culture that harden into your external shell.

The exoskeleton is you but it is not you.

You are the internal skeleton. The actual bones and muscles, the genes, germs, neurons, memories, mores and morals, consciousness and unconsciousness, childhood experiences, gray and white matter, the cells, the mDNA, the ideas, emotions, and pattern responses to the external world. It’s this internal skeleton that we want to believe is the real us because it is the real us, but more often than not, it isn’t.

The older you get the harder and the more you the exoskeleton becomes. We ride the same loop five days a week, watch the same teevee shows, follow the same #socmed feeds, spout the same narrative about our lives, do the same mind-numbing job, swill the same alcohols, exchange the same banal pleasantries, jab the same barbs, smear the same gel over the bald spot, chimp repeatedly at the sinking or rising Fidelity balance, blink stupidly in the mirror telling ourselves that we’re not that much older, stupider, uglier, weaker, closer to death.

And we believe it because the exoskeleton has a hardness approaching HRC 70 the older we get. Nothing gets through. Nothing scratches the diamond-hard exterior, and so the inner skeleton slumps and rots. At the end there’s nothing but a mausoleum in the exact shape of you, a perfect Egyptian sarcophagus made up of your external life, with the inside nothing but dust wrapped in rags. This is a happy ending, with pallbearers and mourners weeping over a beautiful and beautifully polished shape containing all the simulacra of you.

But it is not you. It never was.

I’ve been unfortunate to die early. My exoskeleton was smashed. The outside forces holding it together were unbound and it melted away leaving a soft and exposed exterior that cut easily, bled more easily, and feels pain all the time. Like the skin on my feet, though, each abrasion hardens what’s inside.

The vast increase in pain has led to a vast increase in the ability to withstand pain. As the new adage goes, “The more you do, the more you can do.” The things that once hurt are barely even perceived, and the new failings, the real ones, are greater, vaster, more profound than you ever imagined.

It is hard to see yourself without the comforts of the exoskeleton papering over the blotches and to know that everyone sees you naked, and that everyone who wants to take a shot can, and that the only defense you have is internal. It’s hard to walk upright without the hardened shell because you have to develop muscles, tendons, ligaments, the whole inner structure to hold the meatbag together. Without the exoskeleton, though, you also stop caring about how the thing looks. You start caring about how the thing is.

Things that once marked success now mark disillusionment. Things that once heralded happiness now proclaim sorrow. Things that once looked like failure now look like bravery. And things that once looked like hopelessness now glimmer like starlight, brilliant unless you look at them directly, scintillating only if you look off to the edge.

The edge of the known, the known edge, that’s where you have to look beyond, that’s where things shine brightest, that’s where it takes all the strength you have, not the strength of the exoskeleton, but the strength that’s inside.


END

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