Tuesday, September 30, 2008
I just spent a week in a little stinkhole called Las Vegas. Ever heard of it? At least the people I was there to see were worth seeing, talking to and drinking beer with. Me and the town don't get along so well. It's a new-agey, hippie energy thing. Las Vegas is to my inner starchild what The Man is to the long-haired 60s holdover. I won't go into detail. It's damn good to be home even if I'm still hearing the tingling of slot machines in my head, even if the images of overweight chain smokers popping coin after coin into the abyss are forever seared into my brain.
Sorry for the slow upload of comments to my last post. Thanks to everyone who set me straight by explaining that asphalt is easier on the knees and joints than concrete. Whatever. The best comment came in the form of another query courtesy of Hiawatha Jim, "The real question is why would anybody run in this day and age when they could ride a bike?" Well played, Jim ... well played.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Well, is it ignorance? Any runners in the blogosphere want to enlighten me as to why one would choose to briskly perambulate in the vehicle lane as opposed to the adjacent ped walk? Is asphalt softer than concrete? Is there a radical pedestrian rights movement of which I'm unaware?
What does it say about my life that this is one of the most perplexing mysteries I've encountered in my 35 years? Maybe I need some new hobbies.
Friday, September 12, 2008
Where does all the time go? In between travel and work and all the fun that summer can spontaneously throw in one's path I've been working on a few projects. Painting siding? Remodeling the kids' room? Well, not exactly. Something arguably more fun -- setting up shop in the garage. No, not a bike shop (that's located elsewhere), but a place to create sawdust. Years ago I set up my first shop on a tiny back porch and then another larger one in the basement of a bigger house we rented. However, a series of moves culminating in this most recent one to Minnesota 6 1/2 years ago necessitated that I stow all the tools and sell off some of my larger machines. It was sad to let that interest lay dormant for so long, but that is changing now.
I suppose I've always dabbled in woodworking. My dad was a carpenter (not to mention his skills with plumbing, electrical, cabinetmaking, trim work and so on). In his spare time he worked at carving, inlay work, reproduction gun making and engraving. From my earliest days I would follow him into the shop and onto the jobsite. I sustained my first good knife cut by the time I was 4 years old. I picked up scrap wood and held boards and cleaned nails from lumber. I still remember the first time my dad let me use his Skil saw. I remember, too, what a powerful, scary tool it was for a 10 yr old and to this day I have a healthy respect for safety when it comes to power tools.
Spare weekends and some evenings have been spent strategizing and building the new shop. It would be awesome to have a fancy hardwood bench, but considering cost and practicality I prefer to make my own. I needed two of different sizes for this layout -- a single stall in our 2-car garage -- which provides ample room but not so much that I can haphazardly waste space. Starting from the ground up presents a few challenges. It's nothing like moving furniture into a room and then arranging stuff. First everything must come out and then the benches must be built which takes several days -- finish time and all it took 3-4 days per bench. When you have the disordered contents of a garage pulled out for working little things like a rain shower can pose more than a slight nuisance. But the basics have all come together and the shop is starting to take shape.
"Daddy, why do you have so many clamps?" Sylvia loves to ask. Indeed that is a lot of clamps. Here they are being used to glue the top to the second miter saw bench.
And storage for all those clamps, out of the way but close at hand. Yep, I've been carting these and many other tools around from place to place and state to state for over 7 years. When I unpacked my shop boxes I examined the newspaper stuffed inside. It dated back to July 2001. Wow, time flies.
The previous owners of our house had done what most folks do with a garage I reckon -- they stuffed it with bikes and a canoe and cars and yard stuff and old wood scraps and all the other things that don't fit or belong in the house. The problem with that, in my humble opinion, is that you are left with a space that simply holds your shit -- and by shit I mean a lot of stuff that obviously doesn't mean that much to you or it wouldn't be piled in a heap, lining the corners and blocking floor space. I sure as hell can't say I'm spartan when it comes to accruing possessions, but I can say that I have a knack for organizing and storing things in such a way that utilizes space to a better than average degree of efficiency. The garage will be a workspace primarily but will also store canoes, paddling gear, bike trailers and yard equipment. It will also (and this has been a fun challenge) preserve space for parking the car in winter.
To put it bluntly (and this is the confession): I have been in anal-retentive organizational heaven. The house is overrun with other humans who don't share my innate love of organization, mind you, so why wouldn't I be overjoyed to have a space where I can impart order to my heart's desire AND reasonably expect that it will be maintained. I relish the sight of the garage each time I open the door now and I can see my little world free of rampant entropy -- a tiny 23ft by 22ft space that is free from the chaos of the world beyond. It's pretty damned ideal for someone wired like me.
What am I gonna build? Whatever I want. I've done some tables and shelf units as well as smaller things like jewelry boxes and picture frames in the past. I'm planning to embark on more furniture down the road. But for now it's great to have the tools accessible and an orderly place to work. Our house is nearing the century mark in age after all and I hope to invest time and energy toward keeping it going for another 100 years. Productivity is all well and good, but it's also great to have a place to open the doors, survey some little accomplishments, dream of grand new projects and drink a few beers.
Open the doors and windows. Smell the cool air and soak in the wonderful warmth of the sun. Plan a project. Drink a beer. Enjoy the early fall, folks.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
So, yeah, it's OLD news now but a few weeks ago I spent a week in Japan. It was work, don't get me wrong. But when you work for a fun loving, outside-the-norm bike company that has a slight reputation for partying ... well, let's just say I wasn't donning a coat and tie to sit in meetings everyday. Here's the play by play, in gory detail.
This was my first trip to Japan. In 8 days I visited Nagoya, Kyoto, Tokyo and Chiba City. I traveled with my boss who lived in Japan for 7 years and functioned also, luckily, as a guide. We toted Travelers Checks; their soft backpack cases also served as luggage. We rode the shinkansen from city to city with our bikes packed and then assembled them at our destination. I stayed in hotel rooms that ranged from your average American mid-price to downsized dorm rooms with bathrooms barely larger than an airplane crapper. I ate some of the most unbelievably good food I've had in my life -- definitely the best consecutive meals I've ever had on a business trip. These included homestyle miso, squash and vegetables; burgers Japanese style (open face with a bowl of rice); Korean barbecue (vegan friends will cringe, but Japanese meat is leagues beyond what we eat here); sushi of course; and we even ate at the only Czech restaurant in Japan. For those in the know, I tried 'natto' as well -- a rancid bean curd that has a distinct aroma and is reported to be extremely good for one's health. Its helpful to keep that in mind while its slimy consistency is clinging to your esophagus as you work to swallow it and keep it down.
I had been told that Japan is the land of vending machines. It's not just sodas and salty, sugary snacks either. There are herb drinks, noodles, dried fish snacks, rice and soy milk, coffee drinks, electrolyte beverages (handy since it was hot and humid as hell) and beer. There was also chuhi. Oh, chuhi ... nectar of some jolly god that descended the celestial plain, plucked a couple lemons along the way and created the ultimate thirst quenching toddy. At 150 yen ($1.42) from the machine and 100-125 yen at the store it was a bargain. And it was always right around the corner from the hotel room door.
Ride highlights: We rode the most in Kyoto. Some Surly loyalists had organized an alleycat/scavenger race. It was a photo contest actually. In teams of 4 we had to scour the city looking for the best photo image from a list of required subjects. We pedaled the narrow, traffic laden streets of Kyoto, up steep climbs to temples, over bridges along the riverfront. The sun set and we stocked up on food and beverages for an afterparty and slide show of each team's efforts at artistic expression. Our party progressed to the river where we lit sparklers, chatted and sipped beers and more chuhi from our messenger bags. The night was still, clear and much cooler than the heat of the day. I was so far from home but probably the happiest at that moment of my whole trip. Kyoto felt like a home away from home. We sang karaoke and got to bed way too late, reeling from the chuhi. The next day we rode 45 minutes out to Ryoanji Temple to take in the grounds and the famed rock garden which us groomed every morning by Zen monks. The history and energy of the place was astounding.
Afterward we rushed off to the train station to catch the "bullet train" to Tokyo. Packing our bikes in the plaza was unnerving since the humidity made me feel like I was working inside a sauna. My clothing was seldom dry in Japan except when I was inside an air-conditioned hotel room at night.
Courtesy of our Japanese distributor we had a fairly full schedule of meetings/presentations and dealer visits. During the course of our trip we were asked to sign bike frames, shop walls and even customers' t-shirts. This was a bit odd and kind of freakish to me that we were afforded a certain celebrity status, but I went along with it. I think I promised a guy he could borrow one of my bikes the next time he's in Mpls. That's okay. I was extended such hospitality while in Japan that the least I could do is try to return some in kind. The hospitality was truly beyond measure and it reminded me that American culture has lost a great deal of our hospitable civility, if we even had that much to begin with.
Riding a bike in Japan was a blast because cycling is such a part of the culture. Bikes are everywhere on the road, and by that I mean cheap, heavy town bikes adapted with racks and kid seats to haul whole families and loads of all kinds. Hipsters and recreational riders are more prevalent in the urban areas, but they are still the minority. What was most noticeable was the acceptant attitude of motorists. The streets are very narrow in Japan (most -- but not all -- cars are smaller, too) and people don't exactly drive slowly. But the presence of bikes is accepted. Bikes part the gap between lines of stopped cars -- no problem; bikes ride against traffic on a one way street -- that's fine; bikes roll stop signs and intersections when it's clear -- no honks or indignant screams; bikes cut from the road onto the sidewalk and back to the road to dodge a stopped car -- bully for you!
In short -- bikes are everywhere in Japan. Motorists acknowledge and for the most part seem to respect cyclists. Taxi drivers are a notable exception -- they're impatient like everywhere else. But the entire time I was riding my bike or being shuttled by car in Japan I only saw one driver get pissed, speed and swerve through traffic. And that's something you can witness dozens of times per day on an average commute around the Twin Cities.
Why is this, I wonder? I think the fact that cycling is (and has historically been) a dominant mode of transportation is one. I also talked with a couple of Japanese about driving. It is not cheap to own and operate a car in Japan. Petrol was around 185 yen/liter. That's about $6.85 per gallon. Licensing runs, I'm told, the equivalent of approximately $2000 US. In short, there's more training and it's more strict to get a license. Plus, once you get a car the expenses don't quit racking up. Our driver in Tokyo said he pays over $400 a month just to park his car -- at his residence no less -- and that does not count parking at destinations in the city.
Still, I appreciated the tolerance of Japanese drivers. I admired the variety of tiny cars, trucks and vans -- intelligently designed vehicles that we would laugh at in the US as toys or devices meant to curb the necessary luxury and roominess we associate with a "proper" automobile. You've never seen people park cars in the tiniest available spots the way they do in Japan. Space is at a premium. That struggle has not been answered by kicking bikes and pedestrians out of the picture or segregating them to separate lanes/paths, but through consciously maintaining an attitude that all road users deserve the right to get from point A to point B.
And do you think gas prices aren't affecting other drivers around the world? Well, I already related the price of fuel in Japan. Our Tokyo driver also told us that traffic in the city is comparable now to what is was 30 years ago. That's a subjective estimate but impressive nonetheless. Have high fuel prices had such an impact in the US? Gas has trended down in cost (just in time for elections!) You still hear a little prattle of people radically altering their driving habits, but we have a long way to go.
It's good to be back friends. I hope you're well. There are too many great things to relate about my trip to Japan and some stories I'd probably not care to divulge on the blog. We'll save those for the next party we host ...
And as a side note: Sorry for the lack of updates. I just returned from Eurobike in Germany this past Monday. I also missed coverage of our annual family bike vacation. I have some catching up to do but more work travel is coming up. Maybe I'll post news of the fun happenings by Christmas. Ha!