Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Ex-Mess, A Recap

Here we are well past the tail end of another December 25th, having ringed in the New Year. Our house, like the homes of many others with children, went through a transition. It became a place resembling a littered city after a ticker-tape parade and slowly returned to a subjective state we call normalcy.

This year we found ourselves on the receiving end of a couple of gifts that were real hell-raisers. Now, if Mom and Dad are crying WTF, something must be up. I won't call any gifts out by name or explicit description, but I want to air a couple of grievances.

One: Those people who write those age recommendations for kids' toys product packaging know a lot about laws/liability and a surprising amount about what's appropriate for a child of a given age. Now, you may think our kids are SOOO smart (and they are, mind you -- just like everyone else's prides and joys) but he or she may have a sibling who is too young to know better. Please keep that in mind, people, when you're choosing the cutest science-inspired erupting volcano-like contraption that is certain to do one thing alone -- wreck our dining room and cause Mom and Dad to spout age-inappropriate phrases after stepping upon one of hundreds of misplaced plastic remnants that have landed on the floor.

Two: Packaging. I might already be on the road to dressing my kids in clothes sans zippers and cutting off electricity to our house, but, by Zeus, I am just goddammed tired of excess plastic packaging. This doesn't go for toys exclusively, but toys seem to be a prime offender. The toy itself is made of plastic. It's doubly encased in a plastic clamshell and plastic twist-tied to the plastic-reinforced header card. Some of these things take me 10 minutes to extract intact with a tool or two. Then I get to spend another 10 minutes bagging and disposing of this plastic, all the while carrying a heavy heart in addition to the bag of useless plastic shit going to the can.

All kind-hearted givers of gifts to young people can help. Head it off at the pass. Don't buy or gift useless, meaningless crap. Cute is not an acceptable enough excuse for Mini Coopers or Julia Roberts, let alone dumb bobbles made in somewhere else.

Am I looking forward to the myriad arguments that will erupt when I tell my daughters they can't have something because it is useless and wasteful? No. Am I looking forward to the greater good this "hardline" stance can affect? Yes.

Not to worry. I'll be sure we have plenty of fun along the way. In the meantime, I'll be carving some whalebone buttons in the shop.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Beer Stop

I rarely ever enter a beer store and march right out with a quick purchase. Some people buy the same brand of something all the time. I might always buy Colgate (if I'm too cheap for Tom's of Maine) toothpaste, for instance, but I never buy the same beer again and again.

Now, there are the old stand-bys and the brands that I frequent. But I'd guess I spend on average 5 to 15 minutes pacing back and forth in front of the glass cooler doors taking in all the possibilities. Occasionally, something will stand out due to one of a number of reasons -- type of beer, label, place of origin, quantity, price or a combination of quantity/price.

The latter attributes were stacked in my favor when I spied this dark, dappled bottle through the glass a few weeks back. With a brand name like Baltika it sounded distant and intriguing. It had an ABV that would be high on the pH scale and 51oz of this liquid set me back less than four bucks.

That bottle thrice filled my pint glass. Good thing, since the first glass was sufficient to deaden my taste buds and bring them around to my foreign experience. After that the second was startlingly palatable. The third made me believe it would matter not if I were stranded above deck on a freighter hauling timber stuck smack dab in the middle of the actual Baltic during a winter storm.

O, Baltika ... I hope to visit your shores one day, but I think I'll drink your salty brine before I quaff your namesake malt liquor ever again.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Noteworthy Quotation: Quote-Worthy Notation

"Cars are all right on occassion, but they are not moments of grace, as bicycles are."

From The Forsyte Saga, John Galsworthy

I stumbled upon this quote while checking out the website of a bike touring outfitter in Vietnam. I was at work at the time and the reason I was on this website was completely work-related. However, the quote resonated with me so completely that I sat daydreaming, meditating on it for a good long while (consequently ignoring my tasks at hand). I could get neither the quote nor the images of quiet, rhythmic motion that accompanied it out of my head.

Now, at least a week later I'm still captivated. The words are so true, to me anyway. Beginning our winter with subzero nights and a few inches of snow causes me to dig deep for cycling inspiration. The thought of four seasons of graceful movement lightens and warms me.

May you all be light and warm, my two-wheeled friends.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Now Back to Some Cycling-Related Banter ...

We had a dusting of snow this morning that managed to cling to the streets deceptively well in our lower 20 degree temps. I accomplished my first slow speed wipe out of the winter season while cornering onto Xerxes Ave. As my Big Dummy was sliding away from me into the traffic lane I executed a deft leg hook and reeled it back into the shoulder next to my body. I’m sure the motorist who slowed to pass my sprawled out body and bike was laughing and/or thinking how foolish it is to ride a bike in winter. Note to self: Remember to be mindful of corners for the next few months.

I recently cleaned out my panniers. This can be a truly revelatory experience 2-3 times per year. I discovered I had been hauling around a couple dozen plastic bags of all shapes and sizes that had settled out of sight to the bottom of the packs. I never know when I’ll need one to waterproof something or cover a saddle, but I think I can get by with a half dozen at the most. It’s amazing how those shopping bags seem to breed. They multiply no matter where they congregate.

I added my emergency clothing bag – a couple of dry outer layers to don should I have a breakdown in winter. I once had to change a flat when it was 18 degrees and windy. Hopping around to generate body heat in sweat-soaked riding clothes taught me to carry some insulation along at all times. Over dressing in winter sucks while riding but the game changes when you have to make a stop.

I’ve been selling some bike bits on Ebay of late. I made a run to drop off a few parcels a couple of days ago. It didn't matter that these packages consisted of a bike frame and a wheelset. Transporting them was no problem. I marvel at the ease of loading stuff on the Big Dummy. I wonder how I’d live without this bike, yet I believe I’m far from maximizing its potential. Next year I plan to craft a couple of custom decks – one with dual kid perches and another with bungies to haul a lock and a trunk bag.

Wideloaders snapped in place and the load is ready to go. I had a little extra time so I was able to explore some dead end streets and happen upon a couple of new connector trails that saved me the hassle of riding down Excelsior Blvd. Despite the sudden snap of cold we had back in early October, things evened out and now we're experiencing a slow, steady drop into winter temps. Still, the ponds and lakes have begun to collect that micro-thin crust of ice around the edges signaling the inevitable freeze to come.

>I pulled up in front of the UPS Store and easily off loaded the goods. Riding a long bike attracts attention on its own. Every time I haul a conspicuously large load, however, I marvel at the stares and double-takes. I usually pay them no mind. If nothing else, I hope the image of me transporting large loads on a bike sticks in people's heads and makes them reconsider the viability of cycling as a mode of transportation.

Pedaling back from the UPS Store and Post Office was very pleasant. The sun was setting on rush hour. I had a pleasant tailwind and peace along the Cedar Lake bike highway. I rode the bike path alongside I-394 at Penn facing the drivers stacked in a quarter-mile long line along the ramp, stopped and waiting to merge into bumper-to-bumper traffic that was going nowhere fast toward downtown.

I try hard to understand people’s unique situations and respect them as best I can. However, at that moment I found myself unsympathetically thinking how dumb these drivers were to get in their cars, pull into an asphalt sea polluted with fumes, and languish there in sheer boredom and frustration day after day. Maybe some people actually get off on driving in rush hour traffic. But I believe most people regard it as a necessary inconvenience, nonetheless an undeniable reality. How else am I going to get to work? To the store? Get the kids to soccer practice and violin lessons? … And the list goes on.

I’m certain more than the majority of these drivers believe traffic engineers could fix these congestion problems with more lanes and bigger, better roads. (If only the money weren’t spent on bike trails ...) They think automobile transportation is a system that can be made efficient. I do not believe this.

The problem could be mine, too. Perhaps I don’t have a new enough automobile, one with sufficient amenities to coax me out of believing every time I drive I’m dying behind the wheel – passively, sitting still -- one red light, stop sign and traffic snarl at a time.

My commute’s been wearing on me this year. It’s finally hitting home that 16 miles is a long way to ride to work. But when I let my laziness set in I encounter a significant conundrum – even if I could justify buying another car financially (which would allow me to drive whenever I wanted), I would still be left with this ideological chasm: I simply don’t believe I could let myself become a habitual driver again. I think I’d quit my job and find some way to make a living closer to home before I would get another car.

Yep, it’s probably just my problem. However, I am convinced that I, and so many others like me who use their bikes every day to get places, have struck upon one fantastic component of the solution.

The Knife-like Edge of Karma

So, I bought three Swiss Army knives on Ebay for $11.50. They arrived today. The seller did not specify the knives were TSA forfeitures or otherwise confiscated, but I should have guessed. All look to have been carried a while and used occasionally. The one I really wanted in the lot has a name engraved on the handle.

Now I suppose this isn't like boxer shorts or lingerie. Swiss Army knives are tools. Like most tools, performance depends on the care devoted by the owner and can be refined by others afterward. Unlike good shoes or Brooks saddles, Swiss Army knives do not break in to conform to one's anatomy. Rather tools, being made of steel, can be reshaped and revived.

Thank goodness for the former owner of this knife. Brian Connolly, I have the Swiss Army knife that was once your property before it was confiscated somewhere along the way. If by some weird stroke of Zeus you read my blog, let me know.

But first, let me ask you a couple of questions, Brian. Did you think it was okay to attempt to cut, repeatedly, beer cans or some other metal with this knife? Whoa, 'cause you sure mangled the edge. And the small pen knife blade ... did you not notice there was a thin screwdriver already built into the knife? Because you tweaked the blade pretty good using it like so many morons before you have done with knives -- misappropriating them as mini screwdrivers.

In short, Brian, you can't have your once knife back. You don't deserve it. It appears the TSA or the police rescued this knife from you, the same way they rescued knives from other simpletons who don't know an edge from The Edge. Your blade has a better home where it will be much more at hone. Deal with it.

Good night, forfeitors, wherever you are.