Sunday, June 11, 2017

the bigness of it all: why I can't hack the suburbs

This is my fifth June in Overland Park, Kansas.
My fifth summer of teaching and making music and sharing laughter and smailes and learning with sweet kids. I look forward to the start of camp on Monday, ad I know that once everyone gets into the groove, the two weeks will go by quickly.
Meanwhile, I have a free day to myself. A free day in which to laze around in the morning and then ride my bike in the afternoon.
Here in Overland Park, the relentlessly pristine suburban landscape, with its tan big-box stores and manicured lawns and comfortable families are getting me down. It's shocking to see how many people have bought into this way of life, and how many still cling to it.

Because cars are king here, I must ride my bike on the sidewalk nearly all the time. There is one bike lane, which goes a short distance past the house where I'm staying. Drivers are generally pretty polite to me, especially when I'm towing the trailer (presumably, they think there's a child inside). But the landscape of sameness and sterility, the utter lack of a potholed vacant lot anywhere, feels sad.

Add to this mix the fact that my health is not what it used to be in previous visits -- I am tired all the time now, and find myself marshaling my energy carefully to save it for what I need to do the most.
I am already anticipating cancelling at least one dinner date this week because I can feel the hammer of fatigue hovering above my head and I know if I don't come home right after camp to rest, I'll pay for it the next day. The fatigue, the feeling of waking up never fully rested, has added to my slight melancholy about my visit, and melancholy already fueled by missing my Sweetie and mourning the loss of a beloved cat who died a week after I left. Sweetie and I have already agreed that this will be my last full month away from home for work. If the synagogue wants me back next year, it will have to be for only a couple of weeks at most. I just can't be gone that long anymore without it taking a toll on me, and on us.

That I know this even before camp starts tells me it's the right decision.

Today, I have to make myself scarce for a few hours, because my hosts are having a showing -- they're trying to sell this demi-mansion and everything has to be empty, unlived-in and pristine -- so after I hide all my stuff in closets and put the fancy sheets and blankets back on my bed and wipe down the kitchen counters so it looks like no water has ever splashed on them, I'll pack up my laptop and staff paper and headphones and ride to the nearest coffee shop so I can work on music in an air-conditioned environment. On the way back, I'll stop in at the temple to make sure everything is ready for camp tomorrow.

It's a strange landscape for me. I know my way around by now, where the grocery stores and coffee shops and the drugstore are, but it still feels foreign, and I still feel very much like a tourist here.
About the only place I feel a sense of welcome and homelikeness is at the temple itself.

But work can't be home. It mustn't be. I'm glad I know that.
It makes for better days, and more enjoyable rides, while I'm here.
Happy riding.

Monday, June 5, 2017

beloved blue bike: kansas, part five

My fifth visit to Overland Park, Kansas means pulling out the blue bike I shipped there a few years ago. It has lived in the rabbi's garage, awaiting my return every summer so I can ride it daily for about a month. Then, at the end of my teaching residency, it's returned to the back of the garage to collect dust while the tires go flat for another winter.

It felt good to pull it out and dust it off again this week. The brake pads, which I'd replaced last year, are fine. The chain is filthy but so far it's working, so I may just apply a little oil and leave it for now.
The rabbi is trying to sell this large house. Now that his kids are grown and he's only a few years from retirement, he doesn't need the space -- or the headache of living in a fancy gated community.
When his house sells, my bike will need a new storage space (and, assuming I'm invited back next year, I will need a new homestay situation next year). So far, his house has been on the market over five months and it hasn't had many bites. So, while his smaller house is being remodeled, he's living in the big house again and may even take it off the market while he's here.
In any case, if it's still his next summer I'll be surprised.

But I digress.

The bike worked just fine. I was reminded of the smaller rear cogs and how I have to rely on the largest two cogs to get up basically any incline -- especially after I hook up the trailer.

The trailer, loaned to me by a camper's family during my first year here, is now on permanent loan to the temple for whenever I visit. The camper in question has long since aged out of the program, and her younger siblings are much too big to ride in the trailer; so it just lives at the temple when I'm not using it. I expect I will store the bike at the temple, too, when my residency is finished for the year.

There will come a time when money, my energy level and/or a change of rabbi will determine that I no longer spend every June in Kansas. When that time comes, I can either leave the bike with Revolve KC, the bicycle non-profit; or I can box it up and take it home.

It's not a super-fancy bike; a department store-level mountain bike that's been city-fied on the cheap can be found anywhere in Portland and most other bike-friendly cities. (Its annual reappearance in the suburbs of Kansas City remains a novelty, even now) But I've grown quite fond of it. It fits me better than any of the bikes my hosts have managed to loan me (my primary reason for shipping it here to begin with); and it's comfortable and sturdy and cheap enough to survive the awful humidity of midwestern summers without much fuss. An occasional drop of lube, topping off the tires every couple of weeks, and it's good to go. If I did decide to donate it, I might swap in some cheaper handlebars, or I might not.

In spite of the oppressive heat -- today's high was 93F, with humidity above 40% -- I enjoyed riding to and from the temple today for the beginning of staff week. Turning the cranks after a few days of inactivity felt lovely, and I didn't even mind getting off and walking it up the short, steep incline to the rabbi's house after work.

Biking to and from the temple each day during my residency has become a hallmark of my annual visits.  When returning campers see the bike and trailer locked up outside, they know I'm back and it's all good.

So I'm here, and the bike is here, and it's time for bed. I've got another busy day tomorrow.

(Below: evidence of my return, June 2017. Taken at the temple.)

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Incredible June, Version 5: Kansas

Tomorrow I head out to Overland Park, Kansas (near Kansas City) for my fifth year of the summer teaching residency I never expected to last this long.

Likely the only biking I'll do is towing the guitar back and forth between my homestay and the synagogue where I'll teach. The blue Kansas bike is still there, and the trailer is now on permanent loan to the synagogue for whenever I visit.

It will be warm and humid, and they won't let me ride in the rain.
But it will still be lovely, and if I have a free evening Ill take advantage of the area's car-free paths to explore the area in and along Indian Creek in Johnson County.

It's summer, and I'm ready.
I'll send periodic reports of anything interesting.
Happy riding!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

the overseas thing, again

I spent almost twenty years working in the bicycle industry as a mechanic, inventory manager and shop co-owner.
In that time, I watched as our little shop went from being exclusively a used bikes dealer and repair shop to being an almost entirely new bike dealer.
The reasons for that are many, but mostly have to do with the internet and the cheap cost of goods made in China.

The internet made it possible for folks to acquire information about their old bikes, discover that many were, in fact, "vintage" and there fetched a higher price than a shop was willing to pay out. And with the advent of craigslist and eBay, the used bike retail market pretty much dried up in bike-friendly cities like Portland, because of the private market to be found online.

China, well.. China.
Yeah. Chinese factories, far from the prying eyes of all but the most diligent manufacturing company heads and paying pennies in labor costs, have been able to manufacture decent bikes and parts at a fraction of the cost of doing so in North America and Europe. Chinese parts have become the industry standard, while US- and EU-made parts have become "high zoot" and far more expensive than their Chinese-made counterparts.

Sure, some of that can be blamed on China's treatment of workers and the massive scale of their manufacturing. But some of it can also be blamed on a sense of guilt-induced cache that is added to the already higher price of US/EU-made goods. Yes, workers in the US and EU earn far more -- and their cost of living is higher. However, it would be interesting to stop and ask ourselves -- how much of our desire for goods made in the US and EU comes from needing to feel better about our buying power as expressed through our choices?

Guess what?
The more I watch the bicycle industry evolve, the more I become convinced that the average consumer actually holds very little power in this structure.
We spend according to our means -- or, more likely, according to the level of risk we're willing to take before the credit card bill comes in the mail next month.
If we ignored the efforts of Madison Avenue, THEN we'd have some real power. But too many of us (myself included, from time to time) are too easily manipulated by advertising; by the rules of the workplace which dictate that you have to look successful in order to somehow become successful; and by bicycle manufacturers dangling racer dreams in front of us that few of us can ever hope to catch.

But things are changing. And it's partly because of the internet, and China.
People are deciding that they want to live more within their means. They're cutting up their credit cards and learning to live on less money. They shop only when they actually need something, and learn how to maintain what they already own. And that includes bicycles.

Thanks to the internet, there are thousands of bicycle repair tutorials a keystroke away.
Thanks to China, when you need replacement parts, you can buy them yourself, online, for far less than you'd pay in a local shop.

And bike shop owners can do one of two things:

They can howl about how unfair it is. Those are the ones who will likely fold before too long.

Or they can adapt. Multi-purpose your space: serve coffee and lunch for the customer to eat while they wait for a simple repair. Teach repair classes for the simpler stuff and make more room on the board for the complex things that only trained mechanics should mess with.
Adapting also means running a leaner, smarter business. Because consumers WON'T stop buying on the cheap until they CAN'T anymore -- either because of trade restrictions and embargoes, or because of Peak Oil, or whatever else comes down the pike.

Some of us know that such a time might come in our lifetime. So we keep our skills handy and stock up on parts we've gleaned from other people's throwaways.
We repair derailleur springs and overhaul freewheels.
(Freewheels? Nobody rides those things anymore!  Well, actually, they do. I do, and they work just fine.)

I am sitting on a secret stash of highly un-glamorous -- even somewhat rusty -- but perfectly functional bike parts and I pull from that stash to repair bikes that come my way.
I value department store bikes -- as long as they're whole and they can still roll, I can tune them up and make them rideable and safe. And that is perfectly and totally fine.

In the end, the bike-boom ship has sailed (it sailed in late 2008, and the number of people still pining for that time shocks me). We will never again see lots and lots of legitimate retail bike stores selling only used product and still operating at a profit. That will become the realm of the non-profit, charity organization which doesn't have to worry about doing more than breaking even and hanging on until the next grant cycle comes. Anyone else dealing in used bikes will be doing it out of their house, on a scale so small the IRS will shrug and leave them alone, because it's just not worth their time and manpower to go after the home mechanics of the world.

And things will stumble along as they are for a little while yet.
Meanwhile, I think I'll go ride my bike.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

pedal update

A few months ago I purchased a new set of platform pedals for my All-Rounder. I liked the look of the VP pedals, but they weren't grippy enough for riding in the rain (which happens often here).
I liked the grippyness of the Redline platforms a little better, but they looked klunky and were heavy.
So I bought these.

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Yes, I found them on eBay (sue me, this is the world we live in right now and I'm on a budget).
They come branded with names like Base Camp and Scudgood (yes, really). In some cases, they also come in colors besides black (orange, red, blue -- though sadly, NOT gray).

But at less than $20 bucks for a pair including shipping, I figured I could give them a try and at least they wouldn't totally suck.
Since installing them four months ago, I've been surprised and pleased by them.
They're low-profile like the VP pedals I'd tried; and the pins are long enough to be really grippy -- more than the Redline pedals were. After nearly five hundred miles on them in dry and wet conditions, they're holding up beautifully. I liekd them so much that two months in I bought another pair for my Bridgestone. Since then, I've mostly sold off or given away most of the other platform pedals I'd tried and/or had lying around.

Are they show-bike beautiful? Nope.
Are they reliable and comfortable and light? Definitely.
Good enough to be worth the wait from Hong Kong.

Here's the current eBay listings:



Tuesday, May 9, 2017

camp bike, 2017

Several years ago, when I as still working at the large Reform synagogue here in Portland, a bicycle was abandoned there. My boss took the bike inside and stoed it in the religious school,. hoping that whomever had left it there would come back to reclaim it before too long.

They never came back, so my boss asked me to "make it go away".
This is what it looked like before I did anything. Straight handlebars with bar ends, grip-shift thhat no longer worked,  and a very uncomfortable saddle.

I took the bike home, put it up in the stand and fixed it up. I straightened the bent derailleur hanger (which was probably why the bike was abandoned to begin with -- the rear derailleur had gone into the spokes), trued the wheels, adjusted bearings and swapped out the straight handlebars and grip shift for some swept-back bars and thumb shifters.

When it was all done, I had a perfectly rideable cheap city bike.

I sat on the bike for a few months, until I got hired to return to my Kansas shul as High Holidays Soloist. Knowing that my loaner bikes there had never fit me well, I proposed shipping this bike there and leaving it there for my annual summer visits. When the visits stopped someday -- no gig lasts forever -- I would either box it up and bring it home with me, or I'd donate it to the bike non-profit in Kansas City.

Since fall 2014, the bike has lived in a garage in Overland Park, Kansas, used only when I show up each summer for camp and occasionally as a bike for the senior rabbi's house guests.
This summer I will need to either overhaul or replace the bottom bracket and slap on a new chain. Otherwise, I'm sure it will see me through another June.
I am also aware that changes are coming to the synagogue -- the senior rabbi will retire in three years and the future of the summer program is unclear -- which will require me to think about how I spend my June not too long from now. I certainly won't be doing this gig forever.

But for now, my blue bike is a signal to the children of the synagogue that Beth is back. I can't wait to toss my guitar in the loaner trailer and haul it to staff week in less than a month.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

what's really precious anymore?

Random thoughts today:

1. Just learned that a good friend has been forced out of her synagogue position after 14 years. On paper, it's a money thing; but I know that there are also personality issues at play. She's in her late 50's and thankfully has landed an interim position on the east coast; but it's still worrisome and sad and not ideal for so many reasons.

2. I am watching my country fall apart in so many ways:
-- Trump supporters are prepping for whatever vision of "Doomsday" they've been fantasizing about for the last decade;
-- Trump is, depending on which reports you read, six months or six weeks away from impeachment, which would set off dozens or hundreds of homegrown militia actions around the country;
-- Liberal lefties are lost and flailing and lack a clear, visionary leader as Democrat leaders cling to the little power they have left in order to save their jobs (and retirement packages, and whatever else) in the short run. Because they have no long-term vision they believe in, much less agree on;
-- Portland's latest attempt at peaceful protest turn into a real live riot within an hour of getting underway. Moms and strollers were moved aside in favor of masked punks destroying shop windows, tossing flares into storefronts and (stupid-stupid-stupid) vandalizing police cars. It made for happy TV reporters and a miserable political Left.

3. On the home front, I am struggling to figure out how to survive in both the short-term and the long-term:
-- My Crohn's is getting worse -- bad enough to make working full-time impossible, though not yet bad enough to qualify me for disability.
-- Sweetie is working like a fiend and has almost more paying work than she can handle, at least for now. But her work depends on the public's ability to buy tickets to classical music concerts, which has always felt like a dicey proposition to me.
-- We are barely paying our bills. I am priming the pump by scavenging and flipping items for sale on the black free market, and in today's America where so many of us are forced to improvise to survive, that's about all I'm willing to admit in public.
-- This reality is juxtaposed against the reality of my ongoing work in Jewish education and music, in a landscape where I can assure you that almost NO ONE I know there is living the way I do. They have nice houses, and vacation homes, and retirement funds and all sorts of things my life realities never enabled me to set up. So when I travel to these places and share my gifts, there's always a sense of feeling like I wear a costume that I only take off when I get back home.

The truth is that, while all hell is breaking loose behind closed doors, most of us have no idea what will, or could, happen in the event of some kind of eco-political breakdown. By all public accounts, that sort of thing seems to be just fine with our current President National Puppet, who thinks a major shaking up would do the country good.

So what do we do? We try to stay small and quiet and numb for as long as we can.

Sure, sure, some of my friends -- a very few -- have done their own prepping. They grow their own food, shop as little as possible, deal in cash for as much as possible and do everything they can to stay off the radar -- no magazine subscriptions, no cable; they piggyback on a neighbor's Wifi to avoid having to pay and they scavenge for everything (and live lives that don't require them to dress nice, ever). And perhaps one or two of them own guns and ammo (because when the shit hits the fan, they WILL have to protect themselves and their saved-up materials and food from those who would rather steal than work).

But among the liberal left they are a small minority.

Most of us, even those who own instead of rent, are not nearly that far along in our preparation or our thinking. Either because we don't want to be, or because, in my case at least, I know that all my prepping will amount to nothing. If things really go belly-up, I won't have access to the medicines that keep me functional and alive.
And when the supply line dries up -- either through economic collapse or a total overturn of the Affordable Care Act -- I will die.

Yup. I'm a goner in a Great Shakeup.
I'm fungible. Expendable. Not worth a plug nickel in the end.

Which means that I had better get cozy with the reality of my mortality.
So that probably explains all the nighttime dreams and daytime thinking I've been doing around dying and death -- what it means, how it happens, what it will be like to die -- because I don't see any other possibility for myself.

And that also explains why I no longer dream really big dreams for my future.
Because I'm in my mid-fifties and if I make it to seventy I'll be as pleasantly surprised as anyone.

These days, it's the small things that feel most precious to me:
Sweetie's smile when we wake up in the morning.
The first sip of coffee.
The purr of the cat.
The whirr of the freewheel as I coast down the hill on my bicycle.
The swirling clouds, the fast-moving rainy fronts and the riot of floral colors during an Oregon spring.
The relative silence of sitting on my stoop at 5:30 in the morning, before most of the street has awakened and only the birds are out.
The first sunny day of spring when the mountain is out and glimmering white with snow.
The feel of a wrench in my still-useful hands, as I fix up a bike so someone can use it to find or keep a job, or go to school, or meets friends at a park.
The sound of my voice joining with others in song.
The first chewy, eggy bite of challah on Shabbat.
The songs of crickets and the deep blue of the sky at dusk.
And the sound of my Sweetie's voice, murmuring as she snuggles closer to me so we can both get warm at bedtime.

In a world where I have no control over the big things, the small things become bigger and more important than ever. And I'll cherish them for as long as I am able to.
Because the big things mean nothing, while the small things are pieces of a life full of awe and love.
May today bring you small things to be awed by, or in love with.