Thursday, May 26, 2011

i am a bad mechanic. i am a baaaaad mechanic.

Admission: I do not always take the best care of my bikes.

..::ducking now to avoid the wet shop rags that will surely be thrown at me by pals Justin and Chris over at Crank::..

Like many who work full-time in the bicycle industry, I have more than one bike (though with a grand total of four, I am far below the national average for shop rats, most of whom have nine or more): a cargo bike, a city bike, a road/touring bike and of course, Stompy.

Stompy is my racing bike, a singlespeed Redline Monocog (26" wheel version) with several parts upgrade to make it lighter and more fun to ride. I raced it all last short-track season, cleaned it, gave it a two-week break in August; then turned around and threw a full season of cyclocross practices and races at it. I raced in December at USGP-Portland. I rode home from the race, rinsed off the worst of the mud, then hung the bike vertically in the Bicycle Brain Trust and went inside to wash the mud and embrocation off my legs.

There it sat for four months.

In April, feeling guilty, I pulled Stompy down off the hook, put it in the stand and gave it a better cleaning. I did NOT pull it all apart, because I simply didn't have time. A frozen pedal was treated with a healthy dose of lube suirted into the tiny space between the pedal body and the spindle; an hour later the pedal turned freely again. I did a cursory truing of the front wheel, which helped. And the bike rides pretty well, all things considered. But I have not yet pulled it all apart to clean the bottom bracket threads, or see if any water has collected in the bottom of the frame, nor have I replaced the sealed bearings in the front wheel (and it's clear that I ought to).

In short, I have been a baaaaaad mechanic.

This next week I have a little more free time so I will doing the inevitable.
Full tear-down, bearing replacement and all.
I sort of HAVE to now.
Short-track begins June 6 and Stompy is rightly pissed at me for months of benign neglect.

Monday, May 23, 2011

tyler, george, lance and doping

Last night, Tyler Hamilton came clean on "60 minutes".

Great. Truly, if it helps to ease his conscience -- it won't undo the damage to his legacy -- I'm glad for him.
But seriously, all this truth-telling after the fact does nothing to clean up doping in cycling or any other sport.
The fact remains that, in order to be "competitive", athletes must resort to cheating by using performance-enhancing substances. It has been this way for years -- in some sports, for decades.

Sweetie, who is relatively new to following bicycle racing, has been watching the Giro (indeed, she's seen more of it than I have) with interest and asked me what I thought about all this "coming clean". Do you think all these guys are doping? She asked me.

We were watching Alberto Contador roll almost effortlessly to another time bonus on another ridiculously mountainous stage of the Giro, his third climbing stage in as many days. And just he'd done in the previous two mountain stages, he looked fresh as a daisy at the end of a 5-climb, 200km stage -- while other riders cracked and bonked and were clearly cooked. I invited Sweetie to consider how fresh Contador has looked at the end of every stage he's done well in, day after day. How does anyone, I asked, look that good day after day while other guys are practically dying up there? The man who won the stage, after smiling wanly for the cameras, looked like he wanted to roll right into the bushes and hurl for 20 minutes. Contador looked like he'd just been out on a 35-mile charity ride. If he's not doping, I told Sweetie, then no one else is, either. And I'm sorry, but I just don't believe that anymore.

Tyler Hamilton's admissions of guilt, the handwringing and everything else, while it may provide him some measure of release, does next to nothing to clean up cycling. George Hincapie's testimony about how he and Lance Armstrong helped each other use EPO during their time as teammates at US Postal or Discovery doesn't make a difference. Not when Armstrong donates $125,000 to the [non-profit] UCI (the international governing body of bicycle racing) to fund "anti-doping" work, and manages to avoid testing positive for drugs every single time. Even if Lance is caught, he will have enough money to live on for a long time. He'll be fine.


So I admit that my interest in the Giro is waning a bit. It's tough to watch these guys and get hung up on whether or not they're doping. At the elite, professional level of the sport, nearly all of them are. They have to, in order to hang with the peloton and to keep their careers intact. And I just don't really care much anymore. I am turning my attention to my own racing, which begins soon and which I know won't see drug scandals and big money and other things that turn young mens' heads. It'll just be about racing hard, doing one's best, and enjoying that ice-cold beer with friends afterwards. That's racing. Come watch, and be amazed for real.

Friday, May 20, 2011

a last peek at bike judaica: the yad

The yad (Hebrew for hand) is a sort of stick with a point on one end, used to mark one's place while reading or chanting Torah aloud in the synagogue. Many of these will include an end shaped like a tiny hand.

I started making these over a decade ago, when I was playing around with bike parts as a way of connecting more deeply to my Judaism. They were an immediate hit with my friends at the synagogue where I was a member; my rabbi at the time asked me to make her a left-handed version, unusual for a yad. I gave them as B'nei Mitzvah gifts and made one for the woman who used to be my boss at the temple religious school.

They're my favorite thing to make.

And here's my little midrash (interpretation) about them:

I use a bench vise and needle-nose pliers to make these. Each spoke is bent by hand into the shape of a tiny hand. (The spokes are stainless steel and they require a fair bit of hand strength to bend them into the shapes I want.) The tools leave tiny gouges on the surface on the metal. I could take a lot of time and try to buff these gouges all the way out and completely smooth the surfaces. Instead I sand them just enough to remove the risk that a sharp edge could damage the Torah scroll as it glides across the parchment. If you look at the close-up, you'll see a few tiny scuff marks on the "knuckles" of the "hand". I decided to leave them there for two reasons:

a. Before the rabbinate was professionalized -- before rabbis made enough money to only be rabbis -- nearly all of them also worked at a trade. Akiva was a stonecutter; Maimonides was a doctor. Many lesser-known rabbis served smaller communities and also worked as cobblers, housepainters, and bricklayers. (Baruch Spinoza, the philosopher who ended up as a heretic but began as a rabbinical student, worked as a grinder of lenses for telescopes and eyeglasses.) So I could imagine a rabbi from these older times approaching the Torah with hands scrubbed clean for the Sabbath but still showing the scrapes and callouses of the week's work.

b. I work with my hands; I've been a bike mechanic for many years. And yet, I enjoy Torah study and read a bit of Torah faithfully each week (usually on Shabbat afternoon). The cerebral gymnastics and the focus required to dig beyond the surface meaning of Jewish texts stimulates me in a way unlike any other. And while the rabbinate has become professionalized, our tradition teaches that regular study is required for every Jew, and that Torah is -- and must be -- accessible to everyone in the community. The aforementioned rabbi from my old synagogue used to tell a story of a group of woodchoppers somewhere in Eastern Europe who saved up their money and bought a set of book-bound Torahs -- and had the leather bindings embossed with lettering indicating that these Torahs were the property of this group of woodchoppers. Apparently, they met every Shabbat afternoon to study Torah together.

So the tiny gouges on the knuckles of these yaddayim are symbolic for me, of the connection between the work of one's hands and the work of one's mind and heart. Each informs the other. And that's why all my yaddayim come with callouses. I won't make them any other way.



Thursday, May 19, 2011

when you can't hit the gym, mow the lawn

I promised Sweetie that I would get to the lawn this week.
I also wanted to squeeze in another workout. I couldn't do both on the same night.
So last night on my commute home I pushed myself hard on all the streets with even a slight incline, sometimes in the saddle, sometimes out of the saddle. On a bright, sunny evening I breathed hard and definitely elevated my heart rate -- but at no time did I need to reach for the inhaler. When I got home, I parked the bike, grabbed the push-mower, and tackled the long grass.
Having a push-mower is like having another piece of resistance equipment on hand, especially when the grass gets almost too long to mow. You just push harder, and go back over a spot again and again until it's trimmed down.
By the time I was finished, I had worked up a lovely, healthy sweat in the fading evening sunlight.
I'm hoping that the weather will hit a nice long dry spell soon so I can get to work with the hand-edger -- my other piece of resistance equipment.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

update: judaica

Regarding the response to my last post from someone from the Yeshiva University Museum:
I didn't know that Yeshiva University had a museum, but they do and they would like to have a couple of my pieces for their Contemporary Collecton.
I could've been a jerk about it and asked them for money, but I decided to just not worry about it and honor their request for a donation. I don't make my living from making art; and hey, my stuff's going to be seen in a museum. How cool is that?
I'm sending them a mezuzah and a pair of candlesticks. The woman I spoke with has a friend who might want to commission a Kiddush cup from me (I generally only make the cups by request anymore since they're such a bear to make).
Anyway, I think this is pretty damned cool.

Monday, May 16, 2011


I've been messing around with dead bike parts again and turning them into ritual Judaica items.


(mezuzah, made from Japanese quill pedal and various tiny bits)

I can make mezuzot (singular: mezuzah; like above, the things Jews nail to the doorposts of their homes); kiddush cups and candlesticks (for use on the Sabbath and Holy days); and Yaddayyim (singular: Yad; the pointer we use to mark our place when reading aloud from a Torah scroll iin synagogue).

I've mostly given these away as gifts, and have sold only a few over the years -- Judaica made from bike parts has kind of a limited market, at least here in decidedly not-so-Jewish Oregon. Lately, as part of my re-examination of my connection to Jewish life, I've been making this stuff again. Now that I've figured out the various processes, the items themselves take less time to make -- but sourcing dead bike parts has become more difficult as more vintage bike parts end up in a million little secret "hoard-piles" of collectors, and for sale online. Still, it's cool to make them and hopefully I'll find homes for all of them before too long.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

i hope i don't suck this bad this year

A look back at last year's racing at PIR:

This was my second or third week of racing in the series, when Tad ran the course through a sick little off-camber climb up to a tabletop (which, sadly, is not there anymore; I checked when I rode recon a few weeks back). This is the start lap for Cat 2 Masters and Singlespeed classes. The women are the last bunch to get to the tabletop and nearly all of us run up. Because I am not in this race to beat anyone but myself, I decide to hang back and wait for the bunch to clear the tabletop so I have enough room to build up speed to ride the thing. If you make it to nearly the end of the video you will see that I failed on my first attempt.

I would fail the second time too, because there was no room to hang back without getting lapped by the Singlespeed men (who were about to eat me alive and spit me out the back). I finally cleaned it on my third and final lap, only to collide hard with another rider at the top. I still have a tiny scar from where his handlebar went into my ribs; my pedal gouged his shin but he was fine about it -- that's racing -- and after helping each other get up we both went on.

I do not feel terribly "ready" for this season, even though I've done some weight work and a few intervals here and there. I'm lighter, and maybe I'm stronger; but I don't feel faster. if the weight work helps me to finish stronger in some imperceptible way then I guess it'll be worth it. But frankly I've had to deal with so many other things in my lfie this spring that there's hasn't been as much time or energy for "training" per se as I would've liked. Still, I've joined a local team and hopefully I'll notice a difference having more local support at the races. I'm hoping to get out a couple of times this week and next to do some off-road practice, even if it's only an hour on some unimproved side streets in my neighborhood.

Friday, May 13, 2011

OMG - PIR starts june 6

Just as I'd been almost lulled into a ryhthm with the weight work and the occasional interval on the cargo bike (why is it that when I think to do interval work I am always riding the Surly?), An email appeared in my box yesterday that shook me out of my near-complacency.

PIR short-track begins June 6.


This start is two weeks earlier than last year. The promoter decided to extend the series to eight weeks and had to skip a Monday in the middle for July 4, so in a little more than three weeks (!!!) I'll be toeing the starting line in the Womens' Singlespeed category and hoping to god I don't lock handlebars with someone else, or die on the starting incline, or otherwise screw up.

I feel stronger. Am I faster? Probably not much, but if I can hang in there and finish my race every single week I will be happy. I am racing every week of the series and hope to place reasonably well in the overall standings (I got fifth in my category last year so good things are possible). In my case, consistency will win out over sheer speed.

Singlespeed women and men and Cat 2 masters race at 6:30pm. Details here:

I will -- if the jerseys arrive in time -- be wearing the orange and black of Team Slow.
Local friends are invited to come and watch the mayhem.

Sunday, May 8, 2011


On Saturday we went to services at a synagogue other than our home shul.

I do this periodically from time to time by myself, just for a change of pace. Portland is blessed with a dozen or more synagogue communities large and small, which makes "shul-hopping" easier. On this particular Shabbat morning, our synagogue actually did not have services at all and we really needed to daven (pray) within a minyan (a gathering of at least ten Jewish adults). So we went to another synagogue, partaking of the Torah study and the service that followed.

Ideally, prayer is a way to help gain clarity, calm down from the hurried pace of the work week, and alleviate stress.
Very occasionally -- even in the midst of the regular and expected sense of meditation that comes with softly mumbling or chanting the seemingly unintelligble but oddly comforting sound of Hebrew -- it can put a finger sharply on the pulse of a particular stressor in life, and although that can be a powerful thing it can also be a difficult thing. It happened today at the shul we visited. We left quickly upon the conclusion of the service. We felt tense and wired, instead of restful.

So what to do when the particular stressor is amplified instead of soothed?

Well, we went to the gym.

Before I continue, let's start by saying that traditional Jewish thought, viewing the Sabbath as a day of complete rest, of menucha, does not allow for formal exercise on Shabbat, though some progressive interpretations of this dictum insist that exercise among young persons is allowed if it is a source of pleasure and joy. Further, I'll say that, for the particular stressor that was tweaked this morning, our tradition offers precious little in the way of specific comfort and healing. No further details, it's personal, but sometimes one's religious tradition -- being codified and transmitted by, well, other human beings -- can leave one lacking for solace from time to time. Let me also say that, although we are mindful of the tradition and choose to wrestle with it regularly, we -- meaning Sweetie and I -- tend to fall into a more progressive way of looking at things.

So, feeling a little raw on the [spititual] nerve that got tweaked a little too hard, we went to the gym and worked out. We stretched, tossed a medicine ball back and forth in a rather weighty game of catch that left us breathing hard and even giggling a little, and pumped a little iron. And if it wasn't a source of outright pleasure and joy, what had originally been intended as just a little workout became a source of release and relief. We both felt immensely better afterwards, and found ourselves in a much better place to enjoy the rest of Shabbat.

Traditional Jews reading this will probably have a cow. Fair enough, and I respect that.
But I'd rather do what we did than sit around all afternoon feeling sad and stressed.
And if I ever find myself in a similar place on a Saturday morning, I just might do it again.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

the gym thing, slightly interrupted but ongoing

Passover takes a toll on a fitness plan.

During preparations for the holiday, which included deep cleaning and removal of anything remotely resembling leavening, time for other endeavors outside of work was, well, truncated. I managed to make it to the gym once during the entire week before the holiday, and once again during the eight days of the actual holiday itself. Of course, my carb intake always goes up during Passover; combined with working out less, well, I was concerned.

The week after the holiday, I managed one more visit. Down from my usual two trips a week plus a yoga class now and then. I felt tired, lower-energy and slightly distressed at the possibility that all my progress might turn around overnight and when I did resume my routine I'd be starting at something very close to zero.

I went to the gym again tonight, determined not to lose any more ground -- short track season begins in just six weeks -- and feeling vaguely discombobulated by way too many things percolating in my mind of late. Arrived at the gym, stretched gently and went straight to work. 25 minutes later, I was in my abs routine and feeling the burn. I left the gym slightly sweaty, and rode home in shirtsleeves along streets lit up all golden by a sun sunk low in the sky. My mind was still going slightly crazy, but working out had taken the edge off my overtaxed brain and heart so I could actually breathe the evening air and enjoy the sights along the way.

Have I lost fitness? Not too terribly much. Last night Sweetie put her arms around me in a loving embrace and commented that my back and waist both felt a little smaller. I had lost some weight, true; but to be told that there's a noticable difference by someone else is always surprising. In a nice way. Tonight's workout included a trip to my favorite apparatus, the thing I call the "chair lift". Stand, grab the arm rests and handles, and carefully swing the legs up at a right angle to the torso; then carefully lower them to hanging again. Repeat nine more times to complete one set. If your abs plan calls for a repeat, do it. Carefully. I love this thing. I don't know why. It makes me feel stronger just to do it.

Must get back to work, two nights a week, without fail. Short-track begins in six weeks and I want to be as ready as I can be.

Monday, May 2, 2011

is lateral drift always lateral?

Sometimes I wonder if I'm on the right path. I seem to be deep into one of those times.

Ten years ago this spring, I graduated from college. In July 2001, I took my newly-minted B. A. to Philadelphia and Gratz College, where I enrolled in a graduate program in Education and Jewish Music. The goal had been to become a Jewish educator and Cantorial soloist (though I wasn't as interested in actual ordination, the title of Cantor, as I was in the training).

While I struggled to immerse myself in Jewish learning (an area for which my undergrad degree had not prepared me at all -- PSU wouldn't establish a Judaic Studies program until several years later) and find a foothold in Philadelphia's Jewish community, I struggled with class issues, the lack of a car (and my refusal to own one), an inability to "femme out" enough to please the East Coast Jewish establishment, and a huge case of lonely homesickness.

On top of this, I found myself enrolled in a graduate music program whose requirements on paper were apparently not taken seriously. I had arrived with a B. A. with a concentration in Music and an almost-minor in Middle East Studies, a degree which included courses in vocal and instrumental conducting, orchestration, instrumental teaching methods, music theory and sight-singing, plus studio time and area recitals in my major and minor instruments. It turned out, to my shock, that I was overqualified for the music side of my program; nearly a third of my classmates had difficulty finding Middle C on a grand staff, and over half couldn't sight-read their way through a choral score. The instructors didn't see this as a problem.

On the Judaic stidies side of things, my lack of Jewish literacy was a huge problem, one that made it almost impossible for me to succeed academically in my Jewish studies coursework. Add to this the reality that the college was unable to help me forecast coursework for more than a semester at a time because they didn't know what courses would be offered from year to year. This last issue made it clear to me that what should have been a five-year program would easily become a seven- or eight-year program, or maybe even longer -- and with me paying graduate-level tuition, to boot.

At the end of my first semester, I turned in my coursework, went home for the December break, and after talking things over with my girlfriend and a few other people, I returned to school in January trying to keep an open mind. The school told me there was a slight delay in procuring my spring term tuition scholarship, meaning that I had to take student loan money to pay tuition up front, and risk losing my Center City apartment if the money didn't come back to me soon enough. Synagogue jobs were opening up for me, but without a car -- or enough money to live in the suburbs where the Jewish community was centered -- taking those gigs would be almost impossible. My adviser had already told me that she wanted to see me get a car, move to the Jewish suburbs and "professionalize" (read: feminize) my appearance by the end of my first year so that I could better gain a foothold in the Jewish world; I struggled and chafed against that reality but didn't know how to work around it without betraying myself.

In short, remaining in grad school would be pretty much impossible for me unless I was in a position to make some radical changes in myself, and in my life. I couldn't, or wouldn't, make those changes, and so in February 2002 I shipped my stuff home, withdrew from classes, and took the train cross-country back to Portland. It had been a learning experience, for sure; just not the one I'd hoped for. I came home with my tail between my legs, feeling utterly defeated by the experience and by the impossibility of scaling the wall of the East Coast Jewish establishment.

In retrospect, returning home when I did turned out to be its own Right Thing To Do; I was able to deepen my relationship with my girlfriend, I was home to help care for my father at the end of his life, and put some roots down in the mellower, less-judgmental Jewish community of Portland. I even wrote some songs and made a CD (see sidebar at right), a process all its own which helped to ease some of the sting of having left grad school the way I did. In the end, I chalked up my journey to Philadelphia as a learning process that helped me to know myself better; and I put my dreams of serving the Jewish community professionally into a little box, shoved it to the back of the closet, and moved on, returning to Citybikes as a mechanic and later as the lead Buyer. I got married in 2003. My partner and I moved into a little house together. There have been ups and downs and although some of them have been heartbreaking, our relationship remains strong and we remain deeply devoted to each other. I serve my Jewish community on a very part-time, local, volunteer basis that allows me to live fully as myself -- blue jeans, piercings, bike commuting and all -- and to live simply in a way that being a Jewish professional back East would never have allowed.

Ten years later, I am older. But am I wiser? Maybe. Some days I'm not sure. Lately I have found myself wondering the reverse side of the "what if?" question: what if I had stayed in Philadelphia? What if I had toughed it out against seemingly impossible odds and somehow managed to finish a graduate degree? Would I now be serving a Jewish community somewhere? Would I have evolved into someone more "professional", more "feminine", more "mature" in some way that my present life doesn't require or even make room for? And would my girlfriend still be with me (as my spouse) under those other circumstances?

Who would I be today if I had stayed?

I find myself longing to make some kind of difference that is different from the difference I'm currently making. But how? And, more importantly, what kind of difference?

I feel caught in a strong tide of lateral drift, one that doesn't always feel exactly lateral, like I'm actually losing ground in order to make it up. I hate being in such a state of unknowing, on the verge of some kind of change -- or a recognition that change is not appropriate at this time -- without knowing where I might end up.