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.