April 12, 2014 § 19 Comments
Many years ago we lived in a one-room home. The whole interior was a little more than ten tatami mats, or about 178 square feet. That probably sounds small until I tell you that six of us lived there, including one squalling infant. We were building a house on the other side of Utsunomiya, and my wife’s grandfather had allowed us to stay in one of his rental units until the house was finished. Our furnishings consisted of a small TV and low table. We lived there for eight months, but I don’t remember ever being cramped.
What I remember is the morning ride to kindergarten.
I had the biggest Bridgestone commuter bike that they sold at the local bike shop, a 55cm monster that, even with the seat jacked all the way up, was much too small. It had fenders, 30mm all-beef commuting tires, and a kickstand, but the piece of resistance was the add-on that they installed at the time of purchase: a kiddy seat.
The kiddy seat was a wire basket contraption with two flimsy cushions, foot pegs, and leg guards to keep the passenger’s legs out of the spokes. It mounted onto the rear bike rack and had a fixed handlebar so that the kiddy could grip in the event that circumstances became rough or unstable. There was no seatbelt of any kind.
Rough and unstable circumstances
My eldest daughter was in kindergarten, and due to our temporary location I had to pedal her across town every morning, a solid 20-minute commute in heavy traffic. They say that a child’s personality is formed at birth, and whether that’s true or not, it’s definitely formed after your first trip to kindergarten in a wire basket on the back of my commuter bike.
Ours was no normal commute, either, because of the Tobu Hill. This was a very short, steep, 200m downhill that swooped under the Tobu train line and flattened out at the traffic light on Heisei Dori. The road was narrow and even had a segregated bike path, but you couldn’t get any speed on the bike path so my daughter and I always opted for the lane. Well, she never opted for anything. She just hunkered low in the basket and gripped the bars survival tight.
The beauty of that little drop was that you could get a good head of steam, and if you got lucky and hit the traffic light green or mostly yellow and there was no oncoming traffic you could take the wide slightly cambered right-hander out into a clean 4-lane road. A full-speed sprint down the hill and a lucky light meant that we could sweep through the turn at a solid 35+, the bike in full lean, the tires at the limit of their grip, and the taste of fear dry and exhilarating and bitter roiling at the back of my tongue.
My daughter never complained, never cried, and never asked me not to do it, although upon reflection she never asked me to do it, either. She wore the cutest of kindergarten outfits, Japanese cute, a cuteness that only generations skilled in the art of tiny and cute could ever produce, and part of the uniform was a hat with a drawstring. At 35mph in full lean, the drawstring wasn’t strong enough to keep the hat on her head, of course. The times I looked back at her, usually after reaching terminal velocity but before hitting the hopefully green light, she always looked the same.
She would be staring calmly ahead, tilted in the seat so that she could see around me, a faint smile on her face, with one hand holding the handlebar in a vicegrip and the other mashing her hat onto her head so that the wind didn’t carry it away. If there was fear in her eyes as she pondered the onrushing and immediate future, it never showed.
Neither of us, of course, wore a helmet.
The great Utsunomiya World Championship Road Race
One morning we were sitting in traffic. As the light turned green and we began to move, a fancy road rider whizzed by. “Good morning!” I said, but he ignored us.
I looked back at my daughter. “That rude bastard,” I said. “Let’s catch him!”
She didn’t agree, but she didn’t disagree, either. She only peered around me to get a better look at our quarry, casually took one hand off the handlebar and clamped her palm to her hat. She knew that whatever was going to happen next it would involve high winds and turbulence.
The Bridgestone was a solid 30 pounds and Sakura was another 35 or 40, and I happened to only be wearing flip flops, so the bike wasn’t exactly quick off the line. However, once you got that giant lump of chromoly up to speed, it had momentum, and lots of it.
Packed in the middle of tight traffic I was able use the cars to draft my way up to about 30mph. Inches off the bumpers of car death I went faster and faster until my legs really started to burn and my breathing became painful and my body had to viciously sway from side to side to beat the pedals hard enough to keep up the speed. I could feel her weight shifting behind me as the bike rocked side to side.
The speed picked up and I hunkered down in the draft. Through the car’s windshield I could see the roadie up ahead as well as the car’s speedometer. We were over 35mph and the bike was starting to shimmy. My legs tore at the pedals and I was buried in the red. We approached a giant traffic intersection, and our draft was the last car that was going to make the light, which had turned yellow. The roadie had already come to a stop.
The Toyota I was drafting gunned it and got me up to forty before he pulled away. The bike was in full shimmy. Braking was not an option as I prepared to sail out into the intersection. I turned my head and stopped pedaling in preparation for the moment we’d shoot past the stopped roadie. Buzzing as close to him as I could, I said, “Good morning again!” and we rocketed by as if we’d been discharged from a Soviet work camp.
Judging from his gape, he’d never been passed by a dude in flip flops on a bike with a kickstand hauling a kid in a basket. At forty miles an hour. I’m sure the fact that I wasn’t pedaling added to the mysterious nature of the public humiliation.
My daughter is twenty-five and she still rides a bicycle, though her smile is wider and, you know, she wears a helmet.
If you’ve been hurt in an accident click here for legal assistance.
April 11, 2014 § 30 Comments
If you don’t know Adam Myerson, he’s a member of the Lost Generation. These were the guys who came of age during the reign of Lance, and unlike Hincapie, Vaughters, Leipheimer, and those who have gone on to profit greatly from their misdeeds, Adam took the Nancy Reagan option. He just said “No.”
Adam and I are friends on Facebook, which is to say that since we’ve never met we’re not friends at all, at least not in the way that I grew up understanding the word. Rather, I lurk when his posts pop up on my feed and I like his approach towards cycling in particular and life in general.
Yesterday he opened up with a simple question. “Is there a medical term for the long term stress caused by being taken within an inch of your life, every day, multiple times a day, for the simple act of riding a bicycle on a public road?”
I glanced at the tail end of the comments and was surprised by the number. I was also surprised by the tenor of at least some. This was pretty much a softball question that any rider could relate to. Nothing is more ubiquitous in road riding than the constant fear of death and mutilation, and no preparation is more essential to the task of cycling than mentally girding yourself for the physical, verbal, and emotional onslaught that is the price we pay for daring to take our legal piece of the pavement.
Blame the victim
Incredibly, at least one commenter (since self-blocked and self-deleted) put the blame, or at least tried to shift it, on Adam. Surely there was something in his riding that precipitated at least some of this hostility?
All hell didn’t so much as break loose as it organized a freedom train.
And although the pro-Adamites greatly outweighed the anti-Adamites, the dialogue quickly assumed the air of a back-and-forth about who follows the rules and who’s a more law-abiding cyclist. All I could think was, “What the hell does that have to do with it?”
The price of pedaling
I know a lot of people who take great pride in their letter-perfect traffic behavior. I’m not one of them. I follow the rules when it’s to my advantage and I break them when they aren’t. I can feel the daggers when I cruise through controlled intersections, and I can hear the honks when some jackass in a giant pick-up vents at my infraction of the moment.
He can kiss my ass, because until the laws are set up to protect me, I’ll keep on surviving, thanks very much. As a reminder of how worthless you are on a bike here in SoCal, Jorge Alvarado’s killer just received the incredible sentence of 90 days in jail. We wouldn’t want to ruin that kid’s life, after all.
Nor am I on a mission to make cagers love me. The ones who accept me, accept me. The ones who hate me, hate me, and the ones who are going to mow me down because they’re texting or drunk or fiddling with the radio, well, I can’t do anything about them anyway. The only ones I care about are the crazies who want to kill me, and they’re not going to be mollified just because I put a foot down.
As Adam said, more or less, why should the price of making a mistake on a bike be death?
Post traumatic jackass syndrome
The unfortunate answer is, “Dude, that’s just how it is.”
But what’s more unfortunate is that his original question was such a good one. What do we call the mental condition of being constantly under assault or threat of assault?
I think PTJS is a good start, and although I can’t really describe its symptoms, I can describe the absence of them. Take the bike path and you’ll see what I mean. Suddenly, the cager exits your mental picture. As you pedal along the path you’re watching for peds and bikes and dogs and kids and skateboards and roller skaters and perhaps also the first thong of spring, but you’re doing it without the constant awareness of whether or not you’re about to receive a 1-ton solid steel enema.
There is a lightness to your grip on the bars and a relaxation of your shoulders and neck. You’re no longer afraid.
There. That’s the thing that riding on the road hangs around your neck no matter how good, how fast, how quick, or how experienced you are. The factor of fear, sometimes slight and sometimes screaming so loudly that you tense up enough to taste your own death, that’s the thing that you take with you when you’re wresting your legal piece of pavement from the jaws of the cagers.
The safety of the bike bath
Of course many riders eschew the beach bike bath in the South Bay because they claim it’s far more dangerous than street. They may be right.
Surfer Dan was pedaling along and prepared to pass Mitzy and Bohunk on their cruiser bikes. “On your left!” he said, loud enough for them to hear but not so close as to startle them.
Mitzy moved over, as she and Bohunk were hogging the whole path, but Bohunk didn’t budge. Dan eased over to pass. “Slow down, asshole!” snarled Bohunk.
Surfer Dan is a pleasant fellow, I suppose. But he’s also a coiled pack of solid muscle, the kind of muscle you get from a lifetime of surfing big waves, and he’s a coiled pack of mental muscle, too. You don’t earn your place in the lineup just because you surf well. You earn it because you can defend it, too.
Playfully, Dan looked at Bohunk, a giant, hairy, stupid creature who oozed ill will. “Please, don’t!” Mitzi begged. This obviously wasn’t Bohunk’s first brawl on the bike path and you could tell he relished the opportunity to beat up another wimp riding around in his underwear.
Dan grinned at Bohunk and said, softly, “Wanna go?”
Bohunk lunged for the bait. “Fuckin-A, you asshole! Let’s go!”
Dan eased his rear tire to within an inch of Bohunk, ready to whack the cretin’s front wheel out from under him in case the guy was crazy enough to try and get into a fist fight over being passed on the bike path. He had no intention of cutting his knuckles on this guy’s teeth. Bohunk reached out his left leg and aimed a mighty kick at Dan’s bike, but Dan easily moved over just as the full thrust of the extended, trunk-like leg fully extended into the open air.
Bohunk lost his balance and splatted hard on his shoulder, bouncing his concrete-like head against its brethren, the asphalt of the bike bath. With a long smearing sound of skin against pavement and sand, the aggressor then fouled the rest of himself up in the still-moving chain and rear wheel.
“Have a nice day!” Dan said, smiling as he rode off.
I’m guessing that he’s not suffering from post-traumatic jackass syndrome as a result.
If you’ve been hurt in an accident click here for legal assistance.
April 4, 2014 § 27 Comments
I was coming home from a terrible encounter with the Palisades climb. One of my friends who’s been cycling for a couple of years was talking about one of the regular rides she does with a friend.
“So, the thing is that the ride leaves at nine but nobody shows up at nine except Peggy, and she’s, you know, ready to ride. At nine.”
“Uh-huh?” I asked, wondering what the problem was.
“Yeah. She’s ready to ride, but other people aren’t ready until you know, sometimes fifteen or twenty after. It really irritates her.”
“What do you mean ‘aren’t ready to ride’? They’re still doing pilates warm-ups?”
“No, silly. They don’t get there until five or ten minutes after, or maybe somebody has to find a parking space because they drove down, or they’re finishing their coffee. That kind of thing. And it’s annoying to Peg because she’s been off the bike with that broken collarbone and everyone else is really fit and she’s like, hey, ‘I want to get my ride in. I want to ride.’”
“Still not sure I see the problem.”
“Well, what’s the etiquette? Is it okay to leave even though other people aren’t ready? Or they’re running late? That’s not really cool, is it?”
“No,” I said. “It’s definitely not cool. But so what? I stopped trying to be cool when I was thirteen.”
The thorny issue of departure times
It seemed easy at first. It’s Peg’s ride. She sets the time. If people aren’t there or aren’t ready or whatever, she leaves. It’s simple.
But of course it isn’t, and it’s complicated because Peg’s ride, like a whole lot of rides, aren’t set up right. And I discussed this with my friend.
“A ride needs two elements and two only.”
“What’s that?” she asked.
“A start time and a leader. That’s it. The leader leaves at the start time. Everyone who’s late or who had to get the kids off to school or who had to check one more social media post chases. Or they ride alone. Or they start a different ride.”
“It is, until people get used to it. Then it’s the opposite of rude. It’s the kindest thing you can do for a fellow cyclist: tell them when you’re leaving and always leave at that time. It lets them plan. In fact, once you’ve drilled the time in over and over again, it becomes a self-starting thing that needs no repetition. Take the Wheatgrass Ride. It leaves at 8:05 whether Iron Mike is there or not. Or the NPR. 6:40 AM, right? If you show up at 6:41, you chase. Even the Donut … it leaves at 8:05. And remember those rides to the Rock? Six o’clock sharp. No one ever complained past the first two rides. You know why?”
“Because the people who can’t get to a bike ride on time stopped coming to that one. They slept in. So the only people left were the ones who knew how to set a clock and not hit ‘snooze.’”
“But it’s hard to get people to be punctual.”
“Why worry about other people? Set the time, tell your friends, and then go ride. What’s the worst that can happen? You have to ride by yourself? You’ll eventually attract people who are punctual like you, and instead of waiting around for twenty minutes you can do your ride and get on with your day.”
“I don’t know … “
“Oh, and one other thing.”
“If it’s your ride … “
“Don’t show up late.”
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April 3, 2014 § 41 Comments
I have greatly reduced my time on Facebag. I’m ashamed to admit it, but before I went lukewarm turkey, I was spending up to four hours a day on it. That’s four metric hours, and sometimes more. I told this to DJ, who’s an engineer. “Dude,” I said. “I’m spending four fuggin’ hours a day on Facebag. Metric hours, man.”
“Seth,” he said.
“Time isn’t a metric unit.”
“Oh,” I said, relieved that there wasn’t yet another aspect of the metric system that I was supposed to understand, but didn’t.
Nowadays I’m a lurker. I stalk the ‘bag for about thirty minutes a day or even less. I noticed for the first time that it’s pretty much the province of angry old people, new bicycles, and cats. With all of my new-found time, I began reading again.
I used to read voraciously, and it took a while to learn to read again because my brain was so wired to those little mini-jolts of excitement when something popped up on Facebag, or worse, on the Twitter. After a couple of weeks, though, I stopped expecting the pages on the book to light up with a notification or message or clever retort. My stack of books has piled high, and there’s an equally towering stack of unread ones.
I was talking with a friend about ratcheting down my Facebag activities, and he concurred. “I quit cold turkey three weeks ago,” he said.
“It made me so depressed. I’d see all those posts about how perfect everyone’s life is and how wonderful their kids are and what excellent relationships they all have and it made me feel like a piece of dung. It was either that, or posts about how they’d just experienced the worst day ever, or a photo from a bike crash with four teeth missing. So I quit.”
“How do you feel now?”
“Great! The only people I talk to now are, you know, real ones. And none of them are perfect. Not even a little bit.”
Real people, indeed
In tandem with my cancellation of the Twitter, Strava, and Linked-In, and my Napoleon-at-the-gates-of-Moscow retreat from Facebag, I started riding with my youngest son, who’s sixteen. We ride on Sundays. Our first ride was from RAT Beach to the ice cream shop on the Redondo Pier and back. Our second ride was to the frappucino spigot at the Sckubrats in Hermosa and back to RAT Beach. The third week we tackled something big: we rode from Pregnant Point down Paseo del Mar, up the Lunada Bay bump onto PV Drive, and from there to the frappucino spigot at the Golden Cove Sckubrats. Then we returned to Pregnant Point and called it a day with a solid 10-mile ride.
I would like to tell you that my youngest son is a natural-born cyclist. After all, he’s been around it all his life. I’d like to tell you that he has the perfect build for a road racer — he’s compact, lean, and has long legs. I’d like to lay out our plans for an all-out assault on cycledom as he learns the ropes.
But you see, it’s not really like that, even though he does have the perfect build. First of all, I’m a terrible coach. What the hell do I know about cycling anyway? And I don’t care how people ride as long as they don’t fall down or get picked off by a car. Truthfully, he’s not really a natural, which makes sense, because neither am I. And he’s not one of those kids who loves to compete. I’m pretty sure that if you showed him your jugular, he’d want to know what it was connected to … he wants to be a doctor, not the Cannibal or a forcat de la route.
In a way it’s depressing to think I have a child who is interested in something that might result in a job, as if he’s repudiated the Davidson family history. But I will adapt.
On that ten-miler day we took our first breather just where the road rises up from the Lunada Bay vista. Then we pedaled, with mucho effort, up to PV Drive. Rest Stop Number Two. Then we gritted our teeth and made it to the Starbucks. Mucho mas tiempo was spent drinking frapps and gazing at the ocean and talking about science. I also learned that in mid-1800′s Italy there was no right-wing reactionary party, and that the nation’s unification involved moderates, liberals, and anarchists.
What other people care about isn’t always what you care about
We pedaled back to Pregnant Point, and the next day he said that his legs were “real sore.” I thought about that.
The following week we did the same route, but instead of stopping at Golden Cove we continued along PV Drive to the top of the hill just before you descend to the glass church. We turned around there and fought a stiff headwind for two long miles all the way back to the frappucinos, which tasted better than good. Did I mention that the frappucinos tasted good?
As we sat there I remembered riding along the seawall in Galveston with my dad and my brother. No one ever coached me or told me how to ride, probably because no one knew any more than I did. The only advice I ever got, in fact, was to “Watch out!” when I stopped paying attention one day and rode off the 15-foot seawall onto the granite boulders below. It’s miraculous that I wasn’t killed, if you believe in miracles. Otherwise, I was just another dumb-lucky little kid.
My son and I drove home from Pregnant Point, still talking about Italy in the 1800′s. We had a big dinner, which tasted as good as one of those dinners you have after a 100-mile beatdown with the fast riders. The beer I washed it down with tasted special as well. We both went to bed early and I slept a deep, uninterrupted, profound, and satisfied sleep. I’m hoping that maybe he did, too.
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March 20, 2014 § 9 Comments
Fields was all-knowing. “This is a stupid sport.”
MKA and Chris Hipp and others copied the tag line, but Fields invented it. There is nothing Fields didn’t know, or, put differently, if Fields didn’t know it, it wasn’t worth knowing. When he spat in the soup and headed off to Wisconsin to forsake his bike and become a lawyer, he provided a role model that few have had the nuts to emulate.
Cycling is a stupid sport. There is no money in it. Coda.
How she made me feel
You know the saying. “People may forget what you said, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.”
I never lay in bed with Lesli Cohen, but she made me feel nonetheless. It was not erotic, except in a way, it was.
I had reached the umpteenth fine-toothed edit of my New York Times #1 Global Bestseller, “Cycling in the South Bay,” but something was missing. What was missing was someone once-removed to go over the manuscript who was in love with words, who fornicated with syntax, who stroked and massaged and erotically touched sentence structure until it was clean, pure, risen, the climactic pinnacle of what it could be.
What was missing was a real editor.
Lesli didn’t know me, biblically or otherwise, but she had generously shared my blog posts with her considerable readership. I turned to her and begged a favor. “Would you go over my manuscript and edit the hell out of it?” Then I added, “Of course I’ll pay you.”
Lesli refused payment and took the manuscript. What she did, no one else could have done. She loved on it.
How do you love on a manuscript? What is manuscript love? It is the embracing of each word, the deconstruction of each sentence, the application of the rules of spelling and grammar and structure and logic to every single word you’ve written. It can’t be done by an amateur with a handycam. It has to be done by a pro, someone profoundly versed in the erotica of the construction of language.
She “did” my manuscript, and when she was done, if there was anything there to sparkle, it shone brighter because of her. We smoked a cigarette together. Virtually, of course.
Ring down the curtain
Until yesterday Lesli edited Cyclismas.com, a cycling web site. Through a series of mistakes she wound up on the sticking end of a lawsuit. Through another series of mistakes that involved trusting the untrustworthy, and a final unfounded belief that there was something in the world of cycling that was truthful, she ended up investing in a big project that eventually failed. When the last splash of water swirled down the drain, she was left with nothing, and yesterday she sent out a note that the web site and her project were closing down.
Naturally, the draining litigation will continue, because of Newtown’s little known Fourth Law of Thermodynamics: The lawyers always get paid.
My thanks to Lesli aren’t enough, but they’re all I’ve got. Lesli, you are one of those rare people who I’d want above all others in my foxhole. You fought not simply the good fight, but the best fight. You made mistakes grounded in faith and trust and decency, and you sought to take the high crimes and misdemeanors of an errant pro peloton and turn them into something good for all of us. You did it with class and intellect and integrity.
I’ll miss your beautiful writing and your amorous affair with words, but I know that we’ll meet again. Paris, perhaps?
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March 19, 2014 § 21 Comments
One time Prez and I were racing through Pedro with Vapor on the old Donut Course. We’d sprinted away from the field and were barreling along Pacific Avenue doing everything we could to hold onto Rahsaan’s wheel. Things weren’t going well for us; it was like trying to keep up with motorcycle. Eventually Rahsaan kicked it hard, for real, and Prez and I dug so deeply we were scratching China.
Thankfully, we hit a red light. Prez looked at me, covered in slobber, eyes bugging out of his head, leg muscles so gorged with blood that he looked like a bodybuilder a minute before going onstage. “This level of pain,” he said “is where the gains are made.”
I’ve thought about that ever since, especially when the pain gets so intense that I pop and get shelled, making not so much gains as deficits. And I also wonder why pain in one venue is somehow endurable, but pain at the dentist isn’t. I can suffer on a bike — not MMX suffer, or Zink suffer, or Thurlow suffer, or Leibert suffer — but deep I can go. Unless it’s the dentist.
Extrusions of bone
“Big deal,” you’re thinking. “A post drilled down through your gum and into the fuggin’ bone of your jaw, or even a root canal can bring anyone to his knees.”
Except I’m not talking about posts and root canals. I’m not even talking about cavities. I’m talking about that most benign of dental operations, the dreaded bi-annual teeth cleaning.
“Bi-annual?” you say. “That’s fuggin’ disgusting! Your mouth must be nastier than a baboon’s ass!”
Indeed, my darling, it is. Nastier, for sure. But there’s a story behind it. You see, I have Davidson teeth. These are not the teeth of mortals. Pere Davidson, now in his 78th year, has never had a cavity. Grandpa N.F. Davidson (that’s “N” for “Nahum”) died in his 70′s without ever having had a cavity or lost a tooth. My brother Ian died with teeth that never felt a drill bit.
Davidson teeth are harder than the sentence of a hanging judge. They are impervious to sugar, fat, sugar, sludge, ice cream, abuse, never flossing, rarely brushing, bad diet, beer, sugar … they’re the only part of my body that has ever elicited the same reaction from health care professionals throughout my life: “Mr. Davidson, you have excellent teeth.”
Notice they never said “clean teeth,” or “pretty teeth,” or “well-aligned teeth.” No. Only “excellent,” as in “Any tooth that could withstand these four pounds of plaque and abuse and mistreatment and still be this strong and cavity-free aren’t teeth, they are diamond-plated extrusions of bone.”
Every advantage comes with a price
For me, the price began in Galveston at age 6, when I went to the dentist. He pulled two of my teeth for no reason at all, and he did it without anesthetic. I howled and screamed bloody murder. It hurt like a motherfugger, and from that point on I was terrified of dental work. Simply walking into the dentist’s office made me break out in a sweat, and I never sweat.
My lifetime of dental pain was as nothing when I went to Japan and met Mrs. WM. Japanese people have the pain threshold of an ox, and she held me in pure contempt. “Why you askin’ onna pain drugs? Thatsa for little kids.”
“Because my teeth are covered in seven pounds of plaque and it hurts like hell when he scrapes my teeth.”
“I like onna teeth cleaning. Kimochii. Even onna cavity he never gives me a pain drugs because cheaper.”
“You get your teeth drilled without novocaine?” I asked, sweating at the mention of “drilling” and “novocaine.”
“That’s nothin’. Even when a Japanese girl push outta baby there’s no onna pain drugs. ‘Girl, you baby time is normal and you ain’t gettin’ no pain drugs because, cheaper. An’ Japanese girl just push out the baby like a watermelon. You ain’t talkin’ to no Japanese girl about a tooth cleaning pain drug. She’s gonna think you’re onna girlman.”
She was right. In Japan I was the wuss of all wusses. One time her dad had a root canal without any pain medication. “Just a tooth,” he said.
I think I fainted listening to the story.
The paradox of Dr. Hayashi
In L.A., my dentist is Dr. Hayashi, a Japanese dentist. He is the bomb. He is incredibly delicate and skilled and careful and pro, but even he has to bring out the heavy duty equipment with Mr. Davidson shows up lathered in sweat and teeth covered in plaque.
Today was hell.
“Hmm,” he said. “You have a pretty big build-up of calculus.”
“Yeah,” I thought. “I got more fuggin’ calculus on my teeth than on an AP exam.”
He gently stuck the metal scraper into my mouth. I clenched and released four pounds of sweat. The metal hook caught on a tartar outcropping as he yanked a big chunk of calcified scum off my tooth. It sounded like a calving iceberg. “Looks like we have some work to do today,” he said.
“We?” I asked. “If I have to do anything other than sweat and moan, there’s a problem.”
Pretty soon the scraping became so intense that he had to drop the steel chisel and pick up the electric whizzer thingy with the vacuum spit sucker. The sound alone hurt. The plaque drill might as well have been stuck into my eyes, that’s how intensely I reacted, with little urine puddles and sharts mottling the dentist’s chair.
“Nurse,” he said, planting his boot on my chest, rolling up his sleeves, and pulling on his thickest rubber surgical gloves, “hand me the #12 bit with the diamond tip. And be ready with the extra-coarse sandpaper.”
After a brief while his rubber gloves were covered in blood as my soft and sickly gums spewed gore. His welder’s goggles were covered with shards of razor-sharp tartar, more tartar than you’d find in Crimea. His cute assistant tried to suction up the blood and spit and chunks of plaque as my mouth spattered the room with bacteria and bodily fluids of the most contaminated sort. After fifteen minutes his hands looked like they’d been plunged into a chest cavity. My mouth spouted blood and spit, which drooled down into my matted mustache and beard. The pain was unbearable as I fought the suction thingy with my tongue and clamped down on the drill.
“Mr. Davidson,” he said. “You’ll need to open your mouth so I can reach the teeth.”
After forty-five minutes, which seemed like forty-five hours, he gave up, having dug out food items from last November, pieces of GU wrapper, slivers of gristle, and part of an old Life magazine from 1955. “That’s all we can do today. Why don’t you come back in three weeks after your gums have quit bleeding. You’ve still got plaque deposits that I can’t reach, as well as what look like pieces of bicycle inner tube, some fish bones, and a hard-to-reach clump of hair wedged down below the gum line. I’ll have to special order a hand-drill and some low-grade explosives, but we’ll get it next time for sure.”
Have you ever heard of having teeth so gnarly that they have to be cleaned in stages? I haven’t, but I was so glad to get out of the chair that I would have agreed if he’d suggested a follow-up visit that included a lobotomy with an icepick.
You’d think that with such a miserable experience I’d learn, and start flossing regularly, brushing after meals, and wearing a condom. But he said the magic words when I left, the words that guaranteed my box of dental floss from 1982 would remain in mint condition for another year or two. “Mr. Davidson, you have excellent teeth.”
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March 18, 2014 § 27 Comments
I can name what I was missing in the days that I was plugged in through every orifice to the personalized, customized, hand-tailored social media apps that have taken over the World Wide Web.
What I was missing is this: “Major” by Todd Balf, “The Chronology of Water” by Lydia Yuknavitch, “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov, “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac, “Blood Medicine” by Kathleen Sharp, “Isaac’s Storm” by Erik Larson, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey, “Cry, the Beloved Country” and “Too Late the Phalarope” by Alan Paton, “The Anti-Abortion Movemement and the Rise of the Religious Right” by Dallas Blanchard, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” by Hunter S. Thompson, and “The Oedipus Plays of Sophocles — Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone,” translated by Paul Roche.
Instead of tweeting my meaningless opinions about guns and Republicans and death and taxes, instead of facebagging each of my wife’s latest oven creations, instead of slapping up new profile details on LinkedIn, and most time-devouringly of all, instead of tracking every single turn of the screw on Strava, I’ve pulled the needle out of my vein and been killing time the old-fashioned way, with books and bikes.
Don’t get me wrong. I still lurk for an hour a day on Facebag; no one kicks a habit that monstrous in a month or two. And I still suit up and blog. But hours and hours and hours out of my day have suddenly been freed, in no small part because every single social media app (can I call it S&M?) has been deleted. Gonna have some down time today, Mr. Davidson? Better bring a book …
Now for the down side
The sad fact is that the less I Strava, the less I ride. Something about being strapped to that particular digital bull means more saddle time. Call it peer pressure, or the self-reinforcing nature of surrounding yourself with similarly minded addicts, or the S&M (that’s “social and media,” right?) pleasure of watching trinkets and trophies and numbers and statistics multiply, Strava converts desire to pedal strokes.
In the same way that counting calories helps you keep tabs on your weight, counting bike data helps you stay mounted. When you know you rode seven out of seven days for 23 hours and 350 miles last week, it’s really easy to make sure that you plug in an extra lap or loop or trip up the strand to make sure you match the previous week’s productivity.
Don’t lie to me. I know I’m not the only one.
Of course the questions bubbling around the edge are these: Was it really all that productive? Why does bicycling have to be productive? Isn’t productivity a work term? And don’t we bicycle to get away from the strictures of the workplace?
How it used to be
Before we were plugged in, bicycling wasn’t as fast as it is now. Hack riders are faster. Weekend warriors collect scalps. And the really fast riders? They are superhuman, and no, I don’t chalk it up the old whine that “everybody’s doping.” They aren’t.
What people are doing is using social media like Strava to harness the incredible power of data generated by HR monitors, power meters, and cyclocomputers. Riders who train without data are in the distinct minority, and even they are plugged into friendship networks like Facebag that provide amazing amounts of information about how to ride faster, how to train and race better, what to eat, and what equipment works best. Throw in the detailed nature of ride routes where you can tailor your workout to incredibly specific road and trail parameters, and you have a perfect storm surge of cycling data that relentlessly pushes almost everyone higher.
The beneficiaries of this data sharing in terms of speed and fitness aren’t just racers or elite riders. They’re the everyday person too, who’s a commuter or a tourist or a rider who likes to pedal with his friends in between bar stops.
A complete fred at the Starbucks in Hermosa on Sunday gave me a long lecture about how to use Strava from my iPhone. He was kitted up; I was wearing shorts and a tee. Ten years ago this guy and his wife wouldn’t have even owned bikes. On Sunday they confidently lectured me about how I could use my iPhone to be a better cyclist.
What happens when you pull the plug
My first response to my digital detox was a kind of frantic insecurity. “What’s going on out there?” The second phase was an attempt to revert to my oldest habit, reading, in an attempt to fill the vast void of newly available time, but it was terribly hard because I couldn’t concentrate for more than a few minutes. You can’t click “like” on paperbacks. Even as my concentration has slowly returned, I’ve likewise gotten used to rides that under the iron law of “Strava or it didn’t happen,” well, I suppose they didn’t happen.
Absent all that data and all those interactions on Strava and elsewhere there’s nothing to reflect on after I lean the bike against the wall except the internal reflection and what I can remember of the ride. There’s no leaderboard or virtual contest with people I’ve never met, or worse, people I’ve met but never ridden with yet who are my “competition” on Strava. All I’m left with at the end of the ride is, like reading a book, what happened during the ride or the read. That is, what happened on the battleground of the tiny strip of real estate between my ears.
And for me, that’s enough.
It’s not too late to subscribe to the blog! Everything here is true except for the parts I’ve made up, which is all of it. Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner. I’ll be glad you did.
March 15, 2014 § 27 Comments
My father rode a bicycle. It was a big, black Hercules with a Sturmey-Archer 3-speed hub and white handlebar grips. My father’s bicycle was a tool. He rode it to work.
Many years later, I rode a silver-with-brown-highlights Nishiki International. It had twelve speeds, Sugino cranks, Suntour shifters, and Dia-Compe brakes. I rode that bike away from the pain.
My mother rode away from my father and our family in 1979. Mom and Dad took us out to dinner, a very nice Italian place, though we never went to nice anythings. Our royal parents were strangely friendly and solicitous. No one told me to stop smacking or to quit clacking my teeth on the fork. The food tasted so good. I still remember the spaghetti and the crunchy bread with small shards of garlic toasted down the middle.
After dinner we went home and my parents seated my brother and me on the olive velour couch. I scratched Fletcher’s head while he happily thumped his tail on the floor. “We’re getting a divorce,” they said.
The spaghetti didn’t taste so good any more. My brother silently went upstairs and tried to fling himself out of the upstairs bedroom window. I still remember with clarity the panic in my father’s eyes as he gripped my brother’s leg at the last second, the last possible second.
It was organic how profoundly my mother hated her marriage, though her husband was a good man and simply insufficient. What was sufficient? Only a woman knows.
In truth, it wasn’t him she hated. How could she? She hated her father and every man cast in his image, which is to say on some level, all men.
I rode as hard as I could to escape the melee, never escaping it completely, but typically managing to stay a few bike lengths ahead, except, of course, for those times that it overtook me as if I were getting swarmed by a thousand-man field sprint. I learned to pedal like hell, miss the biggest pile-ups, then pedal some more. Or perhaps it was more like going over the falls at Teahupo’o. Hold your breath until you were ready to explode, then pop to the surface with milliseconds to spare. The price of not breathing deeply enough was drowning. In my brother’s case, it was drowning by a gunshot wound to the heart. That was on Father’s Day 2012, just yesterday.
I rode as hard as I could, switching bikes to take advantage of lighter weight, and eventually went all in for modern speed boosters like handlebar shifters and carbon components. The more I rode, the more I saw other people riding hard too, staying a wheel or so ahead of their own private monster. Cycling, the crazy kind, is that way. Everyone seems to be riding from something.
During the ride I had a daughter and two sons. You think that the necrosis of a broken family heals itself over time? You are wrong.
But still I rode and watched the riders around me, the ones who continued decade in and decade out, not the dilettantes or the ones who tried bicycling and then moved on to pilates or surfing or golf or sailing or spin class, rather, the ones who didn’t so much as persevere as they endured. It is, we were told, an endurance sport after all.
After three grueling years, my eldest son breached the surface, sucked in a lungful of air, and told us that he would graduate a year early. I relaxed on the pedals and celebrated in spirit. He was my son. He had never been forced to ride away from us. “How should I arrange all the graduation events and stuff with, you know, the grandparents?” he asked, and I could hear his knotted brow over the phone line.
So I said to him, “Their battle is not your battle. This day of celebration is for you.”
He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to.
And in one way at least, my riding days are done.
March 14, 2014 § 20 Comments
She saw me fiddling with the car keys. It was 5:30 AM. “You ain’t takin’ onna car, I hope.”
“Uh, yeah I am. I’m going to the La Grange mixer after work and it’s on the West Side.”
“Don’t you remember I was tellin’ you I’m drivin’ onna girls party night tonight?”
“How come you ain’t listenin’ anything I say about me and you got big old commode seat ears when somebody’s talkin’ onna drinkypants biker party?”
“Commode seat ears?”
“Means big old ears can catch any old crap.”
“No big deal,” I said, knowing it was a huge deal. “I can ride my bike there.”
South Bay vs. West Side
My friends on the West Side regularly made the trek down to the South Bay for our occasional bike events, and that was invariably a labor of love because the traffic from there to here in rush hour is mind-numbingly bad. If Sausage & Co. were willing to brave the 405 for us, it only seemed right that I’d do the same for them. Still, doing it on a bike presented problems.
The biggest problem was, of course, clothing. You can show up at Naja’s wearing a bike outfit, or a t-shirt with holes in it, or with bicycle helmet hair, and you’ll fit right in. On the West Side, you simply can’t. Whereas you can be ready for any event in the South Bay with a quick pass of dental floss and a bit of de-stinkifier to dilute the B.O., West Side casual is a highly sculpted, carefully developed look that takes time, money, and incredible attention to the details that will make what you’ve “just thrown on” look like something out of fashion magazine.
After wet, sticky bike clothing and the musky stink of armpit, my next challenge was, of course, the biking itself. I’d done the NPR that morning and knew that by the time 4:00 PM rolled round I wouldn’t feel like climbing back into my smelly kit and riding for thirty miles to a bar I’d never been to. The “never been to” issue was also a problem: I didn’t know the roads in West L.A. at all and had no idea what roads were best for a bicycle.
Be like Wike
By 4:30 I was heading to the bike path, and somewhere around Manhattan Beach I saw Wike blazing by in the opposite direction. We waved. Minutes later he had flipped it and rode up to me. “Where you going?”
“That sounds good. Where?”
“I’m not sure. Somewhere near Beverly Hills I think.”
Most people would want more information about someone doing a thirty-mile ride to get beer. “Like, what’s wrong with the beer around here?”
“Nothing, but La Grange is having a mixer, and I need to get mixed, and they always come down here, so this time I’m going up there. Wanna go? I have no idea where this place is.”
“What’s the address?”
Wike, who knows L.A. like a human Googlemap, grinned. “Okay. You’re gonna need some help. I’ll go have a beer with you. I think I can get us there.”
As we came to the turnoff onto the Ballona Creek bike path, Wike veered left. “No Ballona Creek?” I asked.
“I’d rather bike through a hostile Afghan village with ‘Jesus Saves’ taped to my forehead than take that thing,” he said. Ballona Creek is famous for toughs who lie in wait and attack passing bikers for their bikes and the five or ten dollars they carry in emergency change.
“It’s that bad, huh?” I’d never taken it, but my computer map recon before setting out indicated it was the best route.
“Yeah. We might have a little traffic on the streets, but it’s no big deal.”
When your ‘no big deal’ is my colonic cleanse
Before long we were tearing up the gutter along Admiralty, Lincoln, and an entire network of surface streets that were choked to the throat with cars. This was urban guerrilla riding at its most intense, and it involved somehow following the wizardry of Wike as he hopped potholes, power-slid around gaping cracks, bunny-hopped onto curbs, sliced impossibly narrow slits between swaying buses and parked cars, split lanes, charged around tight corners in tandem with sedans whose numbers were inches from our hips, sprunted through yellow lights, raced ghetto dudes on green-and-yellow-and-purple fixies, and shot through darkened freeway underpasses filled with glass, rocks, nails, condoms, and detritus from the week’s auto collisions.
I’ve made a note to myself. “Riding up Pico from the 2000 block to the 10000 block is not for the faint of heart or for those who like a clean chamois.”
We got to the bar half an hour before the party and had to beg to be let in with our bicycles. The bar, Steingarten L.A., was run by a friendly manager and friendlier hostess who let us park our bikes on the patio. We clattered across the stone floor looking like the bike dorks we were. Two beers and a bratwurst in, we couldn’t have cared less.
At 6:30, Wike got up. “Thanks for the beer, dude. I’m headed back.” And back he went.
The La Grange partiers were filtering in and everyone pretended that you know, since they were a bike club that it was, you know, totally okay for me to be standing in, you know, a stinky, wet bike outfit and cycling cleats that sounded like an angry man pounding the floor with a hammer every time I walked. More beer was poured, much of it in the form of Belgian triple, and more food was eaten, and by the time the party ended I had lost the $130 taillight on my bike and my credit card.
With Belgian triples, though, you don’t care. “Who needs a fuggin’ light at midnight in L.A.?” I slurred.
The person who needs a taillight at midnight in L.A. is YOU
Several La Grangers were concerned that it might be difficult for me to get home, seeing as it was a long way away and I lived on top of an unlit hill. Others thought that I was only getting what I deserved. Still others were hugging me good-bye with their arms outstretched and touching me only with their finger tips and what looked like rubber gloves.
“Even in the South Bay,” I thought, “I’d be considered rather gnarly.”
As I reached into my jersey pocket to put on my glasses, I realized that I didn’t have them. I’d left my Rx clear riding glasses at home and only had what would be most helpful for a long night’s trek in the dark, my Rx sunglasses with extra black tinting to keep out the bright California sunlight. There didn’t appear to be any of that, and when I put them on things got noticeably darker.
“You’re gonna fuckin’ die, hon,” said Foxy. “You want a ride home?”
“Nah,” I slurred. “I can ride on the bike path.”
“You’re still gonna fuckin’ die, hon. But I can at least give you a ride to the Santa Monica public toilets. That’s where you seem to meet everyone anyhow.”
I let the comment slide, grateful that I wouldn’t be riding Pico at night.
The long march
Once I started pedaling, the mixture of beer, bratwurst, beer, Korean BBQ appetizers, beer, my lost taillight, beer, and my lost credit card started to add up. “Why do I feel so bad?” I wondered. “And why does the start of a measly 25-mile ride feel like the end of the Bataan Death March?”
Of course … by totaling up the morning’s ride and the commute to Steingarten, it was already an 80-mile day + greasy food and beer. This would be a full century, finishing with a 1,300-foot climb in the dark. Thankfully, it was also cold, so I had that discomfort going for me.
It took forever to get home, and I got to observe a complete cross-section of late-night life on the bike path. Waifs texting in the moonlight, homeless people looking for a place to lie down or for perhaps a waif, strange women pushing baby strollers with babies in them, men running up and down steep staircases and grunting, and bargain hunters combing through the trash cans. By the time I hit the bottom of the big hill I was frozen to the core and barely turning the pedals. Somehow I got up it and got home.
I can’t wait for the next mixer on the West Side with the beautiful people. But I might listen a little more carefully to Mrs. WM when she tells me about her schedule.
March 11, 2014 § 15 Comments
I have come to accept that nothing is as it seems except for those things that appear incomprehensible, which is to say all people, each of us, you, me, your mother, your father, and the real person inside the true person inside the secret you.
One of the craggy inscrutables was always Dave, with his wry grin and potato-chip-thin build and weird way of talking and weirder way of spelling and writing, weird because he was Plan II and had read books and had written sentences, in theory at least, to get through his rigorous liberal arts college degree, but maybe he’d forgotten all of that? Maybe he’d had the whole four years ghostwritten? Maybe he was beyond grammar and syntax and spelling and normal speech because you know, he raced bikes for Labor Power and when you raced bikes in the long cruel shadow of MKA, the self-invented caricature of a cartoon, the loneliest one always surrounded by people, maybe you have to forfeit the common currency of language as we know it and speak only in tongues, mystic ones understood by a nation of two, or even fewer.
That tumbling moment of car and bike and crush of bone on steel and hospital and blood and bills and the poor Mexican in the next room who was hurt in some horrific industrial accident and who they slapped Band-Aids on and hustled out asap because NO INSURANCE AMIGO while they plugged and prodded and poked and rode the rich bitch of Dave’s comprehensive health insurance policy until he was sewed and screwed and glued back together as good as new except, you know what?
Humpty was put back together again but they left out the bicycle, the screaming madness down a wild and woolly hill surrounded on all sides by other idiots who thought the glory of a city limit sprint or the cheapass trinket for winning a forgettable race in some shithole in the desert made it worth risking this, the only time that Dog has granted us, privileged us, us in all of the universe and in all of infinity and the space-time continuum, and you’re gonna squander even a second of it on a fuggin bicycle race?
No, that part got dropped in the gut bucket when they put Dave back together, so he had the memory and the love and the camaraderie and the sensations of having been buried deep in the bike delusion but he got sprung from the ICU free, free of the baggage, nothing left to show, nothing left to prove, hand up a bottle, help the boys get ready before the race but my time in the rack is done, son, it’s all you.
And he changed his name and I didn’t understand it until today, Dos Gatos.
He teamed up with a traveling pharmaceutical drug rep guitar player who he’d known in high school and drunk Pearl beer with in a rusted out Pinto, a dude I’ve never met but whose German name I can sure as hell pronounce and who I can tell you has a wife who I’ve also never met but is smoking hot and she’s gotten a million inviting looks from strangers if she’s gotten one and I’ve never even seen her, all I’ve ever seen is his mother-in-law, a hard drinking, chain smoking Midwestern woman who’s tough as a boot and tougher, who laughs and who loves from the bottom of her heart and so her daughter must, too, did I mention that the mother-in-law and I once got drunk together in a bar in Germany because that’s exactly how small the world is and it explains, nearly enough, how I learned that Dave the tough and gritty former bike racer made music with the drug hawker and who would have thought that under all that gritty bike racer and bad grammar there lay a musician?
Who would have thought that the people you know are such profound strangers?
Of course it was thanks to Facebag that I clicked on a link of photos of Dos Gatos, and boys, your Hollywood photo shoot was nice and all but when the link took me to the two music clips of your band and I hit “play” and heard sounds soulful and easy, good with who you are, okay with the broken pieces that got left out of the rebuild and the half-fixed ones that got put back in, feeling and warmth and a little frilly undergarment of pain and loss and hope for what wasn’t, what isn’t, what can’t be, but that maybe, after all, with a little bit of luck, just might be anyway, you know what I heard?
I heard the highway pouring beneath narrow wheels and the wind in my hair.
Give it a listen. I hope you’ll hear it, too.