Thar she blows

November 28, 2014 § 11 Comments

When I was in 3rd Grade I rode my bike to school with Jeff McMahon. In Texas we pronounced it “Mack-Mu-Hon.” I was a middle class kid and Jeff’s family was pretty redneck but we didn’t know it meant anything that one of us lived in a house and the other of us lived in a trailer, and we were friends because we were both in Mrs. Opal Smith’s class and took the same route to school.

Whether you were a middle class kid or a redneck, in those days every boy in Texas had a handkerchief. A handkerchief, along with a pocket knife, was one of the earliest symbols of manhood. You don’t hardly see it anymore, but older men, especially in the country, would make a big deal out of blowing their noses. It was as manly as scratching your nuts, only manlier, because you could only scratch your nuts with other guys whereas you could blow your nose anywhere, and you did.

There was a whole ritual to it that fascinated every southern boy who ever lived. You’d be sitting in the middle of dinner and Ol’ Grandpa would reach into his back pocket and pull out a big colored handkerchief the size of a bedsheet, turn his head a little to the side, and blow his nose.

You could tell by the length and the force of the blow, as well as by the sounds of mucous as it issued forth, whether it was “a good ‘un” or not. Then Ol’ Grandpa would take the wadded up hankie, which was now filled with so much snot and boogers that if he’d blown anything else his head would have caved it, and unfold the hankie like he was reading the newspaper to take a brief look at his creation.

If you were sitting next to Ol’ Grandpa you’d try to sneak a glance to see if it was “a good ‘un,” and if you were lucky you’d get a glimpse of some big old green clump of snot just before he’d fold up the hankie and stick it back into his pocket. No one thought it was nasty beyond belief or abnormal in the least. Just stick that ol’ snot-filled pillowcase back into your pants and sit on it for a while until you needed another big blow.

I still remember when I got my first set of hankies. Granny picked up a set of three at the Ben Franklin Five and Dime, a blue set for me and a brown set for my brother. We tore open the packages and blew our noses on the soft cotton until our noses hurt, but since we didn’t smoke or have a cold, our mucous was always clear and white, and when we’d do the unfold-and-check it was always disappointing to see that we hadn’t been able to blast out one of those green monsters.

One morning Jeff and I were riding to school and he took out his hankie and blew his nose. “I got a danged cold,” he said, making a big deal out of his blow.

“Yeah, me too,” I said, and counter-blew. By this time I was using white hankies because they showed up the results better. We both checked our results, riding no-hands of course, and then stuffed the hankies back in our pockets.

The bell rang and we went into class. Mrs. Smith was a stickler for politeness and proper language, which was a source of endless frustration because of all the little rednecks in her class. She also forbade talking unless you raised your hand. Jeff, who was the nicest little Baptist redneck you ever saw, never cussed or caused trouble. He was one of those shy kids who wanted to blend in, and he did.

Mrs. Smith had her back to the class and was writing something on the blackboard, when Jeff took out his hankie and gave it a little blow. Mrs. Smith heard the noise and spun around. “Did you say something, Jeff?” she snapped.

“Why, no ma’am,” he said.

“Well I heard you say something. What did you say?”

“Oh, I didn’t say nothin’ Miz Smith. That was just m’snot rag.”

“Your what?” her face froze. “What did you say?”

Jeff, who had probably never heard the word “handkerchief” before, calmly repeated himself. “I said it was m’snot rag, Miz Smith.”

All hell broke loose as every boy broke out into hysterical laughter and the girls shrieked and giggled and he almost got sent to the principal. It was only towards the end of Mrs. Smith’s excoriation that he even realized that “snot rag” wasn’t something he was supposed to say. Then his ears turned bright red and he hung his head in shame. We all thought he was going to cry, but he didn’t.

On the way home he turned to me. “If I cain’t say snot rag, what’m I sposed to call the dang thing?” he asked.

“I dunno,” I said. “We always call it a handkerchief at our house. Or a hankie.”

“A hankie? Sounds like a durned girl.”

From that day on, Jeff stopped carrying a snot rag. I did, too.

END

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Thanks!

November 27, 2014 § 38 Comments

Sometimes I wonder what to write, but not today. This one is easy.

My blog gets about 1,037 visitors per day. Some of the visitors read what’s here, some of the visitors take the extra step to comment, and some of the visitors take what is much, much more than an “extra step.” They send me $2.99 a month and become subscribers.

What do subscribers get that no one else gets? In terms of content, services, or other tangible things … well, nothing.

But it is the subscribers who keep me going.

People who fiction do pretty much the same thing, whether they’re great, good, mediocre, or terrible. We channel the vagaries inside our heads, the strangeness of our daily lives, and the wonders of existence into words.

I don’t know why I do it, but I do know this: When people, the vast majority of whom are strangers, send me $2.99 each month to thank me for my efforts, everything I do and write feels worthwhile. Is it strange that satisfaction and self-worth are so cheap? Not to me, because it’s not cheap at all. Rather, it’s an act of incredible kindness and generosity.

Plus, $2.99 fits squarely inside my “money value matrix.” When people are talking about whether “x” amount of money is “worth it,” I always ask this question. “Would I bend over to pick it up if it was lying on the sidewalk?” Since I would pick up even a penny if it was lying on the sidewalk, $2.99 is a whole $2.98 more than my minimum estimation of “Is it worth it?”

The other side of the satisfaction I get from your contribution is obligation. It’s a bit of a challenge at times to crank out 1,000 words on a daily basis, more or less limited to the topic of “Cycling in the South Bay,” and to make sure that in each post there are no glaring misspellings or egregious grammatical bloopers that rouse the ire of Billy Stone. In fact, the challenge is at times so great that I’m tempted to just say “Fugg it” and be done with the whole thing.

But I don’t, and that’s because of you, who send me your monthly $2.99. That money means something to you, and you earned it somehow, and you went through the horrible experience of interfacing with PayPal to set up your subscription.

That money means something to me, too. It means that you value what I do. You value it more than one of these, the same as one of these, but slightly less than one of these. And what makes your contribution even more meaningful to me is that you give it when you could simply keep reading for free.

And finally, your gift makes my lifelong dream real by turning me into what I’ve always wanted to be: A professional writer.

Thank you.

Seth

END

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Freshie pokes

November 26, 2014 § 15 Comments

“You’re gonna die,” my brother said with grim satisfaction. I looked at the horrible purple bruises up and down his arms.

“What happened?”

“Freshie pokes,” he said with a smile. “Every time an upperclassman sees you the first week of class you get a freshie poke. Feels like this.” He hauled off and socked my arm as hard as he could. He clinically studied the tears that began welling up in my eyes to make sure he’d hit me hard enough and I wasn’t faking it. “Only about a thousand times worse. And it goes on all week.”

“All week?” I mumbled, lip trembling.

“Yeah, unless they peg you as dork meat. Then it goes on all year.”

The next year, 1976, it was my turn to start at Jane Long Junior High School. That entire summer I had dreaded the first week of school. “Ready for your freshie pokes?” my brother would say just before pounding my arm a few times.

The first day of school came and I went to the bus stop with my brother. He had long hair and was a tough guy. There were a few guys on the bus who looked even tougher, but no one gave me a freshie poke. I wondered if I would cry. “Probably,” I figured, looking at the size of the guys on the bus.

I stayed as close to my brother as I could until the bell rang. “See ya, dork,” he said. There were several big hairy guys dishing out freshie pokes in the hallways, but somehow they missed me as I scurried, terrified, from class to class.

After school I went into dad’s study. “I want to ride my bike to school,” I said.

“Okay.” He hardly looked up from his typewriter, a huge desktop Remington with no letters on the keys.

“I need a backpack.”

He looked up. “A what?”

“A backpack. I can’t carry my books to school on my bike without a backpack.”

In 1976, no one used a backpack for books. Instead, kids used these things called hands. And for a guy there was only one proper way to carry your books and binders, and it was under your arm, with one hand. Girls could use two hands and hold them out front. If you were a guy and you tried to hold your books out in front with two hands, even if you had a hundred of them, you would have been instantly beaten to death.

There was only one place you could get a backpack, and that was at a camping store. And backpacks weren’t for kids to take to school, they were for backpacking. I knew I was going to look stupid and would probably get punched up one side and down the other, but it seemed safer to go by bike, where I could time my arrivals and departures, than to have to run the bus’s freshie poke gauntlet.

Dad drove me down to a camping store by the Galleria. It was very unusual for my parents to buy me something unless it was Christmas or my birthday which, economically for them, fell on the same day. We picked out a little brownish-orange knapsack made by a company called Wilderness Experience. It was waterproof and had a little buckle thingy that you could strap around your waist to keep it from sloshing from one side to the other. The whole contraption screamed “Bash my face in.”

The next morning I aired up the tires on my Murray 10-speed, rolled up my pant leg, slung on my backpack, and cinched the “Punch Me” belt. It felt beautiful, riding my bike on my second day of school. No hanging around the bus stop, no bus gauntlet to deal with, only cars honking and trying to kill me, which wasn’t nearly as bad as a freshie poke. My commute went from an hour to twenty minutes.

I locked up my bike, unhooked the Punch Me cinch, and tried to jauntily sling the backpack over one shoulder, as if that would somehow deflect from the fact that I was going to be the only kid in a thousand with an orange dorkpack. As I walked through the giant blue gates, gates that were barred and looked like a prison entry, kids noticed, in the way they always do. No one has sharper eyes than a kid.

I stood at the main doors, praying for the bell to ring. My heart was pounding. About that time the buses began discharging kids, and an extremely mean looking, blonde redneck began striding towards me, grinning as he balled his fist. He had freckles and a chipped front tooth. “Freshie poke!” he said as his pals watched, laughing.

The redneck let loose with a punch. The last thing I saw was his fist and its giant knuckles, speeding towards my tender, bony arm. “Just don’t cry, dork,” I told myself. I flinched and twisted to the side, causing my backpack to shift around my shoulder. At the moment of impact his ham-sized hand slammed into the edge of my backpack and the sharp plastic edge of the oversized binder that I’d crammed in on top.

The force of the blow twisted me around and almost knocked me down, but it didn’t hurt and no one noticed. Redneck was holding his hand, limp, first cursing, then crying, then moaning in piteous agony. He’d broken two fingers.

The bell rang and I scurried indoors. I’m pretty sure I’m the only freshman in the Jane Long Junior High School Bicentennial Entering Class of ’76 who never got a freshie poke.

END

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The strange pull of cycling

November 19, 2014 § 20 Comments

I first saw the old elephant about three years ago. He was gray-headed and busting out at the seams as we flew past him on the Donut Ride. He’d gotten a good ten-minute head start but we overhauled him long before the first big climb. He huffed and puffed and mashed for about ten pedal strokes, trying to hang on before he was blown out the back.

As we passed him someone said, “Good job, Bill,” and then we were gone.

“Who’s that?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s Backintheday Bill,” the other rider said as he filled me in on Bill’s career as a top local pro and general two-wheeled wrecking ball.

“He looks terrible,” I said. “He’s gotta weigh over 250.”

“Yeah, I haven’t seen him in fifteen years, maybe more. His race weight was 140.” From that Saturday on I saw Bill every weekend and always said hello when we passed. Over time he stopped taking head starts and began rolling out with the group. And he was getting smaller.

At the beginning of the year I noticed that he was sticking with us up the first hard surge, and although he was still a pretty big fella, he was certainly under 200, and his kits didn’t look like they were about to unravel and kill someone with the force of the exploding seams. Now he’s visibly getting thinner by the month, and sticks with a much younger grupetto all the way over the first big climb. All of his kits are new because the old ones flat out don’t fit anymore.

Bill’s one of many, many riders who come and go and then come back. They leave for all the right reasons — racing is dumb, cycling is costly, pedaling is dangerous. Some leave for all the wrong reasons, too. My buddy J.C. had found Miss Right through cycling.

“Can you imagine anything better?” he had said. “A girlfriend who loves to bike?”

I didn’t say anything, because I could imagine a lot of things better, like a girlfriend who loves to cook, who earns seven figures, and who loves you to bike while she perfects her home brewing recipe. But I didn’t say anything except “Nope.”

They married and six months later she quit cycling. Then six more months later she told him to quit cycling. Then six more months later he was single again, and back, of course, on his bike.

Some dudes quit for spiritual enlightenment, like The Buddha. Tony used to be one of the most feared racers in SoCal. Then he started growing a big bushy beard, and worse, reading books, long books with hard words. They ruined him, of course, and one day he announced on Facebag that he was “done.” Now he’s a Buddhist adept, spreading love instead of dishing out the pain, but mark my words, he’ll be back. As nice as it is to make the world a better place, it’s even nicer to watch people crumble.

Sometimes when a guy sells his bikes and is “done” you’re kind of glad, but other times it’s a sinking feeling of genuine loss, like when Todd quit coming to the rides, then sold his bike, then vanished from view. Everybody loved Todd. He never had a bad word to say, he was one of the funniest guys alive, and he was always up for a beer. If you had a problem he’d give you the shirt off your back, even if what you really needed was a pair of trousers.

But as a cyclist, he was the guy who made your ride fun. You know how when someone pedals up and everyone kind of moans inwardly, as in “Why’d that buzzkill show up?” Todd was the opposite. Punctual-departure-Nazis would sit around for ten, fifteen minutes, gladly waiting for him even though he was always late and didn’t show up despite blood pacts the night before about “being there no matter what.” Todd was the brightest jewel in the crown of South Bay cycling fun, and then one day he was gone except for the occasional post on Facebag, which always made me sad.

Then yesterday Fireman texted me a photo. “Just finished our ride,” the message said, and next to the words was a picture of him and Todd draining a fermented recovery drink. There was a huge smile on Todd’s face, and I bet it was mostly from being back on his bike.

But his smile wasn’t nearly as big as mine.

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Take it SLO

November 15, 2014 § 6 Comments

I knew it was going to be a great weekend of ‘cross racing when we saw the straw drummer. Mike and I were standing in line at the Starbucks and an older dude was sitting at his table holding big green straws in each hand and a straw in the crook of each elbow.

With his earphones in, grooving to the beat, he drummed the air with his drinking straws, flipping them like drumsticks and catching them again in his elbow and mouth. He was skilled but clearly insane, just like a ‘cross racer. Unlike a ‘cross racer, however, it was before noon and he wasn’t obviously drunk.

As Mike pointed the RV north to San Luis Obispo, we took inventory. “Beer?” I asked.

“Six cases. So we’re covered for tonight.”

“Coffee?”

“Check.”

“Toilet paper?”

“They’ll have that at the race.”

Knowing that we were fully provisioned I relaxed as we powered up the 101. Three hours later we got to El Chorro Regional Park where they were setting up the course.

After being cooped up in the RV we were champing at the bit to ride. I kitted up and raced over the dirt wall behind our campsite. On the other side a nice fellow had just finished setting up his tent, which he had inconveniently placed immediately in front of my bike. Due to his poor placement, I was forced to ride over his tent.

He was kind of upset as we untangled his sleeping bag and camp stove from my derailleur, but I explained to him that if he had not put his tent in the way of my bike it wouldn’t have happened and plus now he had a new rear entrance to his tent which would improve airflow.

Mike and I rode for twenty minutes around the course then returned to camp, exhausted by the hard workout and ready for a big meal. Mike threw together an awesome mountain of pasta and meat sauce, sourdough slathered in butter, potato chips, Oreos, and beer.

As our campfire blazed and the temperature dropped, all the neighboring ‘crossers, thirsty and cold, gathered to the flames like moths. After nine hours all the beer was gone and the ‘crossers from Oakland were getting restless. I know this because the tall blonde was picking up the empties and draining the last drops of beer and Ebola spit from them.

When she finally reached for my beer I was afraid things would get ugly and then magically the SPY crew of Jim, Aden, and Vic showed up with six fresh cases. The natives all relaxed and the tall blonde took her hands off of my throat and we were all friends again.

Sometime much later the fire had died, the bottles were empty, and Mike was starting to look pretty cute. We climbed into the RV and were soon snoring the sleep of the dead.

There might be a better way to prep for a ‘cross race, but I don’t want to know what it is.

The ones who persevere

November 12, 2014 § 4 Comments

I respect people who’ve volunteered — yeah, volunteered — to work for the government, whether in its war corps, its Peace Corps, or its bureaucratic corps. The USA only works when good people enter the machinery and help it run smoother, cheaper, smarter, better.

In a broader sense, whether they’re working for the Air Force or the company that makes Air Jordan, I admire people who persevere. I was privileged to be part of Major Bob Frank’s retirement ceremony on Monday night. Bob served as a major, unrelated to Major Major Major Major, in the USAF. The only mistakes he made in his 20-year career were having an open mic at his retirement ceremony, and letting me speak.

Through a befuddled haze in which we drank every single bottle of IPA at the VFW Post in Redondo Beach (note to self: drinking all the beer in a VFW post indicates a drinking problem), it was a wonderful evening where Major Bob’s cycling friends could show their support for him by drinking the military attendees under the table. We are skinny, but we have a bigger substance abuse problem than they do.

The next morning, let’s just say that the 6:30 AM ride from Malaga Cove was “sparsely” attended, as in “three people showed up.” Bull, Dan K. and I rolled out at 6:30 sharp.

Dan K. is one of those people who has been transformed by cycling. He’s shed 60 or 70 pounds over the last couple of years. “I’ll ride along with you guys until I get dropped,” he said.

“Don’t worry,” said Bull. “It won’t be one of those rides.”

I wondered what he was talking about. With Bull it’s always one of those rides; he’s the guy who goes until he blows, recovers, and goes again. And again. And again. We descended and then climbed the Malaga wall back up to PV Drive. My legs were stone cold, and Bull pushed the pace. Dan K. kept the pace and Bull fell off. We regrouped and reloaded at the top, and Bull came pounding by again.

Going up the short climb at Lunada Bay, Dan K. punched it and Bull and I got kind of dizzy. Then we climbed the alleyway, fractured again, and regrouped in time to drop down by the seaside and climb the Millionaire’s Wall back up to Hawthorne and PV Drive. This time there was more fracturing than a North Dakota oil well, and with big gaps. Bull rolled up. We could see Dan K. toiling away behind us. We didn’t hammer, but we didn’t exactly wait for him, either.

He latched back on.

In Portuguese Bend things broke up again, and Dan K. caught up to us at the light on the other side of the Switchbacks. My legs ached; Bull’s did, too. Dan K. might have been tired, but he didn’t show it. We separated again, and Dan K. caught us again, this time in Redondo Beach, completing what was essentially a 1:15 time trial, and a very hilly one at that.

“Good job, man,” I said, gassed.

“Thanks for letting me tag along,” he said, not appearing to be very tired.

Funny thing, perseverance.

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Passing it on

November 11, 2014 § 26 Comments

One of the old-timers was complaining about one of the newcomers. “When’s he gonna learn how to ride a fuggin’ bike?”

In the old days, people learned to ride a bike through shouting and blunt curse trauma. Nowadays there are a few curmudgeons who still wield the lashing tongue as a method of instruction, but we are dwindling, and for good reason. For one, it’s a lousy method. For another, you get tired of hollering because the exponentially increasing number of new riders makes it impossible to holler at all of them.

Plus, no one pays attention. You’re just a grouchy old sourpuss with a hangover.

The Aged One grumbled a little more. “Fuggin’ punk pulls some of the stupidest shit on a bike I’ve ever seen. Whatever happened to ‘Show up, shape up, and shut up’,” he asked.

“Those days are gone,” I said.

“It’s a damned shame. We’ve all gotten too soft and considerate of the next guy’s feelings, even when he’s pulling some douchey move that could kill you.”

I wasn’t so sure. The good old days had their bad old side, too, and part of the bad side was a culture of exclusion. In order to be one of the gang, I seem to remember, you had to get yelled at a lot. The masochists and those who aspired to positions of sadism could stick it out, but many’s the happy cycling enthusiast who shrugged and walked away after getting screamed at or belittled.

The kinder, gentler pedagogy is visible in real life, too. A friend was telling me about his son, who had walked on to a Division 1 basketball team. After two years on the team the son sat down with his father. “Dad,” he said, “I’m thinking about quitting the team.”

This came as a pretty big shock to the dad, who had been at his son’s side for the entirety of his basketball career. “Why?” he asked.

“If I work even harder than I’ve been working for the next two years, and if the stars align, there’s a very, very small chance that I’ll see a few minutes of playing time. The guys I’m competing with are for the most part future players in the NBA. I’m good enough to be on the team, but I’m not that caliber. It’s a huge amount of work and I’m not sure I want to do it anymore, especially when I look at what it takes away from my studies. I mean, the real reason I wanted to go to college was to get an education.”

This of course is the point where the Old School Father would have given his son a talking to, something along the lines of “Quit being a fuggin’ candyass, dogdammit. Get out there and bust your ass, and don’t talk to me about quitting until your eligibility is up.” He would have loaded the speech up with some guilt and shame as well. “Do you know how disappointed your mother will be?” etc., etc.

But my friend, you know, instead of the reflexive harangue that I’ve seen parents use when their kids quit Little League, much less a Division 1 basketball career, he took a different tack, passing on what he’d learned over a lifetime of living and parenting to his child. “Don’t make any rash decisions,” he said, “but consider it carefully, and if you’re ready to walk away from it, then walk away.”

A couple of weeks later his son came into his study. “I’ve been thinking about what you said, dad, and I’m ready to quit. And also, dad … “

“Yes?”

“Thanks for loving me enough to let me do what I have to do.”

All this rattled through my mind as the Aged One finished his complaint about the newcomer. “Well,” I said to him, “look at it like this. You’ve got more experience than anyone else out here, right?”

“I suppose so.”

“And he’s still pretty ignorant, right?”

“You can say that again.”

“Well, what’s the use of our superior wisdom and experience if we don’t know how to pass on what we’ve learned?”

He nodded and was silent for a few minutes as we finished our coffee. Just then, newcomer rolled up, smiling the smile of the young, the strong, and the just-finished-a-killer-ride. He went into the coffee shop, got a cup and came back out.

The Aged One made some space for him to sit down. “Hey, man,” he said with a friendly smile. “Could I talk to you about something?”

“Sure. What’s up?”

I couldn’t stick around, work being work, so I got on my bike and rode off. But a week later I saw the two of them riding side by side, chatting animatedly, punctuating their conversation with laughs. The newcomer was also riding a very, very, very straight line.

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