The importance of book slimming

December 10, 2018 § 1 Comment

When I was a kid, I learned that you don’t ever travel without books. We didn’t have computer games or phones of course, and about the only good entertainment was getting into knock-down, drag-out brawls with my brother in the back seat. Those never ended well, first because he would beat the shit out of me, and second because my dad would invariably pull over to the side of the road and beat the shit out of both of us.

You don’t see a lot of kids getting the shit beaten out of them on the side of the road anymore, which is a good thing.

Anyway, in addition to the beatings we learned to travel with books. Our dad always traveled with books, plural, and the older we got and the more independent we became, the more books we took with us when we traveled.

My dad was famous for taking a small library on a two-day trip. In between the beatings and the sleeping and the drinking he never finished even one, but he always had plenty just in case there was a nuclear war and we were stuck in Uvalde for a million years, which is about how long it was gonna take him to read Marx’s Capital.

As a grown man I can’t tell you how many times I’ve traveled with books, plural, and returned home having read only a little bit of one of them. The reason is that you think you’re gonna plow through a dozen books in between here and Augsburg, but in reality you sleep the entire time on the plane or you are drunk or both. Then all that dead time in the airport? You know, the time you were gonna use to chew through those books? Trust me, two chapters and you are asleep, getting neckbone disease from hanging your head on the back of those rubber seats with the steel neck-backs.

Of course you’re not deterred; when you get to the luxury resort in Hohenkirchen-Siegertsbrunn you will flop down beside the pool and read all day. Except you don’t. You tour the town, sleep by the pool, eat way too much, sleep some more, then go to your room and sleep some more again.

On the way home you know you’ll finish at least one book but it’s not possible. The first meal knocks you out, then you watch four movies, then dinner comes, then you’re asleep again, then you wake up and thumb through the in-flight rag for an hour, then you thumb through the in-flight store mag for an hour, then it’s 45 minutes to landing and you’re home.

So a few trips ago, and it was damned hard, I decided to do two things:

  1. Take one book.
  2. Throw it away on the plane if I wasn’t finished with it by the time we landed.

And it worked! I was so afraid of having to throw away an unread book, which is like putting a bunch of kittens in a bag and drowning them, I read the lone book before I even reached my destination. And I found it didn’t matter which book I took, so I’ve learned that the key is to take a really dreadful one that’s been staring at you from under the table for a couple of years, daring you to read it.

Here’s my next victim. He doesn’t stand a chance.

END

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Book curse

November 18, 2018 § 8 Comments

You simply cannot give people books. Please don’t do it. It is a terrible idea every time, so don’t. Just don’t.

The first and most obvious reason to never give anyone a book is because they will never read it, ever. Take, for example, the 984-page opus boringus that I “gave” a “friend” more than five years ago, a biography of Stalin. He writes regularly to say that he still hasn’t read it.

And we both know he never will. The fact that it won a major prize and the author was his wife’s ex is totally unrelated.

The second reason to never give anyone a book is because even it weren’t written by their wife’s ex, it insults them. When you give a book you are telling the “friend” that you know something they don’t, and you would like to ameliorate their pitiful ignorance. Take, for example, the 732-page book that I “gave” a “friend” last year, a novel about a man, a sheep, some catacombs, a compass, three blind wise men, and an odyssey through the Outback. He hasn’t spoken to me since.

The third reason to never give anyone a book is because it is clutter. Old, dead, musty, stinky trees filling up your spacious modern home, or your tiny apartment, or your full-to-busting study? No one in the history of time ever received a book and said, “I know exactly where to put that!” Everyone in the history of time said, “FML! Where am I going to put that?” Or their wife did, and the answer was usually “the dumpster.”

Nor can you fix it by sending them a digital copy, which simply clutters up their already maxed-out iPhone which, like Manslaughter’s, has 10,283 unread text messages, 25,019 unread emails, and a full voicemail box. Or is it a voice mailbox?

Most poisonous of all, however, is the fact when you give a book you are certain to receive one as vengeance, and you will hate it. It will be about ceramic molecular structure, or the sex life of dead people, or a teen vampire novel. Whatever topic you hate most, that’s the one it will be, and whichever author you abhor, she will have written it.

Heavy with the ugly unwanted gift comes of course the heavier and even less wanted obligation to read it, which you won’t, and the concomitant obligation to lie about having read it, which you will. Maybe you will see the friend from across a crowded room and you will scurry to hide behind the cheese tray, but unlucky you! The gift book was about cheese and your nemesis will track you down and glow as he pins you next to the Camembert and asks, “How did you like the book?” knowing full well you either hated it, didn’t read it, or hopefully both. You will silently shake your fist at him, and he at you.

The more you try to figure out a way to pass on a book, especially a wonderful one, the harder it is. You know how friends don’t give friends used underwear and shirts? Books are like that. They simply never fit. The book that changed your life and that you have only decided to pass on after careful consideration and yea, even love? That is guaranteed to be the one book the friend actually does read.

“How did you like the book?” you will ask hopefully, desperately, longingly, after having pestered him for a year.

The friend will look up from his phone, ever so briefly interrupting the flow of vital information about Black Friday online sales. “Uh, it was okay,” he will say, wounding you forever.

So just don’t.

END

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37 years

February 18, 2018 § 1 Comment

My wife’s grandmother was born in 1916, during World War I, and she is a few weeks shy of her 102nd birthday. She came down with the flu about ten days ago and was very sick. The doctor came over to the house and told Yasuko’s family to start making arrangements. The flu, he advised, was absolutely unforgiving amongst centenarians, and there was exactly zero chance that she would have the physical reserves to fight it off.

Her name is Harue, which means “spring,” because that’s when she was born. A few days went by and Harue didn’t die, so the doctor came by to see what was up. “She seems to be fine,” the family said.

The doctor was perplexed. “Never seen anything like it,” he said. “She is tough.”

So the family went back to their routine of taking care of Harue, shuttling her to the senior citizens’ day-out facility, and to the doctor and whatnot. Harue’s demise has been predicted many times, and it could come tomorrow, but so far she has outlived all of her contemporaries, and a whole bunch of her juniors. One hundred and two years is so long a time to live that it doesn’t even make any sense.

Harue is not in very good health if you mean cognizant of what’s going on around her, but she’s in very good health if you mean “alive and kicking.” She has had a very hard life and has lived through things that killed hundreds of millions of people. World wars, plural, famine, pestilence, and of course the meatgrinder of time. And no matter how much longer she lives, her ability to interact with the world around her is greatly, greatly circumscribed, to put it mildly.

What’s left?

All of this got my wife and I to talking about longevity. I’ve never looked up my death date, but I have heard that the longer your relatives live, the longer you will live. So we snuggled up in bed and did some death research. What we found wasn’t very cuddly, at least for me. Yasuko is going to peg out somewhere between 96 and 101. My expiration date is much, much sooner: The longest I can expect to get out of this meatbag is another thirty-seven years. Ninety-one is my max. A more realistic number is in the low 80’s.

Wow.

Thirty-seven years. That’s like, nothing. And if it turns out to be more like twenty-seven, then double wow. That’s like, tomorrow.

Of all the death calculators online, the best one is done by the Aussies, because their premise for the calculator isn’t how much time you have left, but what in the hell are you going to do with what remains? The death calculator, as they see it, should be used as a life calculator. Your hand is on the throttle. Are you going to gently turn it to get as much mileage as you can, or twist the dogdamned thing off?

With the covers pulled up around my chin I thought about all the dead people I know, the great majority of whom are nominally alive. They’ve already scented the stench of the grave and they don’t like it, so all of their daily choices are designed to prolong the number of days that they get to spend figuring out how to prolong the number of days.

WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING, AND WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING HERE?

That, to me, seems to be the question.

Maybe a good cup of coffee would help

All of this happened on the heels of two books, one I just finished and one I just dove into. The first is a biography called “Stalin: Paradoxes of Power.” More about that in a later post, but let’s say that great histories should make you act. The other book, a birthmas gift from my son and daughter-in-law, is called “Das Wiener Kaffeehaus,” and it’s a series of vignettes by various great Austrian writers, selections about the deceased institution of the Viennese coffee house. Some of it is hilarious, much of it moving, all of it points to the things that have gone by and raises the question yet again.

I imagined myself on a drizzly February day, seated at the Cafe Hawelka, where I have sat many times, poring over a newspaper, making stupid notes in a notebook, sipping coffee to warm my brain enough to think but not enough to relax. I imagined shuttling between the bakery and the hostel, eating a big loaf of black bread smeared with butter, soaking in those things you can only absorb outside your daily ambit. I imagined the minutes, hours, days, blasting away like Speed Racer, the old one, time is Speed’s Mach 5, waiting for someone perhaps, but certainly not for me.

You know, it is a very thin line between imagining something and doing it. A good cup of coffee is worth traveling for, especially when it’s not really a cup of coffee you’re after. A familiar seat in an old cafe is worth seeking out, isn’t it?

Or is the real value in existence the actuarial calculation of death, toting up years to retirement, mulling over funds you’ll need in your dotage, researching the percentage chance of dying from whatever malady you fear most, obediently listening to the voice of reason that puts off the things that decay and turn to dust the longer you push them aside? Are any of those things really more valuable than a good book, cold rain on the cobbles, a warm cafe, and a hot cup of coffee?

das_wiener_kaffeehaus

END

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Strunk & Bukowski

January 30, 2018 § 11 Comments

Remember Strunk & White’s epic manual on good writing? I do, and time hasn’t rusted its guts, not even a little.

The other day I reached under the table and pulled out a book. I keep all my unread books under the table. There’s a bunch of them. “What do you do with a book once you finish it?” you may wonder. I either donate it to the library or pass it on. The only thing worse than a house full of books you’ve already read is a house full of dead bodies. They both get in the way and smell funny.

This time I pulled out Charles Bukowski’s “On Writing.” It was published in 2015, many years after his parts fell off, and it is a collection of his letters that have been edited so as to only contain his opinions about writers, poetry, and writing. I think that once you combine Strunk with Bukowski you wind up with a pretty good manual and one hell of a name.

Way back in 2017 I set off on an arduous ten-week journey to redesign this blog and make it prettier, to make it more appealing to more people, to put it in synch with the 21st Century, to give my fake news the flash and flair it deserved. After all, as one critic put it, “Your blog is just filled with words.”

At the time I replied, “Well, it is hosted at a place called WordPress.”

But as the criticism mounted and the urge to do something new and modern pressed down, hard, I gave way and did the Big Redesign. Several people emailed to say they liked it. Several more subscribed. But several other people said they didn’t like it. “Where are the words?” they asked. “We don’t give a rat’s ass about the photomag layout,” they said. “We don’t like the way it’s organized,” they said, among other diplomatic phrases.

Mostly, though, they wanted to know where all the words had gone, and why.

The new design really never had a chance. It was slower, clunkier, and required more IQ points to operate than I have to spare. It had various security wormholes that let ordinary folks wander into the nether regions of my dashboard and scrawl graffiti on the handles, knobs, levers, and dials of the blog itself. All of that freaked me out, naturally, but what really laid me low was the assassination of my carefully assembled writing rules according to Strunk & Bukowski.

In that writing manual, you are encouraged to say “fuck” if “fuck” happens to be the right word and to get straight to the point, but to do it with innovation and imagination and flair. Even if you fail, and even if your straight ends up being crazily crooked, like Bukowski’s, that’s okay. The point is to eschew the trite and the predictable and the saccharine.

So imagine my personal hell when, at the bottom of each post, there was a little “Yoast SEO” box that rendered a grade for each and every post. It didn’t say things like “Your post sucks!” which would have been reassuring, but rather it pointed out stylistic shortcomings and algorithmic solutions to my butchered paragraphs so that Google and Goggle and Boggle and Hornswoggle could index my ranting, slap it up high in the search rankings, and make me a billionaire or at least the premiere Internet destination for all the people doing searches for “crazy gay biker porn south bay nutjob pedalbeater wanker.”

Ye olde Yoast SEO had word limits per paragraph, limits for number of times you can use the passive voice, suggestions for how often to use the “key word” (something I never even had), and requirements that you use the key word in the title and in the subheadings. Subheadings? Who needs subheadings? Doesn’t the text flow well enough without a giant signpost saying “Hey, Dummy, New Idea Coming Up”?

In any case, I thanked my expert web dude for his hard work and begged him to give me back my old boring plain text. It’s uncool, it’s never going to make the big time, it’s a steaming pile of word manure on most days, but you know what? It’s my fuggin’ manure pile and it reads exactly the way I wrote it, without criticism, guidance, or ratings from some sorry ass algorithm search geek who couldn’t write a literate sentence if all he had to do was add the period.

In 1918 Strunk said, “Vigorous writing is concise.”

In 1966 Bukowski said, “Whatever I write, good or bad, must be me, today, what it is, what I am.”

I’m pretty sure I don’t need a fancy web site to do that.

bukowski on writing

Light it and run!

END

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About Cycling in the South Bay: This the all-things-cycling blog about cycling in the South Bay and cycling in Los Angeles, maintained and authored by me, Seth Davidson, Torrance-based bicycle lawyer, bike racer, and personal injury attorney.

 

Birdsong

November 22, 2017 Comments Off on Birdsong

David Vogel came to Vienna in 1912, perhaps by train, and I came to David Vogel in 2016, most definitely by bicycle. I was loitering in one of Vienna’s bookstores, gazing longingly at the memoirs of Stefan Zweig, and calculating how many euros I had left and how many books I could buy and still have enough cash left for the train ride to the airport.

Next to Zweig’s book was Vogel’s “Eine Wiener Romanze,” A Viennese Romance. The title sounded cheesy, and the photo, alas, caused me to judge the book by its cover. I bought Zweig’s book, hopped on the rental bike, and hurried back to the hotel.

A year later I was back on a rented bike, back in Vienna, back in the bookstore, and back in front of “A Viennese Romance.” This time money was no object; I had an extra twenty euros burning a fiery hole in my pocket. This time the title no longer sounded cheesy and the photo had become enticing, and I pulled the book off the shelf to read about it.

It didn’t escape me that “Vogel” means bird, and after only a few paragraphs it was clear that this bird could sing.

Although Vogel’s book had been written in the 1930’s, the manuscript had only been discovered in 2012 and published in 2015. The fact that it was a posthumous “find” made me like it even more, John Kennedy Toole-like, and I bought it. Then, I hurriedly pedaled over to a coffee shop and greedily began to read.

Vogel was an outsider, a wanderer, a dreamer, a daringly bold thinker, and a revolutionary writer all wrapped up in shabby formal clothing and hidden beneath a broad-brimmed black hat. He failed during his lifetime as a writer, but his time in Vienna was a dream. Drenched in poverty and introversion, he loitered at the Viennese coffeehouses, dodged starvation with subsistence jobs, lived a Bohemian existence not too far from Bohemia, and did so in the decidedly non-Bohemian, frugal, inward looking, spiritual, quiet life of a mostly ignored poet.

Vogel’s book, “A Viennese Romance,” is a cascading series of powerful pulses coming from the hilarious and observant and wry mind of the protagonist, who, like Vogel, is driven by lust, love, maddening desire, and the grinding conflicts that erupt like geysers as a result of a three-way love affair, which is the book’s central plot. It is one of those books that makes you laugh out loud even as it saturates you with the imagery and beauty and bustle of Vienna before the First World War, the epicenter of culture and thought and science and art and the place that bound those things together to make them flourish, the Viennese coffeehouse.

If there is something more brilliant and fine than reading a great novel about old Vienna in an old Viennese coffeehouse, I haven’t experienced it, to say nothing of the unspeakable pleasure of having gotten there by bicycle.

Despite his enduring gifts to world literature, Vogel himself had a life that was somewhat less expansive, something more truncated. He left Vienna for Paris in the 20’s and like an entire generation of scientists, artists, writers, and geniuses, was later murdered in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

IMG_3737

A Viennese Romance

END

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Not for airline consumption

October 10, 2017 § 16 Comments

There I was, sitting on the sold-out 5:00 AM from LAX to Denver, wedged between the wildebeest and the sweating bald accountant with the hacking, sputum-laden cough of a Cat 1 smoker, when I innocently pulled out my copy of Phil Gaimon’s latest book, “Draft Animals.”

The plan of the entire cabin was the same: Sleep until Denver. My plan? Get through as much of Draft Animals as I could before reaching Houston, my final destination. The two plans would turn out to be irreconcilable, like Sunnis and Shias.

First, let me get a disclaimer out of the way. Phil Gaimon is a close personal vague acquaintance of mine, a guy I have known for many long months who is a year older than my oldest kid. We have shared many Twitter hearts and lols as only close socmed friendies can, so don’t think I’m going to be objective about this book which was free to me but won’t be to you.

Second, understand that I would heartily encourage you to read this book and would rate it ten out of five stars even if it were a steaming pile of shit, which it is because in the footnote on page 296 it says “complement” instead of “compliment.”

Jeez.

Anyway, I would still urge you to buy it, read it, and buy another copy as a Christmas gift because it is worth its weight in guffaws, snickers, chortles, snot-bombs, wheezes, hacks, gasps, screeches, snorts, and howls. Phil and his copy editors and their Word grammer chek and the whole fucking editorial apparatus of Penguin Books may stumble over “complement,” but if you don’t laugh yourself hoarse you are probably getting injected with formaldehyde and being prepped for the viewing.

You should buy this book because it is cheap and funny and I’m a fanman because I once got Phil to nod at me from across a dimly lit room, or maybe he was nodding at the model who I was standing next to, but the other reason I’m bound to praise it no matter what is because he talks about so many people I know or have stalked. Matt Wikstrom, Rahsaan Bahati, Hrach Gevrikian, “Joanna,” and others get honorably mentioned, and a really good review here ups the odds that in his next book, “How Seth Davidson Made Me Famous,” I will at least get a mention.

Speaking of butthurt, fuck Phil Gaimon for not mentioning Tony Manzella and that day on Mandeville when courtesy of Phil, Thorfinn Sasquatch’s tainted KOM on Mandeville Canyon was ripped away and returned to its rightful owner. I can’t believe he wrote about competing at the highest echelon of human endeavor and Paris-Roubaix and stuff and left that out.

But back to my story about spraying phlegm all over the cabin en route to Denver and the murderously enraged passengers …

“Draft Animals” goes far beyond Phil’s last book, “Ask A Pro,” which was hilarious and a polished gem in its own right, and far, far, far beyond his first book, “Pro Cycling on $10 a Day,” a book I never read but which Penguin described as a “cult classic,” which I think means “funny book about a weird niche that sold way more than the fifty copies we expected,” and anyway, who doesn’t like a good cult?

This post-cult effort of Phil’s goes super deep, like any good blowjob, into the inherent contradictions wrapped up in chasing your dreams. Not limited to sports, many try and almost all fail. Why bother? How do we justify the risk? What does success taste like and is it salty?

Phil plumbs the depths of an underpaid journeyman pro with the sophisticated literary devices of poop jokes, dick jokes, pee-pee jokes, and a strange mix of poignant stories and jagged edge realizations that are as moving as they are unexpected. And he remembers to toss in a couple of metaphors and similes to show his college English prof that the A- he got in creative writing was a miscarriage of justice.

Everyone knows that life is hard and failure is the wages of birth but “Draft Animals” itemizes the paystub in the poverty, injury, fear, pain, shock, privation, gnawing physical hunger, betrayal, and disappointment of “clawing his way to the middle” as a pro cyclist. It doesn’t all suck, as he abundantly makes clear. Despite the ten-year grind, he once won a big race. Another time he got to eat a whole bar of dark chocolate and only felt slightly guilty about it. Amazing highs.

Like any great writer, Phil tries to make sense out of absurdity without doing us the indignity of pretending that it all makes sense, that the circle can be squared, but without the nihilism, either. He reserves a polite decency for those he cares about, and he boils the objects of his ire in scathing derision without ever pretending that he’s better. Even in the awful and despicable character of Jonathan Vaughters, he finds, if not redemption, at least a death penalty commuted to a life sentence of douchebaggery.

Phil’s protesting lady of modesty retains its reminders of success: He may have sucked as a pro, but lots sucked worse and don’t even think you’re his equal. He may never have struck it rich like Thomas Dekker, who waltzed out of his career as a failed doper and into the budoir of a multimillionaire Beverly Hills heiress, but he has three fine books published by Penguin, he owns two homes, and he rode two years on the World Fucking Tour.

That may not be success measured against Warren Buffett’s finances, but it sure doesn’t smell like failure to me. And anyway, as the book makes muddily clear, what in the world does success even mean?

If you love good writing, you need to buy this book. Where else can you find Thoreau jokes next to dick jokes next to ruminations on good and evil interspersed with ridicule of Jens Voigt and the Schlecks? Nowhere but in “Draft Animals,” that’s where.

When we touched down in Denver my sides ached. The cabin was sullen. I couldn’t help giggling about Thomas Dekker’s giant foreskin, allegedly long enough to cover ten quarters. As I walked up the jetway puffing white balls of water vapor and thinking about the day’s schedule of airports and connecting flights while simultaneously smiling at this guy’s funny stories, interesting life, and fine writing, I knew that the long day ahead wasn’t going to be so grueling after all.

END

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PS: Don’t forget the Wanky’s. As if you could. And I may have forgotten to mention that there is free food and beer for the first 350 guests, so get there early.

Cycling book review: “Ulysses” by James Joyce

April 17, 2016 § 18 Comments

Although regarded by discriminating readers as the greatest novel of all time, and regarded by less discriminating readers as gibberish, “Ulysses” by James Joyce is unquestionably one of the greatest books in any language about cycling, better even than “Positively False” by Floyd Landis.

After recently completing this mammoth read from Mammon at the pace of 25 pages per day (est. 2.6 minutes per page), I realized that far from being a modern allegory about Odysseus, “Ulysses” is in fact a book about bicycling.

In the spirit of the freshman English class that I failed, what follows are my textual references to support my novel thesis about this most novel novel. After 782 pages of careful analysis I discovered that Joyce writes movingly and with passion, depth, and understanding about bicycling exactly thirteen times. Here they are.

  1. “They passed from behind Mr Bloom along the curbstone. Beard and bicycle. Young woman.”
  2. “His eyes followed the high figure in homespun, beard and bicycle, a listening woman at his side.”
  3. “Gerty MacDowell loves the boy that has the bicycle.”
  4. “As per usual somebody’s nose was out of joint about the boy that had the bicycle off the London bridge road always riding up and down in front of her window.”
  5. “W. E. Wylie who was racing in the bicycle races in Trinity college university.”
  6. “But he was undeniably handsome with an exquisite nose and he was what he looked, every inch a gentleman, the shape of his head too at the back without his cap on that she would know anywhere something off the common and the way he turned the bicycle at the lamp with his hands off the bars and also the nice perfume of those good cigarettes and besides they were both of a size too he and she and that was why Edy Boardman thought she was so frightfully clever because he didn’t go and ride up and down in front of her bit of a garden.”
  7. “His right hand holds a bicycle pump.”
  8. “He smites with his bicycle pump the crayfish in his left hand.”
  9. “Love on hackney jaunt Blazes blind coddoubled bicyclers Dilly with snowcake no fancy clothes.”
  10. “He had sometimes propelled her on warm summer evenings, an infirm widow of independent, if limited, means, in her convalescent bathchair with slow revolutions of its wheels as far as the corner of the North Circular road opposite Mr Gavin Low’s place of business where she had remained for a certain time scanning through his onelensed binocular fieldglasses unrecognisable citizens on tramcars, roadster bicycles equipped with inflated pneumatic tyres, hackney carriages, tandems, private and hired landaus, dogcarts, ponytraps and brakes passing from the city to the Phoenix Park and vice versa.”
  11. “of course hes mad on the subject of drawers thats plain to be seen always skeezing at those brazenfaced things on the bicycles with their skirts blowing up to their navels even when Milly and I were out with him at the open air fete”
  12. “pretending to read out the Hebrew on them I wanted to fire his pistol he said he hadnt one he didnt know what to make of me with his peak cap on that he always wore crooked as often as I settled it straight H M S Calypso swinging my hat that old Bishop that spoke off the altar his long preach about womans higher functions about girls now riding the bicycle and wearing peak caps and the new woman bloomers God send him sense and me more money”
  13. “can Milly come out please shes in great demand to pick what they can out of her round in Nelson street riding Harry Devans bicycle at night”

QED

END

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