May 3, 2015 § 8 Comments
One common thread that runs through every German novel I’ve ever read is that what I think I understood was completely wrong. However, thanks to its brevity, simple vocabulary, and translucent prose, I’m pretty sure I got this much right out of Herman Hesse’s novella “Siddhartha.”
When asked by his prospective employer what he could do, since he’d spent his life wandering around not bathing and doing mostly nothing, Siddhartha answered, “I can think, I can wait, and I can fast.”
Now there may be a better mantra for a bike racer, but if there is I’ve never heard it.
Age lays you low if you like to race. You’re not only not as good once as you ever were, you ultimately reach a point where you’re not even as generally bad as you once were, but generally so, or even worse. The decline is vicious, steep, inevitable, and cruel.
On the plus side, plunging recovery, waning strength, and diluted pain tolerance have forced me to adapt since I ride so much with riders who are so much younger. It is shameful to admit, but I have begun resorting to tactics. Sneaky, wheel-sucking, despicable tactics that are the signature of every card-carrying bike douche and, parenthetically, every successful one.
My only defense is that I have come to it late whereas most of my peers, and whole swathes of younger riders, have never known anything else. And to its credit, tactical douchery does have its rewards.
Take the most recent Thursday Flog Ride. Although the Wily Greek had temporarily vacated for the Tour of the Gila, NJ Pedal Beater was there along with a very small handful of other riders. NJ’s approach is to go out so hard that he immediately drops everyone. Failing that, he deliberately tries to kill you. More about that later.
On the first lap NJPB made short work of half the small group with a repeated series of attacks so vicious and fast, and unleashed at such difficult points in the ride, that after a few minutes the only remaining victims were me, EA Sports Inc., King Harold, and Uglystroke. As an aside, NJPB had done the 140-mile Belgian Waffle Ride the previous Sunday in a scorching 7:11, winning his category and putting him in the top-20 overall even though he essentially time-trialed the entire route.
I knew that any exposure to the wind would be fatal, particularly since NJPB is tiny and provides minimal draft to begin with. I also knew that his vastly superior recovery and excessive tininess meant that any time at the front by me would be rewarded with more searing attacks. Then I factored in this detail: I’d never beaten him on this ride because the handful of times we’d reached the final steeps of 18-percent Via la Cuesta together, he had dusted me off like an energetic maid with a feather broom.
This, of course, is the iron law of cycling: The best predictor of future results is past performance.
So I sat. By the end of the second lap it was just me, Uglystroke, and NJPB, whose attacks had diminished a bit in frequency and ferocity. However, furious at being unable to shake us, NJPB took the approach of “kill what you can’t beat” by insanely attacking into the two wet 180-degree hairpins that are frequently populated with giant peacocks, not to mention oncoming traffic if you cross the yellow line.
The desire to kill people who you ostensibly pretend to like is interesting because it tends to nullify the “people you like” part of the statement, especially when done repeatedly. NJPB was unconcerned with the fact that after each descent we easily floated back to his rear wheel; the goal seemed simply to either terrify us (it succeeded) or crash us out (it failed).
On the fifth lap I tested him with two surges which he easily followed. Then I returned to the not-especially-draftable rear wheel and waited for the finale. Incredibly, when we hit Via la Cuesta he crumpled, something I’d never seen, much less imagined. I sped away, enjoying the fruits of my tactical douchery, never quite believing I’d hold it to the end.
And perhaps I didn’t. He recovered and sprinted up the final 21-percent mini-wall such that he either beat me by a tire or I beat him. In any case, I marked it down as a success to sneakiness.
Two days later a similar game played itself out on the Saturday Donut Ride, where I’ve never beaten or even followed 27-year-old Colin Dong, a Ph.D. dental student who weighs twelve pounds and goes uphill, shall we say, quickly.
On the big climb, a 20-minute-ish effort that really begins in Portuguese Bend and finishes atop the radar domes, I sat. And sat. And sat. All on Colin’s wheel, and briefly on Chris’s before he swung over.
As the pain intensified I simply reminded myself of Siddhartha: I can think, and my plan is to hunker down and suck wheel and don’t counter when he slows and don’t let him trick me onto the front. I can wait, so I simply have to wait for the end. There will be no glory other than the glory of waiting. And I can fast, which, over the past two months, has allowed me to shed enough blubber so that I’ve gone from 165 to 155.
As we hit the final turn, of course, I lost the ability to think as my plan turned to “Quit now.”
I lost my ability to wait as I realized that waiting even one more second wasn’t worth the collapsing pain box.
I retained my ability to fast, but that was only because I’d forgotten to pack a gel.
Colin sprinted away over the final 300 or so yards, but I’d finished with him in sight, and nearly in reach.
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May 1, 2015 § 35 Comments
The verdict is in on power meters, Strava, and computerized ride data. They make you faster.
A professionally designed power-based training plan, scrupulously followed, and including adaptations for the times when you are sick, injured, or beset by the things otherwise known as life, will turn you into someone who turns the pedals faster.
What it will also do — and the verdict is in on this as well — is make you unhappier.
If you are a professional, that is a meaningless consequence. Your sponsors don’t give you money to ensure your happiness, they do it to ensure your success, which theoretically leads to better sales. But what about YOU?
I have three case studies, not including my own, that I’ve followed over the last six years. Here they are. Judge for yourself.
Case Study #1: The happy racer
This guy got into cycling from marathoning and “high risk” action sports. When he came onto the scene he fit the profile we’ve all seen, zooming from freddie to feared hammer in a single season. We’ll call him Tom. Tom rode his bicycle with abandon and zest, and saw nothing wrong with Mile 1 breakaways on the Saturday Donut Ride, breakaways that sometimes succeeded but that always inflicted carnage on those left behind, not to mention those who foolishly tried to follow his wheel.
He rode instinctively, and though his instincts were often wrong, occasionally they were right and they put him on the podium. More importantly, the act of riding was an act of irrepressible joy. Win or lose he embodied the same pleasure that you can find in any little kid zooming full speed down the local hill. Not that little kids are allowed to do that anymore, of course.
As part of his “progression,” Tom’s engineering mind made technology-based training a natural area of investigation. He “computered up,” and over a few seasons mastered the fundamentals of power-based training. His natural ability, an already sharpened knife, became a razor. His grasp of training and innate desire to share made him a lightning rod for new riders in his club, with whom he gladly shared training information, workout plans, and swapped training data.
After about three years, Tom no longer took risks on group rides by attacking early. He became calculating and efficient. If the pace exceeded his training targets, he sat up. If it wasn’t hard enough, he went off and did something by himself. Tom became a slave to his data. It made him faster, but it also turned the freedom of cycling into the prison of golf, where you are constantly reminded that there are absolute numbers beyond which you can never progress. Tom’s beauty, which had always been the bright light in his eyes, had dimmed.
Enslaved to the numbers, when Tom had a really bad year with some significant medical problems that ruined his carefully regulated train-by-the-numbers approach, instead of digging into the mental bucket, bucking up and rallying, he began doing something he’d never done before: throwing in the towel, DNF-ing, quitting. The thing that had always sustained him, his mental attitude and his enjoyment of the sport, had been replaced with numbers and data that had no real strength to carry him through the rough spots other than their unflinching message of inadequacy and defeat. The last time we rode together he was still struggling.
Case Study #2: Escape from New York
I’ll call this guy Snake Pliskin. He was whatever type is more aggro than Type A … Type A positive? He also came from a running background and migrated to cycling when his knees gave out. Mentally tough and physically gifted, for Snake the act of riding a bike was the act of riding away from the stresses of work.
Snake had a grind-em-up attitude to riding. He didn’t race but he approached every ride as a competition. And though he was often put to the sword on long climbs, when placed in his element of flat or undulating road, preferably with a stiff crosswind, he could put paid to all but the very best of the best. Snake finished his rides spent and satisfied, regardless of whether he was the last man standing. The act of full commitment and giving it his all recharged him for the real battles that remained to be fought in his workaday world.
For him, cycling was the beautiful escape.
Somewhere along the way he became a complete Strava addict. Multiple devices to record rides, pages and pages of KOM’s, and a ferocious response on the bike to those who took his trophies. Yet the more he buried himself in the world of Strava, the more he opened himself up to attack, as countless riders took shots — many of which were successful — at his virtual winnings. This of course drove him to ride more, ride harder, create more segments, and further extend his pages of KOM’s.
Along the way cycling mutated from a refuge into a prison. With everything measured and quantified, with every foot of roadway a possible place to take a KOM or lose one, he spiraled from the incredible pressures of his job to the equally crushing pressures of riding his bicycle.
As with Tom, Snake’s numbers told him that however good he was, on some segment, on some day, someone else was better. The awfulness was reflected in the fact that not only had Snake’s escape become a wearying burden, but it was now on full public display. Unlike the real world, where your buddy kicks your ass, rubs your nose in it, and you remind him of the drubbing you gave him the week before, Snake was locked in Strava kudo hell, where anonymous people with strange nicknames have the same right to comment as your closest buddies who suffered stroke for stroke all the way up the climb, and where the interaction is a binary “kudos” or an “uh-oh.”
The humanity of friends trading jokes and trading pulls, laughing at the funny shit that happens on a ride, commiserating about life, sharing triumphs, and making fun of each other’s foibles had been reduced to a fake interface of 0’s and 1’s artfully designed to imitate real people, real relationships, real lives. The escape was now the cage and it wasn’t even gilded.
The last time I rode with Snake he crushed everyone, grimly.
Case Study #3: The old school
I will call her Harriet. She had been around forever and was still dominating the local women’s race scene into her late 40’s, outsmarting and intimidating women half her age. She eschewed data and Strava and wattage-based training plans. Harriet’s MO was simple: ride and train with the fast men. She couldn’t beat them, but she could hang on and it made her strong enough to beat her peers, even when they were young enough to be her daughters.
She paid no attention to technology and refused to join Strava. She’d ridden as a pro and knew three things: how to train, how to win, and how to have fun.
And in her own way, her pleasure in riding a bicycle remained as vibrant and undiminished as it ever was. The last time I rode with her she gapped me out, shouted at me for running a red light, and dusted me in the sprint. Then she pedaled gaily off to work, ready to start the day.
This great empty is hardly confined to cycling. It repeats itself in myriad ways for modern Americans whether they ride bikes or not. When people think about the rise of the machines they imagine cyborgs and androids and sci-fi creations, but those aren’t the machines that rule us. The machines are pieces of software that are piped to us by phones, Garmins, desktops, and laptops, they are algorithms that have reduced the complexity of life and human interaction into 0’s and 1’s.
And they dominate us because at its most basic form, life is that simple. But who wants that level of simplicity? Isn’t life better with messiness, with the nonlinear slop and jostle of emotions and feelings and real human contact?
Of course it is, and that’s the big lie that the great empty has to spend billions to paper over. When your emotions are tugged by the 0’s and 1’s that show the precious pug or the newborn of your best friend or the KOM on that 200-yard bike path segment (tailwind, natch), something deep inside is left empty and unfulfilled, the zipless fuck of the digital age. How do I know? Because after the little jolt you have to hit refresh or like or kudo or scroll eternally and in desperation down the feed.
Answers I don’t have, but this I know — when you ride a bicycle untethered to 0’s and 1’s, you may not become any faster. But you will, over time, become happier and more at peace with the ragged, raging, sloppy and jostling world that, despite the best PR efforts of Facebag, Google, SRM, and Strava, hasn’t yet learned that reality is denser and more complex than two simple numbers.
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April 24, 2015 § 25 Comments
Every Thursday we have a little ride called the Flog Ride, or Love & Thursday, or the Joe’s Sleeping in Again Ride. You can’t always count on who’s going to show up, but you can count on this:
- NJ Pedal Beater will be there.
- You will get dropped.
NJ Pedal Beater is English, but he’s lived in the U.S long enough so that we can sort of understand him. Not that we get to chat with him much, because he rides on the front as hard as he can until he either drops everyone or until he blows, or both. NJ Pedal Beater always smiles and is hail-fellow-well-met, but he doesn’t ride 25 miles one-way on Thursdays to make the Flog Ride’s 6:35 AM liftoff in order to make small talk.
He does it because the Flog Ride provides the only non-racing weekday opportunity unencumbered by stop lights or shrieking ride bosses demanding that you pull through, or stop for traffic, or take reasonable steps to prevent killing yourself and others. No, the Flog Ride is a kind of delectably rare truffle that simply offers up a relentless, hilly beating for 60 minutes before work.
Unlike the Flog Ride’s Thursday competition, the New Pier Ride, you can’t sit in. Essentially you get up early, drink your coffee, roll to the start, say hello, and spend the rest of the morning by yourself. It is a great ride for introverts. NJ Pedal Beater is a very social introvert in that he always says “Hello” before zooming away. If you’re unlucky enough to be strong enough to hold his wheel, you had better stay alert because NJ Pedal Beater has a bad case of the droops, where his head hangs down and he fearlessly plows over metal grates, rocks, tree limbs, and anything else in his way.
As much as you’d love to advise him on proper etiquette (avoiding large chasms, pointing shit out, not descending the wet 180-degree peacock-filled turns full gas, not crossing the DYL, not making the 90-degree right hook onto PV Drive North full tilt) you never actually can because he’s always in front of you and you’re gassed or he’s dangling off the front and you’re gassed or he’s attacking and you’re gassed or he’s a tiny little speck in a galaxy far, far, away.
NJ Pedal Beater is the toughest rider in the wankoton, hands down. He recently awoke at 2:35 AM, hopped on his bike, and did a 300-mile round trip ride, stopping once and averaging 18.6 mph. He has the recovery of a small child, and no matter how cracked and broken he appears to be, as soon as he gulps twice he’s back pounding at the front.
This morning was no different. NJ Pedal Beater zoomed off, followed by the Wily Greek. This was our cue for an easier flogging on the Flog Ride, and it was easier–for a moment or two. That’s when a new face rolled to front and began administering a very painful Brazilian wax. Soon enough we were in the gutter, breathless, cursing, and livid at being made to grovel on the wheel of a youngish wanker with more leg hair than a silverback, midget socks, and a complete lack of concern for our misery.
In addition, as if any were needed, he pointed out all obstacles well in advance, took safe and clean lines, kept his head up, and held a steady, surge-free, nut-crunching pace.
I flatted, thank dog, and what was left of the chasers raced away.
Many minutes later I clawed to the finish atop La Cuesta. NJ Pedal Beater and the others were there. I went up to the new kid. “What’s your name?” I asked.
“Alx Bns,” he said.
“Bns? That’s a weird name.”
“No, it’s ‘Bns,'” he said, which sounded suspiciously like what he’d said a second ago.
“Been riding long?” I asked.
The response shocked me. I can’t even approximate it, but it sounded like this: “Istaatdsmtimbkprpsayrrrtoagonnmrdnwthbgrnge.”
“Dude,” I said, fearing the worst, “don’t be so stingy with the vowels. They’re free here in America.”
He muttered some more singsong consonants and then I looked over at NJ Pedal Beater, who had clearly understood everything he’d said. A light went on: Bns was another Englishman. Or maybe just another mad dog. I hesitated before calling him a wanker, knowing that among those of the green citrus persuasion it’s a mild insult, kind of like calling someone “anus face.”
“Look here, wanker,” I said. “You’re beastly strong, bloody tough, tea and crumpets and all that rot. But we already have one crazy strong Englishman who kicks us in the groin every Thursday, and we don’t need another.”
Bns warbled some more consonants and smiled pleasantly.
“Fuggit,” I said. “Wanna go grab coffee?”
He said something unintelligible and smiled in a friendly way that indicated he did not understand the depth of our anger and lifelong enmity at having been smushed to a pulp by a hairy-legged newbie who couldn’t even talk English goodly. But that’s okay. He’ll learn.
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April 16, 2015 § 23 Comments
I rolled down to the Starbucks at the mall after work, pretentious foreign language novel under my arm and jaunty beret neatly covering my bald spot. First, I ordered the public off-menu Sulawesi pango-pango, which I always order.
“Excuse me,” I said as the girl swiped my gift card. “The public off-menu has the tall listed as $3.00 and you just charged me $3.50.”
The barista looked at me funny. In Palos Verdes fifty cents isn’t an actual monetary sub-unit. “Oh, you’re right,” she said. Then she thumbed up at the publicly secret off-menu. “The manager hasn’t changed the prices yet.”
“Well he has on the register … ” I trailed off.
“Right,” she said, rolling her eyes and then taking out a complicated swipe card + key and getting the assistant manager’s authorized signature before refunding me my two quarters. I realized that even though people in PV don’t count quarters, the Starbucks assistant manager apparently does.
Next, I settled down at the table and took out my pretentious foreign language novel, and after that my even more pretentious issue of the Economist. It was conveniently opened to an article about quantitative easing in the EC and the way it has doused deflationary fears with mitochondrial expression of lysosomes and the mechanistic target of rapamycin.
No sooner had I comfortably propped up the pretentious foreign language novel so that everyone could see it than a crazy lady came up to me. I knew she was crazy at first glance. She was blonde and very pretty but her eyes were crazy. It took one glance at the eyes for me to know, that and the shopping cart. She was in the middle of a cramped Starbucks with an entire shopping cart from the Pavilions grocery store next door.
Beautiful women with giant shopping carts in the Starbucks are generally crazy. Inside the shopping cart was a mountain of food, mostly chips and frozen items. The frozen items were melting, I supposed, further evidence of her craziness. Atop Mt. Frozen Food she had perched her two screaming, squalling, snot-covered brats, the obvious source of her insanity.
The children had that dirty, fungal, contagious look of 2-year-olds who had been scrubbed clean at 7:00 AM but by 5:00 PM were covered in a layer of food bits, spit, dirt, dried blood, grunge from the floor of the shopping aisles, and spilled liquids whose chief qualities were brown. The children smelled sour and were full of terrible energy. I felt slightly crazy just looking at them.
The woman had that triple-post-partum depression that has morphed into edgy infanticidal tendencies, and she paid no attention to the brats as they teetered, screaming, atop the melting ice cream, with lots of empty space between their heads and the hard floor they were poised to launch onto at any moment. The crazy woman glanced at my book and snorted contemptuously. Then to no one except perhaps the kids, since there didn’t appear to be any other Slavs in the cafe, she let out a string of what I can only assume were monstrous curses in Russian.
Although I don’t speak Russian, I do speak angry mother, and the phrase “Stop doing that or I will smack the shit out of you” is the same in all languages.
Just as I tried to refocus from her breasts to my pango-pango, she said something to me. I knew it was me because the only other people nearby were two high school kids who were shrieking and laughing at some private joke. “Hey you,” said the crazy lady. “Is that your bicycle?” She pointed to my trick whip leaning against the window.
“Yes,” I said, “but I won’t trade it for the cart and the kids.”
She laughed. “They terrible little monsters.” On cue the tousle-headed boy smacked his sister in the face, who responded by smacking him back and biting his arm. We moved our lips at each other for a few seconds until we could hear dimly through the din of howling cries.
“They don’t look like little monsters,” I smiled. “More like dreadful little blood-sucking aliens.”
The crazy lady brightened, perhaps hoping I’d reconsider the kid-trade offer she had been about to make before I had read her mind and rejected it. “You bicyclist? That’s very fancy bike for coffee shop riding.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m a professional.”
“You ride for the pro team?”
“Sure. I’m with Katusha.”
She cocked an eyebrow and said something that had po-russki stuck in it somewhere. “No, I don’t speak Russian,” I said. “I’m based here in the states.”
“My friend he is bicycle racer,” she said as one of the brats hurled the tub of half-thawed ice cream out of the fort.
“What’s his name? I probably know him. Hell, if he’s Russian I’ve probably beaten him.”
“Dmitri Shostakovich. You know him?”
“Dmitri? Sure. Russian dude from Moscow, right? Raced with him a bunch in Belgium.”
“You so smart,” she laughed. “But very bad liar. You just old man with fancy bike maybe no job because you hanging out around high school girls in coffee shop chatting at housewife when other man still working hard at job for family.”
“Hey, you got me wrong. Doesn’t Dmitri ride for a Continental team? Or is he on Oleg Tinkov’s development squad? I can’t remember, but I know the dude. Really.”
“Dmitri Shostakovich great Russian composer, he is died in 1975.”
“Oh,” I said. “THAT Dmitri Shostakovich. So, you come here often?”
The two brats were in a death clench of screams, hits, bites, and sloppy quiescent treats. “Yes, sometimes,” she said. “Do you?” The crazy in her eyes had dialed up to eleven. They went up to eleven.
I looked again at the kids. “No,” I said. “I’m visiting here from Texas. Leaving town in a half hour.” I left my pango-pango on the table, the cup still hot and half-full.
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April 13, 2015 § 35 Comments
I hopped on my bike and coasted downhill to the Starbucks. I had been practicing my Euro-hipster look at home on the couch, skinny jeans, faded t-shirt, carefully manicured shaggy goatee with a pretentious dog-eared novel in a foreign language, and after many months of carefully adopting a seriously casual leg drape with accompanying ironically intellectual scowl I was ready to try it out in the guppy tank of PV moms and one-percent financial advisers.
I checked the mirror and decided to add a knitted cap and my trusty hoodie for an accent of locals-only surfer elan, and practiced a couple of slouches to see which one most clearly hid the title of my foreign language novel while nonetheless exposing it to anyone who took a second look, which everyone in PV always does.
As I stood in line I carefully studied the off-menu coffee menu at Starbucks, which is secretly posted on a giant hand-chalked board next to the regular menu. The thought that I could pay an extra couple of dollars to have something called “Sulawesi” rather than “Pike” made me feel even cooler. The farmers in Indonesia were doubtlessly benefiting from my fair trade organic purchase and in a generation or two would be driving SUV’s and sending their kids to Harvard. I love saving the world through a specialty drink caffeine addiction in a global conglomerate chain cafe.
With my steaming cup of earth-rescuing coffee (eco-friendly ceramic cup only please because, pandas) I strategically positioned myself on the long table and spread out my hipster props which included an aged and rugged shoulder bag whose faded color and nicks and patches suggested days alone in the Himalayas even though it was mostly a lock carrier that I used when I went to the mall. I opened my pretentious foreign language novel and tried to read a page or two before giving up, as it was in a foreign language and therefore almost impossible to understand, and anyway I don’t like to read.
It was about 3:00 PM and the high school kids were filtering in from across the street. This was kind of a bummer, because whereas the housewives would instantly recognize me as hip and mysteriously suave Bohemian who was either unemployed or living on a trust account and be awed by my thick foreign language novel, the kids would only see, and wrongly so, a wrinkly old bum who hadn’t shaved in a month.
Two boys burst in, grabbed a table, and whipped out their laptop-iPad thingies. One of them was tall and rather handsome, slim but not skinny with a shock of black hair and intelligent eyes that shot around the cafe looking for someone. The other was shorter, with high cheekbones and brilliantly white teeth. They looked together out into the parking lot, scanned it, and then went back to their phones and texted madly, never speaking.
A few minutes later in walked two girls. The one in front had light brown hair and very pale skin. Her eyes were green and her features, although plain, had the stunning beauty of youth that you only truly see when you are old, too old to even exist for them except perhaps, if you’re lucky, in the category of “Grandpa.” Her hair was tied back in long braid with a pink ribbon on the end, and she giggled when her friend said something and glanced over at the boys.
The friend had an enormous bouquet of black hair that was restrained with ties and ropes and ribbons and things, and her mouth was arced with full red lips of the most sensuous kind. Unlike the demure apparel of her friend, she was wearing a tight t-shirt with a deep vee that fought to contain her breasts, and a pair of intensely short shorts that folded around her thighs and butt with the fierce force of the world’s tightest shrink wrap.
I pretended not to notice, being concerned about various laws and being exceedingly ashamed at my high degree of observance, but being invisible to them it was hard not to stare. No one paid the least attention to my foreign language book, and on reflection I wondered if they even knew what a paperback was.
The girls sauntered over to the boys and a lively conversation ensued for a moment or two. There was electricity in the air. Then the girl with the braid pointed into the parking lot and I heard her say, “Mom’s here.” The two girls went outside as the ridiculously expensive German car pulled up with the 50-ish matron dressed and surgeried to pass for 40. The matron, I thought, would notice my book.
As the girls said their goodbyes, the gentle touch of hands became a hug, which became an embrace, which became a fully engaged kiss, the kiss of lovers, the kiss of young lovers, the passionate embrace of seventeen that you only feel once if you’re lucky, as the girl with the braid stroked the forehead of the girl with the wild hair, there in public for all to see, unabashed, unashamed, accepted by their families and the world, as young love is supposed to be.
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April 5, 2015 § 12 Comments
I am lying in bed. It is noon. My eyes are wide open. I am extremely tired and would go to sleep, except I cannot. My legs are pulsing with pain. I am missing a toenail. My shorts have a shart in them and my dick has dried out. I get up out of bed and try to pee again. There is a terrible burning pain. It is not gonorrhea. I hope. A few drops of dark yellow come out. My dick is dry. Very, very dry.
I lie back down in the bed. Blood breaks through the fresh scab on my big toe and flows onto the white sheets. My wife isn’t angry. She doesn’t know about it yet. I close my eyes but only see my conversation from last night. Everyone sits around the table. They are happy. They are talking about school, about work, about the delicious dinner.
I nod and smile but I only think about my bike. Are the right cogs on? Of course they are. I only have one cog set. Is my helmet aero enough? Hollywood says that the right helmet saves 25 watts.
Someone asks me about the fried rice I am eating. I am not listening so I guess that they are not asking me if it is good because half of it is gone. They must be asking if they can have some. I say yes. This answer will fit both questions. They take away my plate and eat it but I do not care. Half of that plate is about 400 calories, I estimate, and I do not need them. I am a SoCal masters diet pro bicycle rider weekend hacker racer wanker so I count calories, one by one.
I worry about my handlebars. Sausage says the NOW ride planned for tomorrow is very fast. I think about Hollywood, Svein the Unhandsome, Erik the Red, Manzilla and perhaps others who are very fast. I am afraid my handlebars are not aero enough. Hollywood says that for a mere $465 I can buy 65 watts of flat handlebar. I try to remember how much money is in my PayPal account that my wife does not know about. I think it is $389.76. That is almost enough. Where can I get the extra $75.24. Where do my boys keep their wallets? They are sneaky and excellent at hiding their money but perhaps I can empty their wallets after they go to bed.
Someone is talking to me again. It must be about the bill. I know this because all of the plates look like they have been run through an industrial dishwasher. My family clearly belongs to the Acrididae and they are in their swarming phase. They are looking at me because they think I am going to pay for dinner and they have that look of the Acrididae in their swarming phase that says they will also want to swarm somewhere for dessert. I pay the bill.
On the way home people continue talking to me but it is dark inside the car and all I have to do is nod. I will wear the speed suit with the long sleeves. That saves me 15 watts, maybe 20. But the long sleeves may also kill me because the weather report says 90 degrees. Death or 15 watts? That is easy. I decide on the long sleeves.
I have an excellent plan. Cower, then hide. I only have a few matches in my matchbox. They are short matches and appear to be damp.
I wake up and pedal quickly to the corner of Catalina and Torrance. Hollywood is there. Erik the Red is there. Toronto is there. Kansas City Steak is there. Beeswax is there. Representative Murtha is there. Prez comes flying by. “Hey, Prez!” I shout. There are no cars on the street. It is a big, wide, empty street with four lanes. Prez does a 180. Prez does not check behind him. The street is empty except for a lone cyclist behind Prez. Prez and the lone cyclist now approach each other head-on.
Prez swerves again. He goes over a curb. His water bottle goes flying. The cyclist swerves and clips a car mirror. No one dies. Everyone laughs. “That Prez,” we say laughing in silent terror.
We meet the NOW Ride on PCH. I see Sausage. Sausage has 200% more aero than I do. I check his chain links, which are aero. His manicure, aero. I ask him how the ride goes because it is my first time. Sausage says we go easy until Cross Creek and the ride goes hard at Pepperdine Hill.
As soon as Sausage says that we go easy at the beginning, Miller attacks. I follow. We have a breakaway but it is only to Topanga. We stop at the light. We are gassed and our 100-yard advantage is erased. 100 riders are behind us. They foam and stamp.
Hollywood takes off. None can follow. The pack of 100 immediately becomes a pack of 50. We catch Hollywood . He is not pedaling. A strange beast on a TT bike takes off at Las Flores. Foolishly I follow him. He rides very fast and I hang on very fast. He tires like the giant lummox he is. His giant elbow swings like a barn door. I refuse to come around. He eyes me angrily. I come around, slowly and with great weakness.
The field catches us because he is large and I am slow. Hollywood splits off 15 more riders from the back with a searing acceleration. My toe begins to hurt. We have a clump of about 30 approaching Cross Creek. Everyone is tired beyond words and my shart is peeking out of the exit pipe. We are fifteen minutes into the ride.
Manzilla launches away from the pack. Foolishly I follow him. He eyes me with contempt and jumps again, but he has the draft of a fully-laden oxcart. I tuck in. He is fresh, I am spent. We zoom past the bridge for the first champion-ish sprunt which I am too weak and slow and tired and fearful to contest. In front of us looms Mt. Pepperdine. Manzilla dashes for the light. If we make the light everyone behind us will stop. If they stop we do not have to go full gas up Mt. Pepperdine. That is good because I have no more gas, full or otherwise.
We do not make the light. The locusts catch us. The light is long. More locusts catch us. Our ranks swell to 40 or 50. Some look like cadavers, only more dead. Others such as Keven look fresh and rested. They have done nothing. Perky has done nothing. They lick their chops as I lick the long string of drool and snot that dangles from my mustache. “The ride starts now,” Perky says with an evil grin.
Indeed it does. The light turns green. We launch up Mt. Pepperdine. The fresh people go very hard. The cadavers die a second death and are gone. I am the last rider over. My shart matures and the toenail comes off. I feel the squirt of blood. From my toe. I think.
Hollywood punches repeatedly along the road. Riders who are too clever to pull through cleverly get dropped. Riders who manfully pull through get manfully dropped. A tiny contingent of perhaps fifteen riders survives to Trancas. My shorts are now squishy. My toe hurts. I do not drink any water because I forget to.
We stop at the filling station and I forget to drink more water. We jump back on our bicycles. Beeswax is in the bathroom and returns to an empty parking lot. This is a cruel fate. The brief wait has allowed the group to re-merge. We are now perhaps 40 riders strong.
“This part of the ride is slower,” says Manzilla.
“Good,” says Hollywood . “That way we can roll into it gently.”
I attack as hard as I can and ride away. I come to Cher’s Alley. I have to decide whether to drop down and take the fast way or stay on PCH and tackle the two climbs. If I take the easy way and they take the hard way they will say I am weak. Then I recall that they are all weak. If I take the easy way and they take the hard way they will say I am a cheater. Then I recall that they are all cheaters.
I take the hard way.
At Cross Creek we intersect. They have cheated and taken the easy way. Of course. I am spent like the allowance of a small child.
Now Hollywood and Eric and Sam take successive pulls that break the group into a smaller group. Then Sam melts and is gone. Hollywood pulls some more and more people go away. Eric pulls some more and more people decide not to ride their bicycles fast anymore today. Sausage pulls through, and then pulls through again with prodding. Fireman pulls through. Kansas City Steak pulls through. Remaining wankers do not pull through, mostly.
There is a very fast sprunt that I observe from far away. As Billy Stone says, one person was faster than the others, who were slower. We ride down the bike path. We stop at the Center of the Known Universe for coffee and CPR. Nancy of Red Kite Bore pulls up, but she doesn’t say anything to me. She is still angry but she will calm down in a few years.
We ride our bicycles home. Hollywood needs extra miles to add to the day’s total of 90, so he pedals around the hill and climbs a lot more. I climb onto the couch.
Mrs. WM peels a banana for me which I dip in peanut butter. Then I hop around the room with very painful cramps and howling. Mrs. WM fries some eggs for me which I top with avocado and salsa. Then I hop around some more. Then I drink a lot of milk and coffee and ice cream and cookies and olives and hopping.
“What is that smell?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” I say and go lie down.
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April 3, 2015 § 43 Comments
I hate doing the dishes, and in 27 years of marriage I’ve hardly ever done them. She cooks at least two meals a day, sometimes three, from scratch, and cleans up the mess. That’s the deal.
One of the most exciting things about putting down the daily drunk was the highly anticipated discovery of the new me. And it was an exciting discovery. So much more productive, so much less moody, so coherent and responsible, and so much less having-to-be-carried-out-of-the-family-restaurant-drooling-and-howling. And dare I say it, happier and better adjusted? Yes! I dare!
The new me was ready to conquer some high mountains, and he did. Then, in January, the excitement started to wear off. No more daily self-pats on the back for having put down the beer can, rather, a kind of grim gaze off into the future, a gaze that pierced all the way to death and realized, “This is pretty much it.” Instead of being the heavily self-congratulated person successfully dealing with a horrible problem I became another ordinary non-drunk, and the stripping away of my heroic, self-congratulatory status felt like what, I imagine, one-shot TV wonders feel like when they go back to the McDonald’s day job.
This I could handle until another realization started creeping in. All the little hints and signs were there, and they all said the same thing: No, you are no longer drunk, but guess what? You’re still the same old asshole you always were.
I still remember the moment it hit me. She had hauled in ten sacks of groceries and set them on the floor, then gone off into the bedroom to take a rest. “What the hell,” I thought, “I’ll unload the damn things.”
One by one I emptied each sack. Milk. Bacon. Eggs. Flour. Kale. Quinoa. Vegetable oil. Strawberries. Spaghetti. Olives. Somewhere between the cans of tomato sauce and the bags of celery it hit me. Out of all these groceries, none of the things inside were for her. Left to her own devices there would be two bags, not ten, and they’d contain natto, tofu, oshinko, gobo, miso, green tea, and chocolate … not bacon and peanut butter.
Then it double-hit me. For 27 years she’s been cooking for me, not for her. For me. I wasn’t the same old asshole I’d always been, I was worse. More than six thousand nights of her life on earth had finished with a mountain of dirty dishes, and six thousand magical mornings later they were all clean, no matter that the labor of scrubbing scalded curry off the bottom and edges of a giant pot was the cherry on top of four hours’ labor over a stove. And the next day’s round of servitude in the kitchen never started until all the things that were cleaned got put away the following day so that they could all be used again.
So, it’s not completely true that I hardly ever did the dishes. To come clean, I hardly ever even bothered to set my own plates in the sink because, man.
Alcohol, not sobriety, was what allowed me to see a better me. The un-drunken picture in the mirror, un-hungover and un-looking like a dead cat, was the real picture, and however clean and clean-shaven that face now was, it was dreadful compared to the drunken, haggard one.
So that night, I think it was in mid-February, I did three things, all of which attracted extraordinary notice and eyebrow raising. I placed my dishes in the sink after eating, then washed them, then put them away. I didn’t touch anyone else’s, but after I finished she looked up at me with a gentle smile and said, “Thanks.”
To which I answered, “You’re welcome.”
For one week I did this, and the second week I took all the plates off the table, rinsed them, and loaded the dishwasher. Each time dinner started she was waiting, curiously, to see what would happen at the end, and when it did, each time she said, “Thanks,” and that word made me shiver inside.
To which I answered, “You’re welcome.”
The third week, because I awake before everyone else and make my coffee, I set the kettle on the stove and opened the dishwasher, pulling out the clean plates and cups and glasses and silver and stowing them in drawers and cupboards, and I wondered this: Is there anything more humiliating than realizing that at age fifty-one that your narcissistic, assholic self is just beginning to acquire the slight veneer of decency that most people have acquired by age ten?
There is, of course, and easy answer to that — yes. The more humiliating thing is to realize you’re still the same old girl you used to be, and not to care. I could do that, actually, but only with the help of a good stiff drink.
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