Thursday, May 28, 2015

Empty Mind: A Survival Strategy for the Overly Imaginative

In 1980 I took the Greyhound bus from Eugene, Oregon, to Washington, DC. Straight shot, no layovers, just three days of incarceration. On the very first day, the guy in the seat next to me offered me a hit of speed.

"Why?" I asked. "Are we going to have to take turns driving this thing?"

With nothing to do for the next three days but sit in a bus seat and look out the window, read, talk with fellow passengers and gradually get more greasy, why would anyone want to crank themselves up? Hallucinogens I could see. Maybe. But you run the risk of wanting to get interactive with your imaginary friends. The most complicated thing any of us had to do was get back on the bus after a coffee stop and not blow our transfers in Salt Lake City and Chicago.

With no duties to perform, we found ways to amuse ourselves. But eventually it was the middle of the third night somewhere in Pennsylvania and I was standing in the aisle, reaching out cruciform to hang from the luggage racks, my self-entertaining fantasies exhausted, my body incapable of remaining seated. I needed emptiness.

My day job demands more from me than mere stillness on a bus ride, but there are some crucial similarities. I have to stay until the journey is complete. Misbehavior could get me thrown off. And too much energy or imagination just make it harder to endure.

Yesterday I went in feeling empty from the start. With my employer's volatility, interaction with him is like trying to have a backyard barbecue in a minefield. The mines are few and widely spaced, but they're out there, trust me. He doesn't follow most of the twists and turns of my imagination anyway. Big G does, but the company can't afford to have us both on duty at the same time anymore. We intersect on Saturdays, and some Fridays and Sundays. But really, what's the point of wasting a lot of energy and imagination at work? It's not like I get to do anything with it. Instead of cheering me up, it's just bringing me down. Empty it.

The emptiness does not mean I bring any less attention to the work itself. It means that I dismiss anything that does not relate to the task in front of me. Anything that is not on my work stand is not my business.

I'd gotten so that I talked to myself constantly. It's a harmless habit that I continue on my bike rides and at home. But at work it's a gateway to too much thinking. And too much thinking just causes trouble. There's a time and place for that. Just not at work. Beyond my work stand I need to ignore anything but an actual fire breaking out.

Emptiness is not suppression. Thoughts occur. You let them go. Suppression takes effort. Emptiness saves effort. Silence saves effort.

Yesterday was easy. I felt a little sick from the stress of returning there after the monumental ass-reaming I had received on Saturday. I could focus on that to make my posture small. I moved slowly because I really couldn't move any faster. I kept my eyes down. I spoke only when spoken to or when I needed to cover the front while The Boss ate his lunch at the Bayview Cafe -- our name for the desk in the workshop, with what used to be a nice view of the water. The trees have filled back in after our clandestine pruning, so mostly all you see are people in our back parking lot. But we still call it the Bayview in sentimental remembrance of better days.

At lunch I sat at the Bayview only because my original plan to sit in the dusk of the back room, to avoid mental stimulation, would probably have provoked another big scene because I was not behaving "normally." But I did not look out the window, because I did into want to think about anything I might see out there: cars left idling, otherwise nice people sucking cancer sticks, the usual crap. I turned the chair toward the room and looked at the floor. It was a mess I could accept more easily than the mess of the outside world. My emptiness is fragile. Perhaps the empty eggshell will grow thicker with time around the vacant center.

I started to lose the lyrical drift around 3 in the afternoon. I needed to think a bit more about not thinking. The weather gave me a bit of a hand, because I could use it as an excuse to bolt about 15 minutes early to beat a line of thunderstorms bearing down on us.

Depending on whether I am furloughed again this Sunday, yesterday was the first of five or four days under the new approach. Breathe. Release. Relinquish. Be alive on your own time.

Monday, May 25, 2015

On Bike Shoes, and Separation from the World

Looking out the window at the gray sky and green leaves of a late spring day I considered where I might ride.

From a practical standpoint I do not need to go anywhere today. So what would my objectives be?

When I trained, the objective was clear and the equipment selection was obvious. I would dress for the weather and wear cycling shoes. I would strap in at the start and, barring any mechanical problems or quick visits to the woods, remain fastened to my pedals until I returned home.

The cleated rider flies above the world, separated from it by the adaptation to soaring. It is not obvious, because we ride on tires touching the ground, but we might as well be a thousand feet up. We flow with a rhythm all our own, disparate from the motorists that brush us aside and the pedestrians stolidly striding.

When I ride to the grocery store, I dress in ordinary cargo shorts or pants, and wear non-cleated shoes. The pedaling is less efficient, but it's more important to be able to walk around the store without clacking and skidding. The normal clothing also helps me blend in with my fellow citizens.

Not training, shopping or commuting, for what do I prepare?

The cleated cyclist is like one of those birds that's regal and magnificent in flight and a hopping, flapping disaster on the ground. Inset cleats popularized by mountain biking are some help, but even they can protrude enough to make footing dicey at times. Is that a good enough compromise? It is for some. And since slotted cleats are exotic and rare these days, requiring special efforts to obtain, few riders are likely to go to the trouble.

The cyclist's separation runs deeper than footwear. If I plan to stop, what security measures should I take? Every time I shop by bike I have a constant twinge of anxiety that my bike will be damaged or gone when I come out.

I have not had a bike stolen since 1971, but that was my beloved Phillips 3-speed on the first day of high school in the biggest, most urban school I had ever attended. I had ridden it as a bit of comfort and familiarity, because this was a new town and a new school and I was a tad intimidated. The theft of the bike was symbolically the removal of a chunk of my childhood that was not returned to me by the purchase of anther black, English 3-speed. The replacement never seemed to ride the same way.

Later, in college, my Peugeot 10-speed was vandalized twice. Since I was a monumentally insensitive prick in college, I could never be sure if the damage was caused by a frustrated thief who could not overcome my lock or by a girlfriend who recognized the bike and wanted to throw me a little grief. Or it could just have been someone who did not like bike riders and disapproved of my choice of parking place. You never know, as a bike rider. I'm decades down the road from having angry girlfriends, but that leaves plenty of other potential antagonists.

Thousands of people use their bikes every day without damage or loss. But on a per capita basis, I would bet cyclists suffer more damage and loss than motorists in the course of what should be routine errands. You're vulnerable on the move and vulnerable when you're parked. You're just out there, available to the judgmental emotions of any passerby.

Motorists are much more profoundly separated from their world, but much less aware of it. Because they are doing what most everyone else is doing, the fact that they're doing it sealed in a glass and metal can, hurtling at deadly speeds, crushing small life, and -- occasionally -- big life, is completely lost on them. Because what they are doing is "normal," and they can lock the vehicle to create its own security, they can move with blissful thoughtlessness. Bash, crash, hurtle and park. Shuffle on in to the emporium and shuffle on out again. Throw the bags in the back seat and hurtle away. Meanwhile, the weirdo on the bike is still unlocking, packing groceries into panniers, coiling up the lock, putting on the helmet and mounting up to exit the parking lot with the jostling multitude of canned humanity being normal.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Something's up

My employer had one of his periodic foaming shit fits yesterday. I heard his words, what he said he was absolutely shaking with rage about, but I also know from long experience that he only goes off like this when other stressors have put a bigger squeeze on him than the issue that hits the detonator.

Memorial Day Weekend appears to be a snooze this year. I was actually given the day off today -- Sunday -- because the register wasn't ringing lustily enough to justify full staff. The frigid Saturday could have suppressed customer activity, although we sold hats and socks in the morning. The afternoon was pretty dead in the whole neighborhood.

Today is supposed to be much warmer, with summer-like temperatures moving in tomorrow. I can't imagine that the one cold day kept people from scheduling a weekend getaway if they really wanted one. The deeper chill in people's finances is probably nipping most of that crop. We see a few people with smiles and money, but nowhere near as many of them as we saw ten and twenty years ago. It was a gradual and then a precipitous decline. The town never bustles the way it did in the '80s and '90s. We have our little surges, but no sustained festivity and merriment.

The surge of repairs has died out. The torrent of check-ins didn't dwindle. It just stopped. Another will come, but the shrinkage of repair requests puts us in a nervous, depressive holding pattern while we wait.

The collapse of the Sunday road ride group may not represent a huge financial loss, although it did spawn a lot of steady maintenance -- chains, cables, minor adjustments, creaking frames. It signals a loss in the local road biking community that shifts our business even more to the out-of-town visitor, who may arrive at any time or not at all. Our local riders mostly come from the rail trail crowd. We have to adapt our stock of repair parts to reflect the most likely needs, while still trying to stay prepared for the more technically oriented riders in other categories. You never know for sure who will come to the area to do what.

Our seasonal billionaire who used to pedal has now gone over completely to e-bikes. These two-ton behemoths arrive in huge boxes. "Assembly" is usually pretty simple, unless something arrives broken. But any subsequent service call requires a bunch of heavy lifting for our aging staff, as the octogenarian billionaire can only lend so much of a hand. He's willing, but limited. And the whole process of dealing with Stromer and chasing down electronic or hydraulic issues eats a fair amount of time for distinctly limited financial returns. Even those vanish if nothing goes wrong on the battery-powered marvels.

With unexpected time at home, I can do a few more fix-it projects. For instance, I got tired of the toilet roll holder coming apart, so I fixed that today:

It's classy work. That's a Campy skewer. Now to vacuum up a couple of bushels of cat hair, hang some laundry and head out to the grocery store. One thing about a lackluster holiday weekend: the store shelves won't be as devastated as usual.

Friday, May 22, 2015

I majored in advertising for a while

A car in the parking lot behind the shop had a crooked magnetic sign on the door that said "Out Haus Ales." This struck Big G and me as an unappetizing association for a beer brand.

"What, you don't want some Burning Urethra IPA?" I asked. "How about some Foaming Leak Pale Ale?"

"Or, It's Only Beets Red Ale," said George.

"Sure. And You'd Better Hydrate Brown Ale and Call Your Urologist Porter."

Asparagus Lager. Lift the Seat Wheat. Old Stinky Stout.

Beer that stands out from the pile: Out Haus.

Mind you, the beer itself is perfectly fine craft brew. But we had too much fun riffing on the pee jokes.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Micro Landmarks

Every morning that I ride to work, I dodge the same discarded hose clamp on the shoulder of Route 28. I'm always in too much of a hurry to stop and pick it up. It's become a micro landmark.

A true micro landmark is something a person in a car would never see. There's a mysterious plastic disc set in the pavement of Elm Street. It could be the cap from a milk jug. But, if so, how has it stayed in the same place for years? Tiny road kill and the stubborn stains left behind by juicy bits of litter tell their stories to cyclists scrutinizing the pavement for a safe, smooth line. Some last for weeks. Some last for years.

Disposable diapers tend to turn into micro landmarks. They withstand the elements for a long time, and adopt-a-highway crews have an understandable blindness concerning them. Wouldn't you?

Micro landmarks fall into the larger category of micro scenery. Forget your herds of elk and bison, I get to see migrating newts. The cyclist sees individual bugs making their perilous way across the asphalt plain. We see really odd small objects people have thrown from cars. Coins raise the question, "would you stop for 10 cents? How about 25?"

Bike riders can take a good, long look at the roadside vegetation, too. On one of my woodsy detours, lady's slipper orchids grow in a bunch along just a few yards of roadside bank along a dirt road. The whole growing season presents flowers and foliage small and low for anyone who passes slowly enough to see it.

Odd objects include items from the Roadside Tool Company. Some items I won't even stop for, because I already have several. If time permits I will set them up where they can be seen better by more passersby. If they hang around a while they become micro landmarks. "Go out 28 until you come to the socket set sitting on that rock." "There'll be a screwdriver stuck in the top of a guardrail post."

Time seldom permits when I'm inbound to work. Objects along the southbound lane have to wait for someone else. Northbound I might stop. Rarely, something is attractive or annoying enough to get me to cross the road for it.

For that hose clamp I think I'll put a magnet on a stick so I can snap it up on the fly. It looks damaged. I don't want it as a clamp. But it's a tire hazard. As it gets rustier and dirtier it will blend in more and more with the weathering chipseal, until I, or some other cyclist, fails to spot it in time and takes out a sidewall. The problem is, I forget exactly where it is when I'm riding the opposite way. I need to get it when I'm hurrying to work, before it gets me.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Move the finish line

 As you may recall, Jake the Satanic Serpent absolutely refused to shift into the lowest gear on the rear cassette. Based on the noises from the inaccessible interior and the way it acted like it had too much and too little cable tension at the same time, I wondered if the cables had been run correctly when the bike was built. If they had somehow gotten tangled with each other, running a guide sleeve to install new cables would simply replicate the error.

With a bit of time to think about it I realized I could feel for any interference by shifting to the mid range on the rear and feeling the exposed section of cable below the chain stay as I shifted the front. There was nary a twitch.

Jake seemed strangely well-behaved today, even before I started adjusting things. The rear derailleur shifted pretty smoothly through ten of eleven cogs. But that last step, onto the lowest gear, was like a wall.

The limit screws on the rear derailleur were backed out far enough that it would start to shift into the spokes if I pulled cable tension by hand or simply shoved the derailleur over. The problem lay in the ratchet of the brifter itself. It could not pull any more cable. The rear derailleur cable was led properly, but the eleventh cog calls for tension at an angle that reduces the cable pull by just enough to prevent the shift.

If the derailleur won't go to low gear, low gear must come to the derailleur. A 1mm spacer was too thick for the lock ring threads to engage, but I had a .7mm spacer left over from someone else's weird problem. It was just enough to get the shifting to work across all rear gears from both front rings, in today's barometric pressure, relative humidity, wind speed and direction, with brand new cables and housing and everything clean.

That's as good as it gets with a lot of this ultra-modern stuff.

Jake's unfortunate owner is taking up these problems with the shop where he got the bike. I fully expect them to tell him I'm full of shit and the bike is fine.

If it comes back again, choking on silt, I'm going to drill bigger cable exit holes in the down tube by the BB. Maybe I'll cut a few big inspection ports in it, too.

Barcons, man. Eight speeds. Maybe nine. If he really wants to be competitive in 'cross, finicky brifters are just the beginning. He's going to have to turn into one of these neurotics with four different sets of sewup wheels. If that's not where he wants to go, why put up with this shit? Ah, but I ask myself that question many times a day in bike season. People believe the industry's marketing bullshit. They only have a choice of pseudo-racer tweakitude or some other very specific category. Even the all-around roadish bike has to be "a gravel bike" so it can be another freaking category.

High-dollar tickets often start with the words, "my friend gave me this bike." Or it might be, "my friend sold me his old bike when he got a new one," but there's always a friend. Friendship can apparently survive a lot.

The next bike after the Serpent was a Giant full suspension mountain bike, archaeologically dated to about 2004. The guy who brought it in initially just wanted to buy toe clips, a bottle cage and bar ends and install them himself. Cool, no problem. But as I looked over the bike to answer his questions I saw a few things and he began to open up about problems he had experienced with it. It wasn't shifting right. The old Avid BBDB cable disk brakes needed pads in the rear. The right crank arm was floppy loose.

Between the floppy crank arm on the drive side and the fact that the bottom bracket was crawling out of the frame, it's no wonder the bike did not shift right.

Luck was with this guy. The ISIS splined crank arm was not damaged from being ridden loose. I was able to examine the BB cartridge and crank it back in, before graunching down on the crank arm bolts with all the power of a mighty breaker bar.

Note: splined crank arms require frequent reapplications of high torque. They do not stay tight the way contemptible old stone-age square taper axles and crank arms do. Not to say you don't need to check those at somewhat regular intervals, especially after removal and reinstallation, but the square taper interface is supposed to be a press fit. Splined axles are not a press fit. So the bolt has to be tight tight tight.

Notice that the industry has basically abandoned the splined cartridge in favor of the cranks with the BB axle swaged into one side or the other of the crankset itself. This has led to its own set of problems, of course.

Once I had the Giant's BB back in the frame and the crank arms firmly attached I could start adjusting the gears. On the front derailleur I found another moving finish line: Someone had steadily shifted the limit screws on the front derailleur to chase the crank as it moved further and further out. Yep. Don't fix the underlying problem. Just move the derailleur.

Chaos is upon us. You can't look at the whole pile, only at what is right in front of you. Straighten one out, move it along. Grab the next one.