Monday, February 21, 2011

NA na na na NA na na na... biking!

I like riding my bike.

Now, I realize that as a zinester, this makes me a total stereotype, along with the fact that I both own and use a typewriter, have a science-related tattoo, and enjoy old-lady crafts like knitting. I also don't feel it necessary to point out all the ways in which I defy the zinester stereotype, seeing as how such proclamations are themselves part of the zinester stereotype.

But still, I like riding my bike.

I bought my bike back in 2007 or so and basically never rode it. How could I? The street I lived on in Pittsburgh was on a 27-degree slant, and so were most of the streets in my old neighborhood of Beechview (home of the world's steepest street). I will fully admit here to being a fairly lazy person who likes my athletic activities to be fun first and challenging seventh or so. The few times I did ride my bike, I would walk it up to a local school and just tool around the parking lot for a half hour or so, enough time to get the crazy out of my system before walking it back down and forgetting about it for another month or two or five. At one point it stayed locked up in my backyard for over a year because I "lost the key" (when we moved, I found it on the mantle!). I just... didn't respect the thing. I never even gave it a name, which I think is one of those things zinesters are supposed to do, and then get your bike a personalized nameplate with the bike's name on it and maybe knit it a handlebar cozy, I don't even fucking know.

In Maryland, though, that all changed. Eastern Maryland isn't as flat as, say, Kansas, but it is basically as flat as, say, Portland (although I have never been to Portland or "PDX" as "the kids" call it, I've seen pictures). This makes for some excellent bike riding: just enough hills to make it interesting, without having to kill oneself cranking it up streets that aren't even suitable for car driving. (In retrospect, I think Beechview should have converted to using mule trains like that town at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Except then I would have had to get up at like four a.m. to get to work and that would not be happening.)

When I moved to Towson, I needed to find a physical activity to fill my days and quell my hyperactive thought processes. I started taking yoga classes at a place near my house, but after the all-you-can-stretch introductory month, I basically stopped going. I just can't take yoga seriously; some of the instructors were normal, but others were all "chakras and auras and third eyes, oh my!" I'm sorry, but if you say the word "chakra" in my vicinity, I'm going to laugh at you. That's just how it is. I also just couldn't relax, at least, the way I assume you're supposed to be relaxing when you're in yoga class. Everyone would be sitting around letting the calm blue ocean flow over them while they opened their hearts into delicate yonic flowers and I'd be singing the Batman theme in my head. I am just not cut out for yoga, full stop.

I tried running. This went better, since it's a solitary activity and you can listen to your own music while doing it, and nobody ever has to know how many times you looped the first MGMT album while doing your daily runs, to the point that even you are like "self, you have other things to listen to, you know" (it was at least fifty!). But it also seemed to lack something I require in a sport. Maybe it's all the laundry I was forced to do when I ran every day. Maybe it's also the fact that I was never actually going anywhere. I like everything I do to be practical in at least a theoretical sense. Running around the streets of Towson, I never felt like I was going anywhere except... building up the stamina to run an even larger circuit around Towson, oh joy. I guess being a fast runner would come in handy if one was being chased by lions, but I can't see much of an application outside of that. Well, I guess, also muggers. (Useful in Baltimore!)

But when I got my bike back from Pittsburgh in August (it had been carelessly left behind by a certain someone who didn't think I was ever going to use it), I fell in love with biking all over again, which was impossible because I never fell in love with it in the first place. Remember, western PA isn't a biking area. But eastern MD is, and until the weather got cold I was taking it out three, four times a week. It kicked ass. I loved it so much.

What is great about biking is:
a) It's a form of extremely strenuous activity that you can do sitting down.
b) Unlike running (sorry, runners) it makes you look cool when you're doing it.* Even grandpa-aged men in orange safety vests look cool when they're riding a bike.
c) Something about it allows my mind to calm the fuck down in ways that other activities just can't achieve. Seriously, I've only been on two rides so far this year, and after each one I was bursting with short story ideas and plans for my distro and a long list of stuff I want to declutter before potentially moving into Baltimore City this summer. I feel really energetic after riding my bike, but it's not the usual kind of unsettled, off-the wall sporadic energy, more just like a calm, focused energy like a confident 1980s businesswoman just back from her third merger of the day.

I have, however, been thinking about upgrading my bike. Here is my bike:

Pacific "Shorewood," the bike equivalent of Ramen Noodles.
Um, yeah. It cost $75 on Amazon. If you stick to parking lots it is a fine ride, but clearly it's not meant for actual road riding. It shakes all the time and feels like it's going to fall apart at any moment. If I were only going to ride it once a month or less, that wouldn't matter, but since I want to start riding my bike at least five times a week, I feel like I should get something a bit less... cheap.

But I am cheap! Window browsing at REI, I see that a basic road bike or cruiser might cost me as much as $400, which is enough to make me just want to get something from Target, even though I know that it won't be all that much better than what I have now, and they won't fit me or give me free tune-ups like REI or a locally owned shop will. I'm usually not one to pay for quality, as my wardrobe and the contents of my refrigerator will attest.

Maybe, though, it's worth it. If I spend five or so hours a week on my bike (which I can easily see doing) it will "pay for itself," by which I mean it will never pay for itself unless I got a job as a bike courier or bike tour leader or... yeah, that's it. But I'll feel a lot more comfortable, and in turn having a spiffy bike will make me want to ride it more, which will increase my bike skills, which will increase my comfort, so I'll ride it more... biking is clearly a gateway drug which will in turn lead to harder drugs like unicycling, bear baiting, and meth.

But until those dark nights of the soul arrive, I'm going to ride my bike.

*Exception: recumbent bicycles, the acne-studded squares of the biking world.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Invention Exchange #1: The Pocket Record Scratch

Sometimes I find myself with the need for a product that, due to my admittedly limited engineering skills, I am unable to build for myself. So if you're a DIY go-getter with time to spare, or a business contact with money to burn, consider funding this project which will enhance the state of discourse for years to come.

This product is a handheld record scratch sound effect.

Hop to it, science.
Dear potential collaborator/investor: how many times does this happen to you? You're minding your own business at your driving school classes, because due to various life circumstances and neurological difficulties you haven't gotten your license until the advanced age of 29 and that is nothing to be ashamed of or so they say. You're talking about reasons why teenagers shouldn't drink, and even though you've been able to drink for eight years and you're basically a teetotaler, you're still paying attention because your state is wackyface and you need to complete teenager-geared driving school in order to get a license. And all of a sudden, your driving instructor pops up with this gem of an anecdote:

"So there's this lacrosse player, played for Name Redacted High School*, and he went to this party and had too much to drink. And he ran into his ex! And they went back to his apartment, and they had even more to drink, and the next morning she goes and calls up the cops and says he raped her! I mean can you believe it?! But it's okay, he got off, but something like this can mess up your future, kids. So don't drink!"

Now, this is the kind of base dickery that a well-timed smack on the desk or a walk-out is generally used for. However, I don't think that these low-tech solutions really make one's opposition clear, at least, not in the same way as a blast from one's handheld record scratch sound effect, which I am tentatively christening DJ Objectatron 9000 for convenience's sake, but I'm sure that whatever marketing firm we decide to go with can find a better name.

The DJ Objectatron 9000 is obviously well suited for a crowd or classroom situation. But it can also prove useful in tete a tetes! Observe, what happens in a conversation between a hypothetical driving school pupil and her deskmate:

Deskmate: (some high school drama that our hypothetical 29-year-old heroine couldn't care less about)
HDSP: Mm-hmm.
Deskmate: And you know, there's a lot of fights at my school, because there's a lot of black kids that go there.

Awkward! While this is a situation that strongly benefits from a smartphone near at hand, it is a situation that would benefit even more by the quick application of DJ Objectatron 9000, dialed to a lower volume. The objection is made clear to everyone, the situation is defused, and one would not have to pretend to be really interested in the apps on one's smartphone for the next ten minutes.

Because every product eventually has to have an upgrade, there is also an optional two-button DJ Objectatron 9000, for when a slightly different flavor of sarcastic disapproval is needed. This is a button on the opposite side of the device, keyed to say the phrase "Say what?" This is ideal for situations where you're not so much halted in your tracks with a horrible statement, but more to point out crass hypocrisy in action. Allow me to demonstrate with another statement from a hypothetical driving school instructor who is by the way not hypothetical AT ALL:

"Now, when you go out you need to know your limit. I know that I can drink four beers and be under the legal limit, just under that limit, but you don't know how much alcohol you need to drink to get at that limit. Now let's watch this film about a girl who ran over her best friend after drinking one beer."

At this point, a quick toot of the "Say what?" button does the trick, even if the offender does not respond. Your point is made, which it might not be if you were to respond orally, since at this point he's already made the rape statement and you're apoplectic with rage and you know that if you open your mouth, what comes out will probably get you arrested.

So, my potential investor and/or collaborator, I'm sure you can see the great benefit that comes with investing in DJ Objectatron 9000 (and I am so not married to that name). Feel free to contact me on my Twitter feed. I think this could be a lucrative business opportunity for us all.

Erica S., inventor

*Name redacted.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Sliding Into Mediocrity: The suck must flow

The episode "Paradise Lost" of the just-barely-above-basic-cable (back in the pre-Mad Men days) television show Sliders is usually considered the worst episode of the series by its still-active fanbase. While I think there are others that are worse (the vampire rock band episode and the Island of Dr. Moreau "homage" come to mind), it's really a question of degree. It is, however, undoubtedly an extremely bad hour of television, and because I'm watching it, that means you don't have to. Aren't I a nice person?

We open on a shot of some random dude making a call warning of seismic activity in the area. What area? Where are the eponymous Sliders? When are we going to get to the fireworks factory? At this point in the series run, they weren't even bothering with the alternate history anymore, unless "this world has a giant rubber monster in it, and Earth Prime does not" counts as alternate history. Some extras from the movie Tremors swoop in on the dude and throw him onto the beach, where he is eaten by the worm from Tremors.

Yes, that's right: the producers of this show thought it would be a good idea to write a Tremors tribute, with shades of Dune.

At this point, the Sliders finally show up, just in time (natch) to save a woman who is either hiding something or a really bad actress from one of the Tremors extras. She drives them to a town called Paradise, which you'd know is a bad sign even if the episode wasn't called "Paradise Lost." Has there ever been a fictional town named Paradise, or Heaven, or Idyll, that didn't turn out to have some horrible secret? People should really start reading their TV Tropes before they start barreling into small towns with peaceful names.

The Sliders need some cash, so of course it's up to the woman and the black guy to do menial food service work while the Professor and Quinn get to have real adventures. The bad actress (whose name I still don't know, even though I've rewound Hulu three times) is concerned about the man from the cold open, so Quinn volunteers to help her find him, no matter how long it takes. I don't think I personally would have gotten so chummy so fast with someone I didn't know, even if he did save me from a meth-head. Use your comically oversized 1990s cell phone to call for help, sure. But a multi-day search-and-rescue mission? Thanks for the offer, guy, but that's going far past the call of duty.

We cut to a crime scene of a dead body covered in blue ooze (foreshadowing!). A cop with feathered hair remarks that "she's getting hungrier" (foreshadowing!), and orders the collection of the ooze. The genius Professor just cops to the fact that there is nobody in the town over 30 (foreshadowing!) and that there are almost no recent deaths in the town cemetery (could it be... foreshadowing?!). At this point, you have every piece of information you need to put together the mystery. Unfortunately, there is still forty minutes left to go.

Wade follows the Paradisites to a creepy basement where she witnesses an occult ceremony right out of Lovecraftian horror... except it's totally lame. Now, reality check: the townsfolk don't want the "outsiders" to witness this ceremony, right? Yet they failed to lock the door; the only barrier to entrance was a "closed" sign, which is so ridiculous that I had to pause Hulu for a minute. And even if there weren't any known outsiders in town, wouldn't you lock it anyway on the off chance someone DID wander into town? Of course, I wouldn't be nitpicking these details if the episode was legitimately scary or good. So, note to writers: if you can't write an airtight plot, at least try to write WELL. And vice versa.

So anyway, there is this ceremony with candles and chants and the townsfolk eat the gunk that got spit up by the sandworm from Dune, which shows that the sandworm really got typecast and should have had a better agent. The spice gift grants its users long life, although at the expense of their common sense, since otherwise they would have locked the damn door. Meanwhile, the sandworm eats the Professor. I've since realized that Jonathan Rhys-Davies' uncharacteristically horrible acting in this episode is because this was the last episode before he was killed off for real. So I can't blame him for this awful scene; I only hope he got to steal a lot of office supplies before someone walked him out to his car.

The Sliders not yet written out of the show and Laurie (bad actress from the opening scenes--remember?) go to the sandworm's cave lair and it's all very anticlimactic. Rhys-Davies, a Shakespearean actor, is freed from a layer of literal Saran wrap, the sandworm's "suspended animation." The Sliders decide to blow up the cave and its inhabitant with the explosives they just have for some reason (seriously, I rewound to see if they provided an explanation for having several pounds of plastic explosives just sitting around... they did not), and there is some truly awful CGI footage of the sandworm eating the feathered-hair cop.

They just weren't trying.   
In closing, this is bad. So bad I can't believe I watched it again to recap it. In fact, I don't even know if I still stand by my assertion that this isn't as bad as the Dr. Moreau episode; it's probably worse. As stated, I can give Rhys-Davies a pass for his bad acting here, but that excuse doesn't hold for anyone else involved in the writing, production, or special effects for this episode. No more sandworm death-meth for you, writers of low-budget mid-1990s action/sci-fi shows. You've had too much of a good thing.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

I Am Old

Last night I went to my first driving class.

As I've pointed out many times before, Maryland has an exceptionally tough set of hurdles you have to jump in order to get your license. You have to wait nine months after getting your permit before you can take the driver's exam, regardless of age (which means I may not be able to get a job for the entire year of 2011). And everyone has to take driver's ed, also regardless of age. Which means that I must spend thirty-six hours learning and growing as a motorist with people who were born after the death of Kurt Cobain.

It's probably going to be the most humbling/embarrassing experience of my entire life.

Anyway, it's me, six high-school-aged girls, and one high-school-aged boy. (I know they are all in high school because the instructor went around and had us introduce ourselves by name and school. "Hi, I'm Erica, I was born in Ronald Reagan's first term.") First, we watched a videotape (yes, VHS, and I'm guessing that only me and the instructor know how to even operate a VCR) called STREET SMART. The letters were formed out of actual streets, which is the kind of thing I find hilarious. In STREET SMART, a "guardian angel" dressed like Kid and/or Play counseled a number of rich white kids about staying cool on the road, paying attention, etc. while they huffed about and looked bored. At one point, one of the teenagers whined to his father that he didn't want to pay a toll because he's saving up for a Walkman. I wanted to pipe up and say "that's an iPod for my generation, kids. Also, did you know that stamps used to cost thirty cents? We used them to send this stuff called mail, which is like an e-mail, except you can hold it in your hand! Oh, what golden days those were."

During the break, one of the girls started talking to me, unaware that I am a few short months away from the big 3-0. I told her that I'm "way out of high school, but thanks for the compliment," and was then immediately mortified because wow, isn't being pleased that you look younger than you actually are something that old, vain women do? The kind of women who go to the bar at Red Lobster in dim lighting hoping to be carded, and then they ARE carded, but only because the waitstaff aren't dummies and know they'll get a better tip? The kind of women who self-identify as cougars? Just call me Blanche Devereaux.

After the break, we watched a less-hilarious videotape about teen driving deaths, which are the basis behind MD's draconian permit laws, and I was again reminded of how ill-equipped most states are to handle us elderly "rookie drivers." It's not that I think they should cut me some slack just because of my age... no actually I DO think exactly that. But the examples both the teacher and the video used were setting me up for this revelation: all these cautions about not driving after midnight to parties don't mean much when you're a boring married almost-thirtysomething, let alone "cruising at the mall" or playing "chicken." I may be less mature than most people my age (judging by how hard I laughed at a roller derby player with the name "Jenn Italia" at the match last week), but the days when I could be a demon behind the wheel are far behind me, and it's sort of frustrating to have to go through the same lectures as if my life experiences don't color my attitudes toward driving and as if I need the same amount/type of guidance as a teenager. I may only have a permit, I may still look like I'm in high school, but I can buy a Lobstertini without a fake ID, dammit!

I sort of think that there needs to be a driving-instruction videotape geared to the 25-and-older set, STREET SMARTER (the logo is also made out of streets except they are worn down and broken in parts, because they are older!). It could cover such topics as:

● how to cleverly conceal your lack of a driver's license from potential employers!

● how to structure your entire life around your deficits!

● In the movie Inception, why didn't Fischer recognize the people around him on the plane after he woke up? Why didn't Saito just buy Fischer's corporation, or have Fischer killed? Why didn't the free-fall gravity affect the people in the snow dream? And why couldn't Leonardo DiCaprio just fly his kids to France instead of hatching a complicated reality-bending scheme to get back into America?

● If a man on steroids dressed in a shark suit fought a sick gorilla dressed in a bear suit on the moon, who would win?

● and many more!

It can even be a cautionary tale for those fresh-faced new drivers born during the awful aughts: don't be like us! Get it while you're young! Otherwise, you're going to have to sit in a class with people twelve years younger than you who listen to their music on hyperboxes surgically implanted into their skulls and are ruled over by a wise android known as Benevolentus XII, who is definitely not a human killer. No sirree Bob.