Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Sick and Tired, or, I Tried for a Half Hour to Think of a Better Title for this Post

Amputee bike isn't going anywhere.
Two months ago, my front tire sustained a glass puncture that never quite healed despite patching. Although I probably could have tried harder to patch it, I instead decided to take advantage of a sale at REI to get tires that might work better for street riding. My bike originally came with "Kenda" mountain bike tires, which worked okay for my purposes, but were not road tires and were clearly not puncture proof, as that is the weakness that led to the problem in the first place. I almost chose perfectly smooth city tires, but Rob pointed out that they would be useless on trail riding, and although I don't do any trail riding right now it's something I want to do eventually. (And I don't have space for a dedicated mountain bike.) So I instead selected a pair of Continental TravelContact tires, which normally retail for an out-of-my-price-range $45 each, but I got them for a sweet $30 apiece. Sales are awesome. I also picked up a portable CO2 tire pump for commuting (when I have a job to commute to) and tire levers to assist with the switch.
Tire comparison: Continental TravelContact vs. "Kenda."

The Continental tires, like my bike, are a hybrid: slick in the middle, and knobby around the edges. According to the REI sales dude, they'll be great on the road and okay on rougher terrain. The reviews online say they are good for crappy roads, and there's no shortage of those here! (Although, to be fair, PA's roads are WAY worse than MD's. I didn't ever even ride my bike in Pittsburgh because the roads were so potholed and steep. I think I would do it now, though, if I were transported back to Pittsburgh.)

One thing that can make me feel a little superior as a suburban cyclist is that there really is no question of having to perform my own repairs. I don't have an LBS, I don't know anyone around here who repairs bikes, and most importantly I don't drive (and have a hyper-independent streak that makes it hard for me to ask Rob for rides), so if something goes wrong or I want an upgrade, it's all up to me. And honestly, changing tires and tubes isn't hard at all! There's no reason why someone would have to go to a bike store to get this done. I don't think I even really needed the tire levers, although I guess they're a good thing to have (and were only like three bucks). I'm pretty proud of myself for being able to make all the upgrades on my bike and install all the accessories (front basket, rear rack) myself, since from some of the reports I've read online (I didn't read up on these tires until after I'd bought and installed them), some people find tire replacement way beyond their talents. This is the kind of self-sufficiency you develop when you don't have a choice otherwise.

All ready to go!
So far, I haven't really noticed a difference in the Continental tires vs. the Kenda, aside from possibly being faster on inclines, although since I don't have a bike computer (I had one on my old department store bike, but never switched it over and now it's been rained on a lot... remember when I said I don't take care of my stuff too well?), I can't know for sure. I don't ride for speed, although if they can gain me even a few extra MPH (thus increasing my safety among cars), then they're worth the cost. I was able to keep up with some spandex-clad roadies that I shadowed for around a mile on Sunday; I don't know if I would have been able to do that on the mountain bike tires. I also expect that they'll settle a bit as I use them more. I usually have to transfer to sidewalk at least once every ride because I can't go fast enough to feel safe among cars, but today I was able to do road-only riding including several stretches of 35 MPH road. So, even though I don't really feel a difference, there likely is one.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Book reviews on THIS blog? Seriously?

I almost never read non-fiction, for the probably-dumb reason that it's really hard to maintain interest in the same subject for 300+ pages. (Hell, I don't even read that many long novels anymore; I'm a short story person.) However, right now I'm in the middle of two very interesting non-fiction books, which I might as well talk about!

The first is At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson, in which his curiosity about some of the features of his English country house led him to questions like "why do we use salt and pepper?" and "what does the board refer to in 'room and board'?" This is the kind of stuff that basically preoccupies me all the time. I love history, but I couldn't care less about battles or presidents or dates. I care about the history of common people (like you!). What keeps my interest throughout this book is the sheer amount of subjects covered: paleo-biology, materials science, economics, agriculture, medicine, and my favorite misunderstood discipline, evolutionary psychology. It's like a linear version of my Wikipedia jaunts, and in fact it's taking me a long time to read this book because I keep having to look things up on Wikipedia, which leads to even MORE interesting facts. At Home is currently my "at night" book, which is probably a bad idea since I either feel compelled to jump on the Internet at 11:30 (and stay on until one), or pepper my husband with factoids.

"Did you know that a third of English people in the 1800s were servants?"
"I don't care, go to bed."
*continues reading* "This is so weird! Did you know that in medieval times, tables were just long pieces of wood that diners kept balanced on their knees? And that they carried furniture from room to room?"
"Well, fine. I won't tell you about the surprisingly astonishing feat of the human domestication of corn, then. You'll just have to endure the rest of your tiny, incurious life not knowing about it. I hope you can live with that."

So basically, if you're looking for a book to irritate your SO with, you should probably pick this up.

Book #2 is Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy Frost and Gail Steketee. Hoarding shows are a guilty pleasure of mine; yeah, I know it's basically misery porn, but as I'm not out ridiculing hoarders in the wild I think I'm okay with watching from the safety of my own cluttered home. Exploring the various reasons why people become hoarders, Frost/Steketee devote each chapter to one hoarder in particular, with various side stories thrown in for added clarification of points/misery pornlets. Before I started watching Hoarders, I thought that I might be a hoarder, but I'm not. I'm just really disorganized. And there is a difference: True hoarders agonize over whether to throw away a piece of junk mail or expired food, disorganized people just tend to not notice the crap is there, because there's always something more interesting than cleaning. Always. Sure, sometimes the mounting piles on my flat surfaces tend to overflow, but throw away everything on the table and I won't cry. (Actually, I've lost important things this way, because I got overwhelmed and said "okay, everything out!" and it turned out there was something I needed in that paper pile. Whoops.) The tone is more Slate than "dense psychological case study." The only objection so far is that all of the hoarders featured are women, even though hoarding is largely evenly split along gender lines. It couldn't be because men's hoards (tools, computers, car parts) are considered useful and women's (clothes, shoes, magazines) are considered frivolous, could it? But I'm only a little less than halfway through, so, maybe there are more men later on. And the featured patients are the responders to a survey, and of course men would be a lot less likely than women to admit they have a mental problem. Recommended for everyone who enjoys prurient peeks into someone else's messed up life to distract them from how messed up their own is.

(Incidentally, there's at least one person who's been featured on Hoarders who probably belonged more under the category of "tragically disorganized." It was some woman in her twenties whose house was buried in paperwork. She's notable because whenever the cleanup crew asked her if she cared if they threw something away, she said she didn't care. Usually, hoarders care a lot. She didn't show any anxiety or even interest throughout the cleaning process. I remember this mostly because it reminded me of myself if I were even a hair more disorganized, glimpses of my possible future and all. It was kinda funny to see the therapist ask her about her anxiety level, all concerned, and her being all "yeah, whatever, it's just junk mail." Although maybe that means she's actually more screwed up. Hrm.)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Free Money Party!

First, a blog recommendation: Brown Girl in the Lane. I love this blog! Firstly, it's written by someone who like me doesn't ride a fancy road or Dutch bike. Nothing against those bikes but I'm doing just fine with my comfort hybrid right now, and while I do appreciate beautiful bikes, I don't have it in me to be a connoisseur. (I don't take care of my stuff well enough!) Second of all, San Diego's (lack of) urban design is roughly approximate to Baltimore County's mess of strip malls, nice residential neighborhoods separated by impassable gaps of 55 MPH highway, and malls with room for eight hundred cars and zero bike racks. It's a refreshing change from reading blogs from women (for whatever reason, almost every bikey blog I follow is written by a woman) in PDX or Boston or other super-friendly places. Not that I wouldn't prefer to live in those places myself! But most people don't, and if bicycle advocacy is ever going to get beyond the big hipster cities, people from other places (including the suburbs and rural areas) need to start talking too. Any recommendations for bikey blogs from non-city dwellers/non-bicycle meccas?

Now that our move into Baltimore City is not just a possibility but a definitive (I have no idea if I'm using that word correctly), I've lost most of my desire to get a driver's license. Oh, I'm still going to get it; I've already paid $350 for useless mandatory driver's ed classes from a total asswipe and that's not chump change. But all of the necessity is gone. Hopefully, I will get a job in the city (JHU is my main target) and be able to bike or walk both there and also to any social events I may want to attend. I never, as in do not ever, want to get a second car. Having one is bad enough. I guess having a license will be helpful on the remote chance that I am invited to a free money party in, oh, let's say Delaware and Rob is too zonked on cheap Sudafed to drive me there. But what's the chances of that happening in Delaware? Less likely than in some other places, I reckon, and probably not likely to happen at all.

More importantly, I never, as in do not ever, want to live outside of a city again. If I have learned nothing else from the past year of living in the suburbs (and I haven't!), it's that I can't deal with suburban living. It isn't just hipster dislike of big-box stores and nicely manicured lawns. It's that everything--everything--is built around the car. Distances that are normally nothing for me to walk or bike suddenly become impossible gaps. And the most depressing thing is that apparently nobody has a problem with this. Everyone accepts it as normal that you drive two miles to get to Target, and then drive four miles to get to a gym or bike trail to get exercise. Even before I moved to Pittsburgh, I never thought this was a healthy way to live, and my opinion really hasn't changed. In fact, I think it's become more extreme. Once I became used to city living in Pittsburgh, where almost everything was a walk or bus ride (even if it was sometimes a long one) away, I can't re-adjust to suburbia. And I think I'm okay with that.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Typical Conversation Around These Parts

Conversation at the Baltimore County Pioneer Walk "park":

Me: Do you think they let you put just anyone's name on these markers? (The floor of the "park" has a lot of commemorative stones with names of organizations or individuals.)
Rob: What do you mean?
Me:  Like if you asked them to, would they say this park was partially made possible through the generosity of The Hamburglar?
Rob: I don't think so.
Me: But I paid for the stone, they should let me say whatever I want.
Rob: Maybe they would.
Me: It should also say "Robble Robble." Underneath the name.
Rob: That's just silly.
Me: What about if I asked them to put it in the name of Samuel L. Jackson?
Rob: They definitely wouldn't allow that.
Me: But it's not a cause that Samuel L. Jackson is opposed to! And he would never even have to know!
Rob: Why would you do that? Oh, wait, it's you.
Me: The Samuel L. Jackson stone would also have "Robble Robble" engraved on it.

New goal: to make this happen.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Further Adventures in Transportation Cycling

Last Friday I got a new addition for my bike: a rear rack. I had wanted a bike that came with one pre-installed, but as my bike (a Raleigh Venture 4.0) is pretty much perfect in every other way I didn't stress too much about not having a rack. After all, would I really be using it for shopping that often?

As it turns out, I use my front basket A LOT. I don't (previously can't, hopefully someday will, but for now don't) drive, and carrying items in the front basket is a lot easier than throwing everything on my back. My front basket (a Wald quick-release one) holds a fair amount of stuff, but there are some things that are too unwieldy or surpass its weight limit. Thus, I would need to get a rack.

I rode out to the bike store (Performance Bike) at Perring Plaza in Towson, which was probably a mistake. Once you get outside the few blocks that constitute the "city" of Towson, this area is not at all bike-friendly and that is especially obvious when you're foolhardy enough to attempt to actually explore the area. Most of the sidewalks did not have curb cuts or were inexplicably replaced with gravel, and riding on the road is out of the question, as the speed limit on the main road is 40 (which means 60) and there are tons of huge trucks. There are no back routes. Welcome to suburbia! I wound up walking most of the way, although the sidewalk is scarcely any better for pedestrians and I encountered no other pedestrians. The best part of the trip: no bike rack outside the bike store. Based on the dumbfounded expressions of the dudely workers when I rolled my bike into the store, I wonder if I am the only person who has ever shown up at the bike store on a real bike. Brings to mind the "put a bird on it" Portlandia sketch for some reason.

(The bike store itself was really disappointing. All racing bikes, and mostly men's racing bikes. There was a small accessory section which did have a passable rack, which made the trip worthwhile. But I would not recommend this store unless you are male and also want to be Lance Armstrong. And you should probably drive there.)

The rack (a "Trans-It" model) fits fine, except for a slight slope toward the seat, although as it turns out that slope is helpful in terms of keeping stuff from falling off the back of the bike, as the stuff sort of slides down the rack and wedges against my back. On its inaugural shopping run yesterday, I was able to fit a large bottle of laundry detergent and a 12-pack of toilet paper on there, as well as a full basket in the front and a loaf of bread hanging off the handlebar (and more stuff in my messenger bag). Hardcore! I doubt I'll load it up as full again, at least as long as we're living in the suburbs (hopefully only for another 2.75 months), since I did get honked/yelled at a couple of times and I think I need to work out a better system of ties, although I didn't have to stop to readjust at any point. And I still want to find some panniers, since I think I'll enjoy shopping a lot more with them vs. tying everything to the rear rack with a bungee cord. But on the whole, Operation Ridiculous Bicycle Load went off without a hitch.

The bigger question is WHY I do these kinds of things, since we do after all have a car, even if I can't take it out alone. It probably has everything to do with feeling inferior because I don't/can't drive, and having spent all of my life before I moved to Pittsburgh living in areas where that wasn't just a quirk, but a real problem that has cost me jobs and educational opportunities and fun times. One thing that annoys me about the "car-free blogosphere" (and yes, there is such a thing) is that it's so often framed as a choice, which for the vast majority of car-free people, IT IS. And I'm glad that people make that choice! Driving is sort of awful and so is the expense of keeping up a car, and if everyone who could drive did so all the time at the expense of other forms of transportation, the roads would be even less safe for pedestrians and cyclists, and there would be no public transportation anywhere (as opposed to just most areas). But a driver who doesn't have a car can always choose to get one. They don't have (emphasis is important) to turn down a job just because of transportation issues (something I have had to do many times), or factor transportation into their decision of where to live. And yes, not everyone who can physically drive a car can afford one; I won't be able to afford my own car (if I even wanted one) once I potentially get my license in October. At which point I will become one of those whiny car-free-by-choice people I'm complaining about. Oh well! My point is, the option is still there in a way it's not for people who cannot drive.

So, in a roundabout way, I guess that's why I choose to make grocery runs by bike even though we could do it so much easier by car. It's a way of proving myself, showing that I can do useful things even though I don't have a driver's license and all the lack of self-worth that comes with that. It's something I can do without anyone's assistance, and is therefore important to me as a person who is hyper-independent to the point of dysfunction. Besides, toilet paper just feels so much softer when you bring it home on the back of your bike.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Please Stand By

Even the cover looks sad.
I just finished what is, quite possibly, the most depressing book I've ever read: The Genocides by Thomas M. Disch, who is perhaps best known for writing The Brave Little Toaster, a basic-cable staple of my childhood. Breaking my own silly rules, here is a capsule description of the plot: The Earth has been seeded with huge, fast-growing Plants by unseen aliens, and the last vestiges of humanity are hunted down and roasted to a crisp by robotic "insecticides." A lone gang of rural farmers who range from being truly horrible people to being only somewhat horrible people hold out for as long as they can against the encroaching monoculture, finally digging down into the Plants' root system for the winter. At the end, only five humans are left alive, and while a less misanthropic writer might have shot for an Adam and Eve style redemption, there is no redemption here. The Genocides should probably come with a tiny carton of Prozac stapled to the back cover. Or at least a picture of a cat riding an invisible bicycle, that one always cheers me up.

This ending got me to thinking how, according to TV Tropes (and no, I won't link to it, that site has been Leechblocked for months now), there are two basic ways to end a science fiction story: Twilight Zone endings, and Outer Limits endings. Twilight Zone endings are known for their twists, which usually tie up the plot with a neat little bow, and maybe teach the audience a little something too. Some jerk gets what's coming to them, some nice but hapless person gets a reward, and it's very easy to guess the ending after probably five minutes. The Outer Limits is also known for twists, but these twists are always negative, and the protagonist's alignment doesn't matter a damn. It's also easy to guess an Outer Limits ending, but instead of thinking of the quirky way that everything will come together, you just have to imagine the worst way the story will end, and even then you might be surprised at how much of a downer it is. (This is especially true of the 1990s reboot; either the Earth or humanity was destroyed at least twice a season!)

It will surprise nobody who has read my few published stories that I am an Outer Limits kind of writer, through and through. I very much enjoy punishing characters who both do and don't deserve punishment, in cruel and unusual ways. In fact, I think that one of the reasons I gravitate toward writing SF instead of "mundane" fiction is precisely because you can do this type of thing more easily in SF. Non-speculative fiction is limited by unimportant details like "how people actually act" or "what this real place actually looks like in reality." I am pretty impressed by non-SF writers who manage to wow me with the depths of their message and world-building (even if you're working in a real world context, you are still building a world for readers), because to me it's like writing with one hand tied behind my back and also I'm tired.

You head it here first, people: writing science fiction is way easier than writing "regular" fiction. (Well, once you get that pesky "science" stuff out of the way, because that's constraining, too.) And part of that comes in the fact that you don't have to be at all subtle about the ways your characters get punished, or the trials they go through. In a non-SF novel, putting your characters through hell and back for little or no reason is melodrama; in science fiction it's well, that's the way it is. Even The Genocides, bleak as it was, is not melodrama. Also, because I live in the land of hypotheticals (linking to one's own blog inside one's own blog twice = recipe for success?), it's very easy for me to think "what if there were a drug that caused everyone to think their neighbors are aliens? And how would that drug be delivered? And what if we're all taking it right now?" It's decidedly less easy for me to think "how would I, as a normal everyday person, react to news of my sister's engagement to a man I once dated?" This could be because I am insane. Or, it could just be because we're all different, and what's easy for one is hard for someone else. But anyway, rats off to ya, non-SF writers. You manage to elicit powerful emotions without the benefit of mind-control drugs, aliens, parallel worlds, or killing off most of the Earth's population, and that is fairly magical, in the non-unicorn sense.

Wow, this entry is unfocused, even for me!