Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Pearl and Henrietta: Snowpocalypse 2010(11) (A reprise)

For my friends across the world who have been dealing with a reprise of last year's record snowfall, the girls are making a special return engagement:

"Yes, we are too standing in the bike lane."

Monday, December 27, 2010

Random thoughts while riding around working off the pumpkin pie

Random Thought A: Pop Quiz! Choose the best answer.

1. Bicycle lanes are for:

a. Parking your SUV
b. Walking your beagle
c. Running your laps
d. Strolling with your honey
e. People riding bikes

2. Match the following:

Column A

Column B
Parking lots
Chew toys
Bicycle lanes

Random Thought B. Pageantry versus posing

The other day I was out riding and I'd stopped at a light. A car full of teenagers pulled up alongside me and one of them rolled down his window. Thinking he might be getting ready to ask for directions or something (since this actually happens a lot), I turned toward him and smiled helpfully.

He said, "Is that a four speed?"

It took a moment to sink it, but then it did: He was mocking me. Once he saw that realization hit home, he triumphantly rolled up the window and the other people in the car burst into howls of laughter. The light changed and they drove on.

Here's the thing: I am fifty-three years old. I don't really frakkin' care what you think about my cycling outfit. Furthermore, I quit caring a few years ago. That is the beauty of being my age. I expect that this liberation from the petty constraints of worrying about what others think will continue to grow, until one day, I will be so light and carefree I shall float heavenward as if on wings spun from the light of a distant star.

When you grow up, you can hope for the same.

Which brings me to the difference between pageantry and posing. Sadly, as in the rest of life, there are divides in the cycling community, and it all revolves around that miracle fabric, lycra. There are the people who sneer at wearing lycra and defiantly wear anything but. There are those who wear lycra who sneer at those who don't. There are even those who wear lycra who sneer at others wearing lycra because they deem them not worthy to wear it. And they all call each other "posers."

Enough with the sneering already. You are not yet ready for wings spun from starlight. Go sit in the car with the others.

A) I don't care what you think about what I'm wearing (see above).

B) Do you really think I'm delusional enough to pose as something I'm not? I am middle-aged, slightly overweight, slower than cooling magma, and I don't bother kidding myself: I would not under any circumstance be mistaken for someone who races bicycles. That isn't the reason I am wearing a cycling jersey and bibs (or tights, or arm warmers, or toe covers, or whatever). I am wearing them because they make me smile. They are festive and daring and colorful, like flags snapping in the wind at a grand medieval pageant. I am wearing them because life is very, very hard and part of the solution for getting through it is to embrace pageantry whenever and wherever you can find it.

Here is a jersey I bought as a souvenir on the single best vacation day ever, in which Walu and I rented bikes and rode them through Acadia National Park on a rainy day, stopping at a lodge to have clam chowdah and pop-ovahs:

In the photo, I am wearing the jersey on my best training ride ever, when my buddy Jill and I rode to a bakery in the nearby town of Slaton, and I had an apple fritter to celebrate surviving.

I also own a kit like this one, shown here on Jill. We both got this one to show our support for our favorite local bicycle shop, Broadway Bikes:

And this next one is a recent purchase for me, and I made it to show my support for this professional women's cycling team, Peanut Butter & Co Twenty12

And why would I buy a cycling kit to show them my support? Firstly, because they raise money for the team this way, and secondly, because it is the twenty-first century, and professional women athletes still do not have parity with men. Come, come, good people. There are other amazing cyclists out there besides just the ones getting all the press and big sponsorships, and they happen to be female. 

Riddle me this: When was the last time you saw a women's bike race on the Tee-Vee? Exactly. I'm looking at you, Versus Television. 

Athletes are athletes. Daughters and sisters are no less so than sons and brothers. Go Peanut Butter & Co Twenty12! Get a shorter name!

Flags snapping in the wind, my friends. They make the bitter medicine of life go down easier.

Random Thought C: Commercial break

These Pearl Izumi Select thermal tights I'm wearing on my ride are comfy and toasty.*

Random Thought D: Life is change.

It's official: Jill and her husband are moving away. I am verklempt.

Jill was the one who got me training again, some eight years ago, when she talked me into doing the running leg of a team triathlon. She also introduced me to the joys of cycling, and taught me how to clip in and clip out, and how to fall when I couldn't. She's been a friend, coach, mentor, cheerleader, and on occasion, a swift kick in the butt.

A typical exchange on any training ride goes something like this:

Me: "I'm still trying to get some conditioning back, so I want to take it easy, no risking over-doing it. I need to protect my knee/back/shin/neck/whatever, and not push it too much. Really. I need to go easy. Nice and slow."

Jill: "OK."


Jill: "Want to race to the top of the hill?"

In her honor, here are three of my favorite Bike Garden posts, all of which, not coincidentally, feature training rides with Jill:

"It's 100 degrees in the shade. Can Thanksgiving be far away?"

"I am humbled by the Sunday ride."

"John Deer and I are the same color"

Godspeed, Jill. Kansas is ready for some pageantry.

Random Thought E: Want ad

Wanted: Riding partner. Must be willing to go slow and not very far. Must be willing to listen patiently to my litany of ailments and then challenge me to a sprint up the hill. Must understand that the training ride is really just an excuse to chat about life. Must have a kind and generous nature. Must replace an irreplaceable friend.

*Note to the FTC: I have received no remuneration from Pearl Izumi for saying that I like their tights. Pearl Izumi doesn't even know who I am.**

**Note to Pearl Izumi: Call me.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A report and a post-Christmas word

OK, clearly I'm not going to be up to daily posts. Y'all will just have to take what you can get.

Nevertheless, I have been busy on my projects, and can report that I am making progress on both the writing and the ottoman. The legs for the ottoman are nearly finished, in fact, with just some final sanding to go, after which I will start milling the stretchers for the cushion base. I have less to report on the story; suffice it to say that it, too, has grown some legs.

Here is a photo sequence of milling and shaping the cabriole legs:

Glue up:

Lay out:

1st rough cut:

2nd rough cut, with first pieces taped back on for support:

The roughed-out legs:

 Refining the shape with rasps:

Adding shoulders (cut on the band saw and then squared with a shoulder plane)

One leg after the first sanding (the other three have been shaped with the rasps, but not yet sanded):

Sanding is a lonely business, and probably my least favorite part of woodworking, so don't expect rapid forward progress for a couple of days.

That is all.

Oh! Except for this: Spending time in the woodshop is a solitary pursuit, and as such, I do a lot of thinking there. On my mind for the past couple of days is something Plato said: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." 

I feel like that is a good thought on which to conclude this season. 

Friday, December 24, 2010

Of pirates, hot rods, and voices in our heads: a report

I know I promised to post something about my progress every day during the break, but what can I say? I've been busy with the usual holiday this-n-that. OK, mostly I've been shopping. But it was fun for a change.

My brother and his wife were in town for a few days, and since they now live in Virginia, they've been homesick for all things Texas. Consequently, there was nothing for it but to go shopping for the perfect cowboy boots and eat every night at Abuelo's until we bled chiles rellenos from our eyes. Which we did.

Here are the boots Jack bought, an unabashed display of hand-made Raider Pirate Power:

And mine, which look suspiciously like hot rods for your feet:

I think they call to mind something that superheroines would wear. Click on the photo to check out the stitching on these bad-girl Tony Lamas. These boots are nothing short of folk art, my friends.

I also bought this nifty work jacket at Tractor Supply, for winter gardening and woodworking (when the shop is cold enough for a jacket, but not cold enough to fire up the kerosene heater):

Anyway, some progress on my projects has been made. I have been busy in the shop, making the cabriole legs for the ottoman, and I'll post something more about that tomorrow. But here's a teaser shot:

And while I haven't gotten a lot more writing done over the past three days, I have been thinking about the story and working out problems. Suffice it to say that the The Voice is becoming clearer to me, and I am Inhabiting the Main Character, which all sounds a bit alarming, I know, but I think both are pre-requisites to Becoming a Great Author. Or so I've heard. But that could just be The Voice lying to me.

That's the report. Merry Christmas Eve to all.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Into the breach: COWS officially begins today

Well, all the academic hoopla and falderal has been put to bed and tucked in for a three week rest, and I am left with a seemingly vast period free time with which to play. Past experience has taught me, however, that it is not as vast as I think it is. Here's how it usually goes: I blink, and the semester has started up again.

This time I'm going into my rest and recovery period with a plan, though. This time, I'm not going to fritter the time away and then wonder why my batteries didn't get recharged while watching Sandra Lee cook from a can on the Tee-Vee. This time, I'm going to do the thing that does re-charge me, and that is to use my time to make something.

Actually, I've got a plan to make two somethings. The first, as I've telegraphed to you already, is a little writing project I've been wanting to get up and running. That starts today, and as you know, I have decided  to give it the code name of "COWS." (The story actually has nothing to do with cows, so if you were hoping against hope to read a little tale about Guernseys taking a boat to the Caribbean and being captured by pirates, only to save the day by teaching the hearties how to put down their weapons and make peanut butter sandwiches with dill pickles, I fear you will suffer great disappointment.) All I will say about it at this point is that it is a mystery. (By that I don't mean that it is a mystery about what I will write, though that may certainly also be the case. No, I mean that I am writing a mystery story.)

The second project will be a small woodworking one. I was taken with a couple of beautiful ottomans I saw on the recent neighborhood Holiday Home Tour, and have decided that that is what I need to complete the recent makeover of our front room. However, our front living room is not very big, so I can't go large. Unfortunately, every ottoman I've seen in town looks big enough to host a NASCAR race on top.

Naturally, I am as pleased as punch about this, since it gives me the perfect excuse to custom make an ottoman to fit our space. I have a lot of leftover cherry from the blanket chest project, so this is something I could do for very little cost. It should also be a fairly easy project (as compared to the bench or blanket chest projects of the summer), so I think I can get it done with just a couple of hours of work each day over the course of the break.

So here's my plan for my days:

  • Exercise to start the day (running, cycling, weight lifting)
  • Woodworking in the morning
  • Writing in the afternoon
  • Spontaneous gardening in between

Walu is taking a trip to Boston for a conference directly after Christmas, so my time is more or less my own for about a full week of this break. (Actually, he's so wonky about reading and writing all the time that he wouldn't get in the way even if he were to be here the whole break.)

That's the plan. On today's docket: Start milling the wood this morning and work on chapter two this afternoon (I've already written chapter one).

I'll leave you with a closing shot of the cherry that I pulled out of the wood pile yesterday, in anticipation of making the ottoman.

Don't take any wooden nickels. Unless they are cherry, then it might be okay.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Backstage: Scenes from December Commencement, 2010

Victoria Summerly (Victoria's Backyard) put a request on my Facebook page asking for a post on what an American graduation commencement is like. I did an explanation of academic frippery last year, so I'll skip that this time and just show you some scenes from backstage, with a light dusting of commentary, where appropriate. (These photos are combined from some I took while working during two ceremonies.)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Cue the interlude music

I am almost finished with the grading, but I'll confess I took a little break from it today to spruce up the garden a tad. The manager for the South Plains Food Bank's GRUB farm was coming over to check out a chipper/shredder (seen below next to a pile of my neighbors' leaves) I am sort of donating to them and I wanted the garden to look its best. (Well, as best it can look in the dead of winter.) The chipper/shredder "donation" thing is all a bit complicated, but I'll explain it in an upcoming post. I promise that it will be a heartwarming-ish story, as befitting the season of giving.

In the meantime, I am knackered tonight, so I think I'll put the red pen aside and take up some light reading in the form of a book called, The Great Plains During World War II.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Day One-ish

Actually, I'm still in grading mode, so I haven't technically started my little project, which I have decided to call Holiday Break Marathon Writing Sprint, or, COWS.*

Nevertheless, I have been doing some work on the story, mainly in the areas of research and plotting. This is all very different from doing what I usually do, which falls under the general realm of "literary non-fiction." By this I mean to say that while essayists like myself do occasionally succumb to the siren call of research, the concept of plot is completely foreign to us.

Plotting? There's no plotting is essay writing. We're all about big ideas, and argument, stuff.

So the plotting thing has had me a bit worried, to be perfectly honest. In fact, the worry caused me to dither endlessly about launching the project at all. I have a great backstory, however, and so I decided that while I was trying to figure out the main plot, I'd just go ahead and research my main character's back story. And as you might have guessed, researching the backstory actually led me to a what I think will be a very good idea for the main plot.

I have, in addition to plotting and whatnot, been working on files for my cast of characters, and fleshing out a very sketchy chapter outline.

That's today's report. But before I leave you, I know that looking at a blog with no pictures is no fun at all, so I'll post this random shot of me having lunch at Chipotle today. In it, you can clearly see the literary wheels turning behind my eyes. Or maybe that's just bleariness from grading...


*OK, I know that COWS is not really the acronym for Holiday Break Marathon Writing Sprint, but in case you hadn't noticed HBMWS doesn't spell an actual, live word. Plus, cows are funny.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The first step is a plan...

Well, it's been a busy week around the Bike Garden, what with the last week of school, and now finals and grading, and commencement coming up at the end of the week. These two weeks also seem to be when we have our heaviest load of meetings, since the impression among meeting-callers is that we have nothing else to do now that we aren't teaching classes.


Anyway, I figure I have three more days of intensive grading, followed by two days of commencement, and then my time is more or less my own for about three weeks. Of course, I still have course prep for the coming spring semester, but I've already been working on that, so now it is simply a matter of pulling it all together and doing a lot of advance reading...

So I'm thinking about starting a writing project during the break. I won't say much more right now other than that it is something I've always wanted to do, but have never had the time/will/guts/courage/discipline/attention span.

Well, okay, I'll tell you this much: a story is involved. So yes, I am dipping my toes into the swirly waters of fiction for a change. I am not entirely convinced that I know what I am doing.

And here is how you are going to help: I will post a little something about what I am doing toward my goal and how the project is going every single day during the break.

And for inspiration I am going to imagine that I am telling this story to you, my brothers and sisters, as I go along, like in the olden days, when writers would spin their tales in newspaper installments. (Though, of course, I will not be actually posting it here, since my story will be brilliant and make me rich beyond my wildest dreams, allowing me to retire early and work all day, every day in the Bike Garden, which it could not do if I posted it here. So you see.)

So go fix yourself a hot toddy, settle down by the fire,  and wrap a quilt around your knees against the winter cold. Be my imaginary listeners.

If all goes well, I'll be far enough into by the time the semester ends that there won't be any turning back...

Monday, December 6, 2010

A room of one's own: A meme from The Vermont Gardener

George Africa wrote an elegant and thoughtful post about writing on Saturday on his blog, The Vermont Gardener. Full disclaimer: he says some nice things about me, but that's not why I found the post to be enchanting. He creates a wonderful sense of being tucked away in a storm and thinking about space, and writing, and winter. I can't begin to do it justice by describing it more than that, so I suggest you go on over there and read it for yourself.

I will say that I especially liked the line about trout.

In his gentle way, George has thrown out a question that makes a nice meme for these cold winter days. He wants to know what your writing space is like. Since, based on what I'm reading on Twitter/FB/Blogs from all the rest of you, I'm guessing that many of us seem to be tucked up ourselves, it might be nice to give some thought to that space in which we are writing. So here goes:

My upstairs study is a wreck. In the summer it gets too hot to write up there, so I move downstairs. What happens when I do this is that the study becomes a place that I throw everything to hide it when company comes over. (You know what I'm talking about--don't pretend that you don't.) By and by, it gets so messy that I know it will take an entire day to make it fit again for habitation. So I'm writing this in the front living room, which, in matters of housekeeping, is a good thing.

I can't work in a messy space. Just can't. So while I'm here in the living room, things tend to stay picked up--well, as picked up as they can be when one is married to someone addicted to newspapers/magazines/books/xeroxed articles. Maybe I should say that my side of the room stays picked up. In any case, it is reasonably decent at the moment.

We got new furniture last week. It was time, since the old furniture was, well, old. Springs were sprung. Seat cushions were showing tufts of white cotton batting. Arm rests had been rubbed raw. I spent some time trying to find an upholsterer, and finally did get one to come out and give me an estimate. Unfortunately, to recover the sofa alone would have been twice what I eventually spent on a new one. That says something about living in a disposable world, I know, but I had to go with what I could afford.

I console myself knowing that old furniture went to a good home, though, and to people who are willing to get it recovered. It fits their home nicely, since they have a number of pieces from the arts and crafts period already.

I like the new stuff. It is nice to sit in a chair that isn't leaning. It is nice to have things that match. It is nice, I keep telling my husband, to stop living as if we are still grad students.

I was feeling pretty good about our own day-cor until I went on the neighborhood holiday home tour on Saturday. There, in those beautiful houses, were the leather-and-tapestry sofas I had decided were out of my price range. There were the big leather chairs, with the big leather ottomans. There were the new kitchen remodels, with the granite counter tops and big islands. There were the plush, warm window treatments.

When I came back to my house, my new furniture looked a bit like the plain girl at the dance. Which is why I don't normally go on these holiday home tours...

Why is it not possible to see and admire something beautiful, like another person's gorgeous home, without noting the shortcomings in one's own life?

Anyway, I like it here, this morning, in my plain Jane room. There is a Christmas tree, all lit up and sparkly. A garland drapes the mantle, and two woolen stockings hang there, as well. A quilt is spread over the new sofa so that the shed-prone cat feels welcome to share in our bounty. A single lamp is lit; most of the light streams in through three floor-to-ceiling windows. The window treatments are minimal, and there are no rugs on the wood floors, since two of our rescue dogs--who continue to excuse their persistent inability to be fully house-trained by claiming post-traumatic stress disorder--would pee on them.

They are in the back room as I write this, but Harold, the other rescue dog, lies behind me, snoring gently. Walu is away teaching class, but his presence can be felt in the books and papers that lie scattered about.

It doesn't matter if it isn't spectacular. It's a home.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The better angels of our nature

As regular readers of the Bike Garden know, from time to time I need to take a little walkabout from the blog. (A walkabout, in the Australian sense of the word, is aboriginal, and means a temporary return to the bush.) Strangely, this occasional need to disappear from the virtual world corresponds keenly to the onset of non-virtual world weltschmertz, from which I suffer from time to time. Thankfully, however, like any noxious virus, it all eventually runs its course, and, as a bonus, I always seem to get a little thinking done during my fevered malaise.

Such has been the case in this most recent bit of weltschmertz/walkabout-ing. And one of the things I've been mulling over is a phrase Abraham Lincoln used in his first inaugural address to the nation. On the whole, the speech does not seem to me to be his finest (#canyousaywordy #Ishouldtalk), but there was a fetching tagline at the end of this particularly eye-crossing, last paragraph*:

"I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

I'll put the speech in context: Secession was already a reality by the time of the address, and civil war--the unthinkable!--was almost a certainty. The whole of Lincoln's speech was saying, in effect, "Lookit. Everyone's acting a little crazy right now. There's no need for it, so settle down."

And as you might have guessed, a call for reason and sanity had no effect.

I love that last 'graph, though, particularly the closing reference to "the better angels of our nature." I think Lincoln, in his brilliance, was anticipating the Rawlsian "veil of ignorance." OK, not  really, but I'm thinking about both ideas right now, so naturally, in my own flash of brilliance, I thought it would be a good idea to combine the two in a post on a gardening/cycling blog. (#whosaidnonsequitur?)

Walu is a political philosopher, with a particular interest in global and social justice. From time to time he tries--usually in vain, and usually when my mind is on other, more pressing matters**--to teach me something about philosophy. Most recently, he's been trying to help me wrap my head around a concept attributed to the great philosopher John Rawls, called "the veil of ignorance."

It goes something like this: Suppose a group of us were assigned the task of determining the justice/morality of a particular societal issue--let's say in this case, whether to provide shelter for the homeless. The fairest way of determining what is just is if none of us knows what our own societal position/role is when determining the course of action. We have no prior knowledge of our own race, gender, wealth/poverty, level of education, state of mental health, and so on. In other words, when the veil is lifted after we've made our decisions, we are as likely to be one of the homeless as one of the privileged.

Put another way, behind the veil of ignorance, we want the best and fairest for all concerned, because when the veil is lifted, we might just be the ones on the short end of the stick.

So what does all this have to do with the better angels of our nature? Well, nothing, really. And everything.

You see, in the case of the veil of ignorance (as I understand it--and there is no guarantee that I do), people are still acting in their own self-interest. Not that there's anything functionally wrong with this. After all, look what it can accomplish:

  • Want inexpensive education? Well, I'd better pay my taxes, since I might need to go to a public school.
  • Want to ensure that we will have water for the future? I should garden more sustainably.
  • Want to have energy resources for the future? Then I need to get on that bike for my trips to the grocery store.

But though I think Lincoln was calling for action that was in the nation's self-interest (namely, quit agitating for secession and war, because none of us are going to especially happy with the results), I think the better angels of which he spoke were something else. I mean, look at that last line again:

"The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

Or, paraphrased: When the better angels of our nature remember us at our best, we will become unified again in purpose and affection.

So, Rawls + Lincoln, leaves me with this: It may be in our self-interest to behave a certain way, but we can also act nobly because we know that in that moment, we are at our finest.

Why am I thinking about all this? Well, as many of you know, I was recently elected president of our neighborhood association. Thankfully, nobody is expecting me to give an inaugural address. (By this, I probably mean to say, everyone is thanking me not to give an inaugural address.) I've noticed a funny reaction, though, since taking office. People will express their gratitude to me for doing so, and then do one of two things (or sometimes both): they will either wink knowingly or roll their eyes, as if to say in either case, "we both know how horrible this job is going to be for you."

I am mildly alarmed by this reaction, though I understand from whence it comes. It is true that over the past few years there has been growing discord in the hood, and while I do not yet hear the drumbeat of secession and war, I do think we have lost, a bit, our unity of purpose and affection. We who love this small community are made apprehensive by this, and are worried that that which made this such a wonderful place to live in the past might be lost forever.

Here's the thing, though: I believe we can get it back. It is in our self-interest to do so; we all know this at a fundamental level. Each of us acting as if behind the veil of ignorance--that the best and fairest for all concerned (renters, permanent residents, students, children, homeowners, cyclists, drivers, all of us) is the best and fairest for me--is one way to achieve this. But more importantly, we need to remember, all of us, what we are like when we are at our finest. Let our policies in the 'hood be guided by the veil of ignorance. Let our hearts be guided by the better angels of our nature.

Disclaimer: I suffer no illusions that I actually know anything about philosophy. Nor should you suffer from this illusion, either, though after reading this, you may already have.

*Say what you like about her politics, Peggy Noonan could have cleaned that up. She could have cleaned this post up a bit, too.
**Such as what my life might have been like had I gone with my original career plan of being a cowgirl.

Update: Edited to make it a little less rambly. If you can believe it.