There’s a type of photograph that I generally think of as ‘red wheelbarrow’ images. You know, after the poem by William Carlos Williams. I’m talking about photographs in which the emotional appeal relies heavily on a color/object element. I saw one of those photos last week–a green hat hanging on a doorknob. The moment I saw the photo, I thought “So much depends upon a green hat….”
Coincidentally, over the last week or so, like a lot of people, I’ve become weirdly besotted with a text-to-image program called DALL-E 2. I don’t understand the tech or the coding behind it, but essentially it’s an artificial intelligence system that creates images and art from a description written in natural language. You type in a description, the system interprets it and creates a series of images based on that description.
There’s a waiting list to use DALL-E 2, I suppose because it produces high quality images which undoubtedly requires some serious computing power. But for those of us who are waiting, there’s a mini DALL-E that produces lower quality images. They’re still weird and wonderful and often satisfying.
So what did I do? I typed in a brief description of WCW’s poem. A red wheelbarrow glazed with rain beside white chickens. And DALL-E mini gave me this:
It’s weird and a wee bit distressing, but I was immediately delighted. Enchanted, even. And eventually besotted (oh fuck, now I have to do a quick etymological dip: besotted comes from the Old English term ‘sott‘ which meant ‘a fool, a stupid person’ and by the late 16th century sott lost a letter and became sot, and was used almost exclusively to describe a person stupefied by strong drink) with the idea.
My point, if you can call it that, is that I became figuratively intoxicated by the notion of mixing red wheelbarrows with random thoughts, straining it through the DALL-E mini artificial intelligence system, and seeing what happened. Some of the descriptions were fairly simple.
It quickly became clear that DALL-E had a rather fluid and elastic understanding of the wheelbarrow concept, but I was okay with that. In fact, that pleased me considerably. It made the result a lot less predictable. It added an element of surprise to text descriptions that were otherwise fairly mundane. Such as:
After these simple experiments, I decided to try something that wasn’t so simple, something that might test the system. And I have to say, DALL-E mini surprised me. It came through with something wonderfully weird and lovely.
It was obvious to me at this point, that the red wheelbarrow concept had the potential to become a project. Since I’d lost interest in the most recent Knuckles Dobrovic project (Japanese are bure bokeh images of Ireland), this seems like a worthy replacement. I’ve no idea how long I’ll do this. Maybe a month, maybe longer, maybe I’ll become disappointed with DALL-E mini and wait to try the big hat version.
Anyway, there it is, Knuckles is back, working the red wheelbarrow corner of the intertubes.
EDITORIAL NOTE: Yeah, I forgot to include a link to the Knuckle Dobrovic Instagram account, so here it is.
I recently learned that Iohan Gueorguiev is dead. He died months ago–August of 2021. I had no idea.
You know how it is. There are things you wish you’d done. There are things you wish you could do. But there are also things you wish you’d wanted to do, even though you know you wouldn’t actually do them even if you had the opportunity.
I wish I would have wanted to do what Iohan did. I know, if given the chance to do what he did, I’d have turned it down. What he did was just too hard. I mean, it was absolutely wonderful and amazing and quixotic. I admire him for what he did and how he did it. But even though I’d have enjoyed doing some small parts of what Iohan did, I don’t have it in me to really want to do it.
What did Iohan Gueorguiev do?
He rode a bicycle. He rode it a lot. He rode it very far. Incredibly far, in fact. Insanely far.
Iohan was born in Bulgaria in 1988. When he was 15 years old, his parents sent him to live with an uncle in Mississauga, Ontario. At some point he bought a bicycle–a touring bike–and went for a ride. To Vancouver. About 2700 miles.
That started his weird fascination and love for long-distance bike-camping. In 2014, he decided to ride his bike from the Arctic Sea in Alaska to the town of Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost town in Argentina, generally called the ‘end of the world’. He thought it might take him a year. He was wrong. Wildly wrong.
It was, to be frank, an absurd and ridiculous idea. The distance from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Ushuaia is about 9500 miles as the crow flies. On a bicycle, it’s…well, who knows how far it would be? Farther than any rational person would consider riding.
Iohan’s touring bike–with its narrow road tires–was entirely inadequate for the project. Eventually he was able to acquire a fat tire bike that was significantly more suited for the trip, and over time he obtained a better camera (and a GoPro and some sort of drone), but his gear was always a secondary–or tertiary–consideration. The adventure was what mattered–the things he saw, the people he met. He maintained a blog describing the trek (which is how I learned about him) and he produced a number of YouTube videos.
“I want to see the world. Follow a map to its edges and keep going. Forgo the plans. Trust my instincts. Let curiosity be my guide. I want to change hemispheres. Sleep with unfamiliar stars. And let the journey unfold before me.”
That’s mostly what he did–let the journey unfold. Iohan rarely took the easy route. He rode anywhere he could, anywhere he wanted: ice highways, lumber roads, hiking paths, wilderness trails. Hell, sometimes he didn’t take a route at all–he just set off in the general direction. On at least one occasion he broke down his bike to cross a lake using a collapsible kayak. He refused to let common sense dictate the trip.
He encountered every obstacle you could predict: bad weather, wildlife, gear failures, terrible terrain, mechanical issues. And yet he always seemed to find something positive about his situation. Cycling in a blizzard? He didn’t have to worry about his food supply spoiling. Traveling up a hazardous mountain trail so steep he has to carry his bike and all his supplies? The air is cool, he says, and fresh and invigorating.
“Ruta de Los Seis Miles is a 1,310km, month-long, high altitude desert traverse across the Central Andean Dry Puna in Chile and Argentina. This route promises the most physically and mentally demanding high altitude touring in the Andes. Thankfully, it’s balanced with dream-like mountain scenery with salt fields, lava flows, flamingo-filled lakes, and some of the highest volcanos in the world, far away from the civilization.”
Everywhere he went, Iohan met good people. They’d offer him a safe place to sleep, a warm meal, maybe a bit of money, stories. He seemed to take as much joy from the people he met as he did from the sights he saw. He was certainly comfortable being alone–and there were times on the trip when he was terribly alone–but he clearly delighted in meeting new people in unusual circumstances.
“My motivation: the kindness of strangers and the beauty of the wild.”
Without a private fortune (which Iohan didn’t have) or some sort of corporate sponsorship (which he occasionally received), he was forced to interrupt his journey periodically and return to Canada and earn enough money to continue. Then he’d resume the adventure where he’d left off.
The trip he originally thought might take a year stretched out to more than six. Then Covid arrived; the pandemic disrupted everything. Iohan returned to Canada. He still took what he’d describe as ‘short trips’ in Canada. But the trips weren’t very rewarding; the pandemic made it impossible for him to meet new people. Depression set in; he developed insomnia, made worse by sleep apnea.
Last August, Iohan killed himself.
He still had about 1500 miles to go to reach Ushuaia.
Earlier I said I wish I would have wanted to do what Iohan did. I try to do what he did on a much much much more modest scale. I ride my bike. I talk to strangers. But if it’s too cold or too hot or too windy or too wet, I stay home. Still, there’s a part of me that wishes I had the sort of irrational will that could inspire me to actually undertake an adventure like his.
Iohan Gueorguiev went as far as he could. So much farther than common sense would carry you. He experienced so much more than the rest of us. It would be wrong to think he fell 1500 miles short of his destination. The distance Iohan Gueorguiev traveled can’t be measure in miles. He kept going until he couldn’t. Then he stopped.
EDITORIAL NOTE: You can still access Iohan Gueorguiev’s blog and his videos at BikeWanderer. It’s nice to watch the videos and think maybe he’s still on his way.
A couple of days ago I posted the following photograph on social media. The photo was taken at the halfway point of my bike ride. In the description I casually mentioned there was a bicycle brew pub just out of the frame.
That comment sparked a question:
“A bicycle brew pub? Do tell. Is this a punctuation thing? Or are there really bicycle brew pubs? ‘Cause I’d be down with that!”
I was sort of surprised by the question, because of course bicycle brew pubs exist. I mean, bikes exist, and pubs exist, and a number of those pubs exist along bicycle trails, and many of those pubs either brew their own beers or at least serve locally brewed beers. Bicycle brew pubs are a natural pairing. I guess I assumed there are bicycle brew pubs scattered along bike trails all over the US. I assumed–and still assume–they’re scattered along bike paths all across the entire globe.
In fact, back in 2013 I wrote about the creation of the shandy–a mixture of beer and lemon-flavored soda tossed together in 1922 by a desperate former railway worker who ran a bicycle pub/inn in Deisenhofen, Germany. In some places, this style of beer is called a Kugler after Franz Xaver Kugler, the innkeeper who ran short of beer and decided to stretch his inventory by adding lemonade to it. Another name for this type of beer concoction is Radler, the German term for ‘cyclist’. Beer and bikes go together like spaghetti and meatballs, like Scooby Doo and Shaggy, like Netflix and chill. Sort of.
Herr Kugler may have had a railroad career before serving beer to bicyclists, but he had nothing (to my knowledge) to do with the Rails to Trails movement in the US. Still, I think the logic of converting unused railroad lines into cycling trails is undeniable. Railroad lines tend to be fairly straight and largely flat, which makes for easy cycling and easy conversion. Yes, they’re also prone to long gradual inclines that aren’t particularly noticeable to the eye, but make their presence known to a cyclist’s knees and thighs, but that seems a small sacrifice to make. If there’s a problem with rails to trails bike paths, it’s that they often put railroad lines on raised banks to protect them from flooding. That means IF you happen to have a mishap and go off the trail, you may find yourself (and your bike) tumbling down a steep 15-30 feet incline.
One of the great things about former railroad lines is that they pass through the countryside and through less developed areas–areas where train noise wouldn’t disrupt the lives (and traffic) of city/townsfolk. That means you get to ride through farmland and semi-industrial areas, and that means you get to see a lot of animals. Not just livestock like cattle and sheep, but wildlife that’s adapted their habitats to modern human life. I’ve seen everything from foxes to turkeys to snakes on my rides. One of my favorite parts of the path I took a couple of days ago is a stretch of about a mile that’s heavily populated with groundhogs. Big, fat, lazy bastards who are accustomed to bicycles and in no particular hurry to get out of your way–unless you stop to take a photo. Then the shifty buggers retreat.
Groundhog Central is in the middle of what I call the Valley of Warehouses–an area between the satellite community where I live and Des Moines. There are dozens of massive brutalist structures that act as distribution centers for the mass transit of goods. The newest of these mega-warehouses are being built in what used to be farmland. I think the structure in the photo above is a new distribution center being built for Amazon, the devil-king of interstate commerce. The best thing about these facilities–possibly the only good thing–is that bike paths are incorporated into their infrastructure design.
Another advantage of rails-to-trails paths is that railroads built LOTS of small–and sometimes not-so-small–bridges over the multitude of rivers, creeks, and brooks that would otherwise make cycling through the Midwest awkward. They needed these bridges in out of the way areas because many small railroad lines were created to carry coal from coal mines to the cities and towns. Coal was so often discovered in generally inconvenient locations–troublesome for railroads and coal producers, but in the end it’s worked out well for bicyclists.
That brings me back to bicycle brew pubs. We have a lot of them. Hell, we have three in my small community. The Iowa Beer organization released a map in 2019 showing the location of 85 bike trail beer pubs. It’s a tad out of date, of course. Although the pandemic was hard on most taverns and restaurants, it had the effect of making bicycles increasingly popular. If you have a bicycle, you often want to ride to a destination; small town bicycle brew pubs seem to have weathered the pandemic fairly well. I suspect there may be a few more bike brew pubs now than before the pandemic.
The path I took yesterday follows most of the route for the upcoming Beer 30 ride–a 30-mile round-trip cycling event that starts at the Uptown Garage Brewing Company then follows the trail to the small town of Bondurant, Iowa and the Reclaimed Rails Brewing Company, which is located just out of the frame of the photograph at the top of this post. The Beer 30 ride then returns to the Uptown Garage. Dozens of organized beer trail events like this take place in Iowa. Some are annual events, some are weekly.
I’ve no idea how many riders will be attending the Beer 30. At least a hundred. Maybe two or three times that number. I’ll be one of them.
I’m not one of those “Let’s focus on happy news and forget how completely fucking awful the world is” guys. I lack the Pollyanna gene. When the world is completely fucking awful, I want to know about it. I want to understand it. Don’t try to distract me with bluebirds or other happy horseshit. Because despite how completely fucking awful the world is, I still manage to remain pretty chipper and stupidly happy. I still love this world.
I’m telling you that because the news this morning is jammed with the mass murder that took place in Georgia yesterday. Eight dead–six Asian women, two non-Asian men. Apparently murdered by some inadequate white incel asshole who, according to law enforcement officials, “had a really bad day…and this is what he did.” On any other morning, I’d be writing about both this hate crime against women (and the reality is that the most common hate crimes–and the least acknowledged hate crimes–are committed against women) and the casual way white law enforcement agents treat white mass murderers who commit hate crimes.
But not this morning. I’m NOT trying to distract you from the truly awful shit that’s taking place. But three things happened this morning that made me ridiculously happy. And I’m not going to let this Georgia asshole detract from that. Fuck him in the neck. These are three things that make me love this awful world.
First thing. The Pritzker Prize. If you’re not familiar with this, it’s the most prestigious award in architecture. It’s usually awarded to some arrogant asshole ‘starchitect’ who designs massive, expensive, flamboyant buildings. Not this year. This year it’s gone to Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, a pair of architects who have largely focused on transforming low-income housing complexes. Instead of tearing down old structures and building new ones, these two have found ways to transform old housing projects into attractive living environments. A lot of poor people may hate where they live, but aren’t confident they’ll be better off if they moved.
A few years ago, Lacaton and Vassal were asked to work on “a particularly large and hideous” public housing project in Bordeaux. The people who lived in the projects didn’t want to leave; they just wanted more space and more light. Lacaton and Vassal gave them what they wanted. The basically encased the building in glass, turning what had been exterior apartment walls into sliding glass doors leading to an enclosed terrace. It cost less money, it required less disruption for the tenants, and it turned grim, drab apartments into bright sunny spaces. The Pritzker jury wrote:
Through their belief that architecture is more than just buildings, through the issues they address and the proposals they realize, through forging a responsible and sometimes solitary path illustrating that the best architecture can be humble and is always thoughtful, respectful, and responsible, they have shown that architecture can have a great impact on our communities and contribute to the awareness that we are not alone.
I like living in a world where French architects are honored for their work in support of poor folks living in public housing.
Second thing: I’ve written about the game Geoguessr before–both as a game and as source material for an appropriation art project. For a variety of reasons, I don’t play the game as often as I used to. But now and then, I’ll get the urge and I’ll immerse myself in virtually exploring a novel part of the world. Last night I played and found myself lost in the Polish countryside, where I saw an interesting bit of graffiti art.
I don’t speak Polish. But I help run a Facebook group called Geoguessr Oddities, with a global membership some of whom were likely to know Polish. So I posted the screengrab. And a short time later I learned Mysza Patrzy jak Jedzisz translates to “The Mouse watches you drive.” It wasn’t very helpful in finding out where I was in Poland, but the translation cracked me up, and the interaction itself made me happy. Then this morning another member of the group informed me that franekmysza is a Polish graffiti artist with an Instagram account. He’s painted that mouse all over Poland.
I like living in a world in which I can be introduced to a Polish graffiti artist by playing a game designed by a Swedish IT consultant to get you lost in new parts of the world.
Third thing. There was an article in the Washington Post about a kid, Darius Brown, who learned to sew bow ties for rescue animal–and I swear, this made me tear up and I came THIS close to crying like a little girl. Darius (and, again, he has an Instagram account you may want to follow) was taught to sew bow ties by his sister when he was eight years old. He got started in the rescue animal bow tie gig two years later, in 2017, when a couple dozen dogs left homeless in Florida and Puerto Rico by Hurricane Irma were transferred to a shelter in New York City. He thought the animals might get adopted quicker if they were wearing bow ties.
Let me just say that again. A ten-year-old kid in New Jersey sewed 25 bow ties for rescue dogs from Florida and Puerto Rico because he wanted them to get adopted. How perfectly wonderful is that? And hey, it worked.
Of course it worked. Look at that good boy wearing one of his bow ties in a Savannah shelter. Are you kidding me? Who wouldn’t want to adopt this tripod pooch? According to WaPo, Darius has now “donated more than 600 bow ties for dogs and cats in shelters.” He’s only 14-years-old. He says, “A well-dressed dog…that will make people smile.” And yeah, it does.
I suppose I should mention that Darius has both a speech disorder and a fine motor skills disorder–but since those things don’t define him, they’re less important than what he does. And what he does is make the lives of shelter animals better, which makes shelters better, which makes the lives of the people who adopt the shelter animals better, which makes the entire world a little bit better.
I like living in a world with Darius Brown in it.
Yes, the world is completely fucking awful. But it’s also completely fucking wonderful. We shouldn’t let the former diminish the latter. There are architects who transform awful buildings into livable spaces. There are graffiti artists painting snarky mice all over Poland. And there’s a kid in New Jersey putting bow ties on shelter animals. How can you not be in love with this world?
EDITORIAL NOTE: Another thing that makes me happy. A couple of folks have kindly and gently taken me to task for writing ‘crying like a little girl‘. It makes me happy because 1) it’s nice that folks call me when it looks like I’m being a dick, and 2) because originally I actually included a long, parenthetical tangent about that phrase, doing a riff sort of like Dickens in A Christman Carol when he natters on about the phrase ‘dead as a doornail’. But I write these posts in a rush, and I edit very little…so I deleted the tangent in the hope that people would interpret crying like a little girl to mean grown men and little girls cry in the same way and sometimes for the same reasons.
I’ve decided NOT to correct it. It’s better to let other folks learn from my misjudgments.
Comrade Trump is gone. Uncle Joe Biden is the prez, with Kamala Harris as veep. Democracy has been resurrected. Winter will end. Bluebirds will sing again. Flowers will grow unbidden where Amanda Gorman walks. The breeze will be warm (or cool) and scented like apricots. All small towns will be called Bedford Falls. A cup of coffee will only cost a nickel.
Okay, maybe there’s some wishful thinking in there. But that’s sort of how it felt yesterday. That feeling won’t last, of course. Reality is a merciless sumbitch (as QAnon believers discovered yesterday); the Covid pandemic is still killing thousands of Americans every damned day, the climate is still massively fucked, and it’ll take a generation or so before anything like real racial/gender justice takes firm root.
But we deserve — hell, we need — a few days to just let the feeling that good things can still happen roll over us. Yes, there’s a LOT of work to do, but let’s not allow necessity to cast a shadow over the multitude of ways yesterday was special. Just one example: the undiluted joy of seeing the first woman — a woman who is black AND Asian — sworn in as Vice President of the United States by the first woman of color appointed to the US Supreme Court with her hand on a Bible that belonged to the first black man appointed to the US Supreme Court. That’s some serious history, right there.
So let’s not make a fuss about which particular bit of history yesterday was the most significant. It’s not a contest. And let’s not scold or castigate (now there’s an interesting word; it’s derived from the same root as ‘chaste’ and it originally meant ‘to make someone pure by correction or reproof’) other folks for enjoying a fashion decision, or an internet meme, or the selection of an entertainer that seems trivial compared to the magnitude of yesterday’s events. And for fuck’s sake, let’s not be assholes about ‘winning’. A bit of gloating is understandable and forgivable (did I spell that right? It doesn’t look right), but even though Trump and his followers treated us as the enemy, we shouldn’t prove them right.
I’m NOT saying we need to forgive and forget. Fuck that. But I am saying unity is important. There are people who ought to be investigated; if found responsible for awful behavior, they need to be held accountable. NOT for our pleasure or amusement, but because that’s how society is supposed to work. (On the other hand, if we get some measure of pleasure and amusement out of it, that’s gravy and we needn’t deny ourselves of it.)
I guess what I’m saying is this: yesterday was a good day. A really good day. Let’s not make any more of it than what it was, but let’s also not diminish or minimize any part of it. Yesterday was…let’s say yesterday was a peach Bellini. A cool, stimulating, mildly alcoholic cocktail with a delightful but subdued color palette. Was it a great peach Bellini? No, not really. Ideally a Bellini would be made with Prosecco and white peaches. Maybe this one was made with champagne instead of Prosecco, maybe with yellow peaches instead of white. But it was a very good Bellini, served properly, and at exactly the right moment.
Drink it, don’t diss it for not being perfect, don’t overstate its fine qualities, just enjoy it for what it is. Fizzy, refreshing, sweet, mellow, but stimulating.
I wish I knew who took this photograph. I saw it this morning and I had an immediate emotional response to it. It’s a powerful photo. It’s not art, but it documents something critically important about yesterday’s announcement that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris had won the 2020 election.
The finger is a gesture that’s been around since the Greeks and Romans. It’s a universal gesture of contempt, of anger, of disrespect, of defiance. It means Fuck you, it means Go fuck yourself, it means Shove this up your ass. It’s NOT a polite gesture.
We’ve seen this gesture a lot during the Trump administration. We’ve often seen it at Trump rallies, when Comrade Trump would point out the ‘fake news’ journalists. For these Trump supporters, the finger is an expression of rage and resentment and hatred. It’s Fuck you for who you are and for not supporting Trump.
We’ve also seen it used by folks opposed to Trump. Because Trump rarely appears in front of people who don’t support him, the finger has most often been displayed metonymically (yes, that’s a real word). People give the finger to some thing or object that represents Trump (like one of his properties). In this sense, it’s usually an expression of defiance as well as anger. It’s case of Fuck you and what you stand for.
There was, of course, the case of Juli Briskman, who was famously photographed in 2017 giving the finger to Trump in his motorcade as they passed her on her bike. She said,
“It was just sort of like, here I am on my bike. I’ve got nothing, right? This is pretty much the only thing I had to express my opinion. He wasn’t going to hear me through bullet-proof glass… So that was pretty much how I could say what I wanted to say, right?”
Ms. Briskman was subsequently fired from her job as a government contractor for taking advantage of the opportunity to say what she wanted to say. Her finger was an expression of Fuck you, you don’t represent me or my values. Happily, she was later elected to the Loudon County Board of Supervisors. There’s a bit of poetic justice for you.
The finger in all its manifestations has been a constant during the Trump years. But take another look at that first photograph. Look at the faces of the people. Notice the absence of anger. That’s what makes this photo important, I think. This finger isn’t an expression of “Fuck you, I HATE you, get out!” This is a joyful Fuck you, Donny. This is an expression of “I’m SO happy you’re leaving, now you can just fuck right off.”
To me, the the spontaneous celebrations were the most amazing and delicious aspects of yesterday. The unplanned, impromptu eruptions of joy and happiness and relief. It was an organic response to the release of four years of tension. It was the dancing and the laughing and the shared sense that years of darkness and horror and sickness and death and despair were giving way to a brighter future. Yesterday we weren’t just saying Fuck you Donald Trump, we were also saying Fuck you to ugliness and racism and hate and Covid and the constant weight of the gloom of Trump.
Yes, there’s a shit-ton of work to do. Yes, there are going to be ugly times ahead. But man, let’s not forget how we felt yesterday and how many of us still feel this morning. Let’s hang on to that joy. Joy is nourishment and it will sustain us through the coming months and years.
EDITORIAL NOTE: The photograph was taken by AP photographer Evan Vucci. Thanks to Patrick Power for alerting me to this.
Imagine a collection of ancient pottery shards and some twisted lumps of barbed wire jammed inside a bit of stiff, old fire hose. That’s my knees, after years of injury and abuse. They creak, they pop, they snap, they grind, they rasp. They hurt. At some point I’ll have to return them to the shelf and get some new ones.
But mostly, I’m used to them. I know how to deal with them. I can get them to do most of what I want to do. There’s only one aspect of my life that’s been buggered up by my wonky knees. Cycling. Riding a bike. I used to ride a lot; it was my favorite mode of transportation. I used my bike for fun and to run errands. But it hurt my knees. Seriously hurt them. So a couple of years ago, I put the bike away for the winter; hung it from some hooks in the garage ceiling. Never took it down.
This summer I bought an electric bike, thinking I might be able to ride it with minimal knee pain. When I say I bought an ebike, I don’t mean I went to my local bike shop, examined a wide selection of bikes, and made an intelligent, informed purchase. I mean I bought a bike online. Which even now strikes me as a phenomenally loopy thing to do. Who buys a bike they’ve never actually seen except in a photograph? Who buys a bike you can’t test-ride, a bike that costs US$1500 (more than any two bikes I’d ever bought), a bike that has to be shipped from Seattle and would require some assembly on arrival? Who does that?
Me and, it turns out, lots of other folks. And I got to say, it’s the best purchase I ever made.
I bought a Rad Rover Step-thru. It’s an improbable bike. Massive. The damned thing weighs about 70 pounds. More than twice what my trusty old Trek mountain bike weighs. It’s a fat tire bike, and when they say ‘fat tire’ they’re serious. Four inches wide. It’s got disc brakes. It’s got a goddamn brake light in back. What sort of bike has a brake light? When I finished putting it together (with the overly enthusiastic help of my brother), I have to admit being a tad intimidated by the scale of the beast. It’s big.
But once I got on it and started riding, that massive beast of a bike became weirdly tame. It rides easily. It’s not what you’d call ‘nimble’ compared to my mountain bike. Because of its size, the turning radius is slightly larger than I’m used to. But it’s rock solid and steady. And surprisingly fun to ride.
Best of all? No knee pain. I’d been hoping for minimal knee pain–an amount of knee pain I could tolerate. The notion of pain-free cycling hadn’t even occurred to me. But I’ve had the bike for about three months and I’ve put just over 500 miles on it–and dude, no knee pain at all. That’s because of the pedal assist function. Everything I’d read about ebikes (before committing to the insane act of buying one) talked about this weird techno-magical whatsit called pedal assist. I never quite understood it what it was or how it worked; they just said it made pedaling easier. Pedal assist was the reason I gambled on the bike.
It works. It really does make pedaling easier. Or it can if you want it to. It turns out pedal assist is exactly what it says it is. It provides a measured boost to the energy with which you pedal, which makes pedaling more efficient and effective. You can ride this bike without any pedal assist, but it wouldn’t be easy; we’re talking about a 70+ pound bike with four inch tires, so you’d have to be desperate or masochistic to do so. At PAS 1 — the lowest level of pedal assist — it makes riding a 70 pound bike feel pretty much like riding a normal bike (except even then it’s easier on the knees). I spend most of my riding time in PAS 1 or 2. I’ve used PAS 3 for a few steep or long hills; I’ve had no reason to use PAS level 5 yet.
I did use PAS 4 once, but it was an emergency. I’d stopped to visit with a county worker who was doing some obscure chore in what will eventually be a new suburban neighborhood. As we were chatting, the tornado siren went off. He checked his phone and told me it looked like it wasn’t a drill. I’m fairly casual about bad weather, and since I was only 3-4 miles from home and didn’t see any of the usual signs of a tornado, I wasn’t too concerned. I headed homeward, but I didn’t rush. Until a second tornado siren went off. Two tornado sirens is serious. So I began to hurry a bit. The sky got really dark. A third tornado siren sounded. I’d never heard a third siren before. I put the bike in PAS 4 and was easily doing over 20mph through neighborhoods.
I made it home about three minutes before the storm hit. It wasn’t a tornado. It was a derecho — a fast-moving straight-line storm with hurricane-force winds. And I made it home without knee pain. Totally winded, but no knee pain. I’m a big fan of pedal assist.
Something I hadn’t expected: the bike gets attention. People are curious about it. At stop lights, people will roll down their car windows and ask me questions. People on sidewalks and bike paths often shout out questions as I’m riding by them. Sometimes I’ll stop and chat with them. “How does it work? How fast will it go? Does it have a throttle? Can you ride it without pedaling? What’s the battery range? Can you get a good workout with an ebike? Isn’t it cheating if the bike does all the work?”
Here are the answers. I’ve had it up to about 25 mph on flat ground; it can go faster, but I’ve never had the need to do it. Yes, it has a throttle, which is handy at stop lights and stop signs; even with pedal assist, it can be a struggle to get a 70 pound bike in motion from a dead stop. The throttle makes it easy to get started, and that’s all I’ve ever used it for. But yes, you can ride it without pedaling, using just the throttle like a moped. The advertised battery range is 25-45 miles, but I’ve ridden 53 miles through hilly terrain on a single charge and the battery wasn’t quite dead. And finally, you sure as hell can get a good workout on an ebike. The pedal assist allows you to make riding as easy or as strenuous as you want. By the way, if you bike for exercise, folks tend to ride farther and longer on an ebike, which increases the amount of exercise you get.
Me, I don’t ride for exercise. I ride for the joy in it.
The ‘cheating’ question always throws me. I’m not even sure what it means. How can you cheat at recreational cycling? It’s not like you’re competing with anybody. Using electric pedal assist isn’t really any different than using 21 mechanical gears to make pedaling easier. If riding an ebike is cheating, then so is riding a bike with multiple gears. You’re still using the energy of your body to propel the machine.
That said, I do feel a wee bit awkward about overtaking a cyclist in spandex riding up a hill on a 20 pound road bike. Awkward, but not guilty.
Every so often I’ll go on a ride that takes me by a two-story fitness center. The parking lot, even during this pandemic, is usually full of cars. I know that some of the people who drove those cars to the fitness center are inside on stationary bikes, pedaling in a frenzy. They’re undoubtedly getting a more efficient workout than I am. They’re using their time a lot more effectively than I am. But I suspect I’m happier in the saddle than they are, and having more fun.
I’ve nothing against exercise, but I ride just for the pleasure in it. With this bike, I get to go places. I get to see stuff and talk to strangers. I get to turn down streets and pathways with no real sense of where they’ll take me; sometimes I get to be lost and have the tiny adventure of finding my way back. I get to be harassed by Canada geese and chased by storms.
I did a 30 mile ride a couple of days ago, the last half of it into a stiff 18-23 mph headwind. When I got home, my legs were wobbly from exhaustion. But my knees? My knees were laughing their ass off. I love this bike.
There’s a lot going on in the world right now, isn’t there. We’re only twenty days into the new year and we’ve already had our 16th mass shooting. Australia isn’t as much on fire as it was last week, but it’s still burning and giving the world a preview of the coming climate apocalypse. In Richmond, VA, the home of the traitorous Confederate States of America, a lot of ‘gun enthusiasts’ (seriously, I read a news thing in which all these white, overfed, camo-clad, body-armored, armed-to-the-teeth, MAGA fuckwits who are threatening a new American Civil War if they’re limited to buying only one handgun a month were called ‘enthusiasts’ instead of ‘terrorists’) are gathering in order to express their opposition to terrorize any legislator who might even consider a law to limit their access to firearms. And tomorrow we’ll be starting the Senate hearing in the impeachment of Comrade Trump, the sitting President of the United States, for abusing his power and obstructing the Congress trying to investigate his abuses of power.
That’s a full day, right there. But today is also the birthday — well, okay, not the actual birthday since she’s a fictional character who therefore was never really born, but it’s the fictional birthday of the fictional character — of Buffy Summers. You know, the Vampire Slayer? She’d be 39 years old today.
“Into every generation a Slayer is born: one girl in all the world, a chosen one. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness; to stop the spread of their evil and the swell of their number. She is the Slayer.”
BtVS was the reason I bought a VCR. Not just to tape the show if I wasn’t around to watch it, but so that I could watch the episodes again. This was the first television show in my experience that I wanted to watch more than once, that rewarded the viewer for re-watching. It was that good, that clever, that charming, and that meaningful.
I mean, sure, at it’s heart it was just a story about high school as Hell. Literally. And yeah, it was also the first show that turned an entire genre on its head. The silly blonde cheerleader — the traditional victim of choice of demons and monsters — is actually the being that demons and monsters need to fear. It was the first show (in my experience) that was layered and textured with meaning that went beyond slaying the monster. It wasn’t just a show that entertained (although it sure as hell did); it was a show that encouraged you to think. About politics, about sexuality, about religion, about gender, about the uses/misuses of science, about hypocrisy, about the roles of women, about power relationships, about the ways myth and legend shape culture, about music, about alienation, about love, about loss, about death, about suicide, about narrative structure, about…no, really, narrative structure. I’m not just bullshitting here. This show actually encouraged you to think about narrative structure.
Look, BtVS wasn’t the first show to mix comedy and drama. But it was, I believe, the first show to refuse to separate comedy and drama. In most shows, you’d have a dramatic scenes and you’d have comedic scenes; they were always separate and distinct. BtVS destroyed that notion. They’d toss a funny line into a dramatic scene without damaging the drama. They’d drop a dramatic line into a comedic scene, and it would hang there for a bit, then the dialog would return to the comedy because it was the only way NOT to scream. Because actual life is full of comedy and drama and it’s usually all mixed together. Actual life is so often about finding the strength to do what you need to do — what you’re supposed to do — when you would really rather not do anything at all, and still being able to have a laugh now and then.
That was the thing about BtVS — it never shied away from the ugliness of the world. It never promised that everything would turn out just fine. It was always about finding ways — usually through friends and family — of dealing with a world that didn’t turn out just fine. It was about doing what you can do to make things better, even if it was almost certain you’d lose. It was, in the end, a show about taking responsibility for your place in the world, it was about showing up and doing your damned job, it was about being strong when strength was required, it was about getting over yourself and doing what needed to be done, it was about claiming your space and fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.
“I’m beyond tired. I’m beyond scared. I’m standing on the mouth of Hell and it is going to swallow me whole. And it’ll choke on me. I’m done waiting. They want an apocalypse? Well, we’ll give ’em one. From now on, we won’t just face our worst fears, we will seek them out. We will find them, and cut out their hearts, one by one.”
It was a show about refusing to accept things being the way they are just because that’s the way they’ve always been. In the final episode, Buffy even casts off her role as ‘The Chosen One’. She says”
“In every generation, one Slayer is born, because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule. So I say we change the rule. I say my power should be our power. From now on, every girl in the world who might be a Slayer, will be a Slayer. Every girl who might have the power, will have the power. Can stand up, will stand up. Slayers, every one of us. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?”
There’s a lot going on in the world right now. There are a lot of metaphoric vampires, demons, and forces of darkness that need metaphoric slaying. Buffy is a singularly apt role model for this world. We’re all living in Sunnydale now. We can all…well, I’ll let Buffy and Angel explain it.
Buffy: My mom said some things to me about being the Slayer. That it’s fruitless. No fruit for Buffy. Angel: She’s wrong. Buffy: Is she? Is Sunnydale any better than when I first came here? Okay, so I battle evil. But I don’t really win. The bad just keeps coming back…and getting stronger. Like the kid in the story, the boy that stuck his finger in the duck. Angel: Dike.
Buffy looks at him. Angel: It’s another word for dam. Buffy: Oh. Okay, that story makes a lot more sense now. Angel: Buffy, you know there’s still things I’m trying to figure out. There’s a lot I don’t understand. But I do know it’s important to keep fighting. I learned that from you. Buffy: But we never… Angel: We never win. Buffy: Not completely. Angel: Never will. That’s not why we fight. We do it because there’s things worth fighting for.
There’s a lot going on in the world right now. We all need to show up, stand up, speak up, and fight like a girl. So happy birthday Buffy Anne Summers. You saved the world, a lot.