Archive for October 2007

October 19th, 2007

Bike Me

Steph and I had our first anniversary recently and to celebrate the occasion we bought new bicycles. These will, of course, allow us to have memorable romantic moments for years to come. Soon we’ll be touring Europe, staying in quaint, enchanted bed and breakfasts, and taking trips through rural America where I will sit on the handlebars as Steph rides us through a field and I hold a frilly hat to my head, BJ Thomas crooning away in the background….

For now though, I just use my bike to commute to work. I got a 9-speed, bright blue Schwinn cyclocross bike. “Cyclocross” models, I now understand, are very posh and pricey. The only reason I purchased one is the bike store had it refurbished and it was on sale for half-off. Even then, it was more than I imagined a bike would cost, so I guess I should have known.

So, yeah, this bike is really nice. Like really nice. I actually feel guilty for owning it. You will develop an acute sense of how little I deserve this thing as you continue reading.

The last time I paid any attention to bicycles, I was in middle school. At that period, the 10-speed mountain bike was enjoying its rise to popularity and I was a boy possessed. Walmart had a model called the “Stone Mountain” by Huffy and I would make a “b.”-line for sporting goods each time we visited, and wile away the hours while the rest of my family was shopping, coveting it. The frame was a gray, stone-washed finish and the water bottle, bike bag, and brake and shifter cables were all neon green. It was, in my mind, at that time (which, keep in mind, was the early 90s), the absolute coolest means of transportation that would ever exist. Over multiple visits, it became clear to me that, being a pre-teen, I needed this pre-teen Huffy. My one-speed, brake by pedaling backwards, foam-pad with a fabric cover around the little bar between the handlebars type Huffy was a child’s Huffy…. When did these other bike companies come into existence, by the way? Last I remember there was just Huffy, and Huffys, it was widely-known, were awesome. These days you go into a bike store, ask to see the Huffys, and the employees shake their heads in disbelief. It’s all “Cannondales” and “Treks” and “Novaras” now. What’s up with that?

Ok, in case you can’t tell, there have been some changes since I was in the saddle regularly.

Some of them are good, I’ll admit. On multi-speed bikes, gears actually seem to change now. Smoothly and quickly, at that. I remember, after my parents finally bought me that Stone Mountain for Christmas, having to monkey with ol’ Stoney’s stiff, finicky thumb-shifters, actually trying to produce that horrible crunching noise, because at least that meant a change of some sort was occurring. There was no discernable difference in pedaling, from one shifter position to the the other. I was quite excited to find this is not the case anymore, and told the bike salesmen as much. (More shaking of their heads in disbelief.) And these newfangled gear shifters! My new bike has road-bike-style handlebars, which I’ve always identified as being scary as crap to use, as the levers are located down on the frame, requiring you to take your eyes off the road and to remove a hand from the handlebars to shift. They’ve solved this problem with these combination brake-lever/shifter mechanisms. I was skeptical at first, but they function quite well. The other problem with road bikes: those skinny tires that wobble on anything but the smoothest asphalt. The cyclocross has “hybrid” tires that are wider and knobbier and handle even gravel with ease.

Some new developments in biking though, I must say, I don’t get. The pedals that came with my bike are the clip-in type, that, in combination with special shoes, lock your feet to the pedals so they will only come off via a very specific, unintuitive movement of your foot. I understand, from some vaguely cultish salespeople and fellow customers who approached me when they saw me checking these shoes out, that once you get used to them you realize you’re getting a “fuller leg workout” and you just “fall in love with them.” Not the only “falling” that’s involved, I’m sure. You must topple over at least occasionally while using these. And the special shoes start at $70 a pair. I bought a $10 pair of plain platforms and put them on my bike, instead. Also, whatever happened to just being able to slap one of those big red, T-shaped bike pumps with a wooden handle on your tires and inflate them? The first time I took the valve caps off my bike, I had no idea what was going on. There’s some kind of space-needle in there! “Prestas,” they informed me with much disbelief-related head-shaking.

So yeah, I’m not exactly Lance de France. To my credit though, this was not an impulse buy. I have been riding an old Giant mountain bike around for the past year. (My dad and sister bought it for me at a used bike auction in Chapel Hill a few years ago. They got it for $1. Pretty amazing, considering you can’t take much of anything home for a dollar anymore, and this is a fully intact bike in fine mechanical condition. The deals are out there, if you’re willing to look!) This Giant was probably made around the same time my Stone Mountain was though, and, aside from quick-releases on the wheels, it’s lacking in any of biking’s nicer amenities. The rough gear-shifting and the body that is made of steel tubing that must be filled with cement for stability, just weren’t cutting it here in the foothills. It’s so bulky and heavy that I have trouble getting it up and down the stairs of our apartment building, much less powering it up an incline.

After biking to work, church, and a few other locations a handful of times, I convinced myself that if I had something better I’d ride more…. We’ll see how this works out.

I think an additional factor that will keep me motivated, is that biking is getting quite popular — at least it is in Raleigh. You can hardly glance out your window right now without seeing a cyclist or two go by. And it’s not just weekend warriors in $400 skin-tight designer bikewear who, one imagines, go home and fire up their Ford Expeditions when they need to run to the grocery store. It’s also hipsters in $400 skin-tight jeans who, instead of firing up their 10-year-old Nissan Sentras that their parents gave them, are getting on their bikes when they need to run to the grocery store. I feel this area is becoming more bike-oriented.

Which is not to say riding in Raleigh isn’t without peril. This is the south, and there are certain cross-sections of humanity here — mostly those capable of feeling physical lust toward lifted mud-caked pick-up trucks with deer-hunting decals on them — that think it is funny to harass people on bicycles. And even if these obstacles did not exist, pedaling along while a stream of 800-lb. behemoths lurch past, inches away from you, is still pretty awkward.

Riding on the street has been the biggest adjustment for me. When I was little, we hopped on the Huffs, took off, and, as soon as we got to a street with actual cars on it, we headed for the sidewalk. Technically, that wasn’t where we were supposed to be, but pedestrians never minded. They’d smile at us and stop to let us by. We were safe and warm up there, insulated from danger. It was a good life. But I can’t really do that anymore. I’m a growed-ass man.

There is one thing that has stayed the same about cycling, though. When you’re zipping along, propelling yourself with your own two legs, the wind in your face, it’s just as exhilarating as it was back in the day. I’ll give it that.

Now if you’ll excuse me, grandpa has to go lie down.

Tags: , | No Comments »

October 18th, 2007

Stamp-heed!

As promised, today I’ll the present you with the Six Best Stamps Currently on the Market. Let’s get right down to it:

1018071

6. “Harriet Beecher Stowe
I admit, I can’t tell you what Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote, off the top of my head, but I do know who did this portrait of her: Mark Summers. The same illustrator who did all those renderings of authors and musicians for Barnes & Noble. Clearly the guy can draw like a mo-fo and, defying the trend of rushed vector art, he does so in a technique similar to the laborious wood engravings of previous centuries. The results, I think you’ll agree, are quite beautiful.

1018072

5. “Washington and Jackson”
A five-dollar stamp? I dunno if it’s worth five-dollars, but that’s a damned good stamp. I like the homage to that ornate, old-timey aesthetic. Bonus points for the unusual orientation.

1018073

4. “Circus Wagon
Circus wagons are cool. Line-art depictions of circus wagons with type set above it in an obscure serif font, the whole layout then printed in dull red ink on white stock? Even cooler.

1018074

3. “DC Comics Super Heros
Shows the USPS is not afraid of pop culture and can have a little fun. Nice move, guys.

1018075

2. “Star Wars”
What I said about the “DC Comics Super Heroes” goes double here.

1018076

1. “Marvel Comics Super Heros
Imagine receiving an envelope, postage paid courtesy of Wolver-snikt!ing-rine! The coolness of this one stamp elevates this whole sheet to the number one slot.

So there’s actually some exciting postage out there. Almost makes me want to write someone a lette…. Whoa, gotta go. My iPhone’s blowing up.

Tags: , | No Comments »

October 15th, 2007

Stamp of Disapproval

Being one of these “plugged-in,” on-the-go, web-savvy types, I don’t pay attention to the goings-on in the realm of snail mail. I’m far too busy with my important, cutting-edge technology.

Were it not for my lovely, antiquated wife, who has a thing for slow, obsolete forms of communication and their various elements, I wouldn’t even have had the idea to write this entry. But, having just witnessed her make an online stamp purchase, I feel compelled to ask: have you seen the current postage options at your disposal?

Of course you haven’t. Now that we have awesome capabilities like cellphones and IM and video-conferencing, that work completely seamlessly and just let you say whatever pops into your head without further consideration, why should we care about stamps? Judging by the suckfest I saw earlier this week, the US Postal Service isn’t losing any sleep over them.

Let’s go straight to the bottom of the barrel. Here are my candidates for six worst stamps currently available:

1015071

6. “USA First Class
A piece of clip-art centered on a beige background? What a half-assed design. Not even. Quarter-assed. Eighth-assed maybe. It’s the USA’s First Class stamp. Get Michael Beirut on this.

1015072

5. “Wedding Hearts
“For the couple who wants a government organization to assign them a stamp to use on the wedding invitations.”

1015073

4. “Mendez vs. Westminster School District
I was not aware of this case prior to this blogging, but based on what Google has retrieved about it, it was clearly a very important decision in favor of civil rights. I, for one, would like to see this harrowing event lionized in a stamp that is non-ugly. Specifically something drawn post-1991 and not using the tacky typeface Lithos Pro.

1015074 1015075 1015076

3. “American Clock”/“Chippendale Chair”/“American Toleware
Saying this subject matter is “boring” would be like saying the end of Requiem for a Dream was “a bummer.” I could not decide which common, lifeless object was the least interesting, so I’m declaring this a three way tie.

1015077

2. “Vintage Mahogany Speedboats
Ok guys, way too specialized. Why not just “speedboats?” Or even just “vintage speedboats?” Is there really a huge demand for “vintage speedboats made exclusively from mahogany” in the postal world? I’d imagine two or three middle-aged men in the entire country felt strongly enough about these to stand in an endless line and get ahold of them. Not exactly a “crowd-pleaser.”

1015078

1. “Jury Duty
Pure crap. The mere mention of this phrase will send any red-blooded American into groans of they-actually-expect-me-to-participate-in-the-
system?-wrenched agony. You’re going to commemorate that with a stamp? I can’t think of a single piece of mail I would attach this kind of psychological (and visual) drag to…. Other than maybe my student loan bills…. Or my credit card payments…. Or my income tax retur…. On second thought, I’ll take ten rolls.

So yeah. I totally just stuck it to the USPS! But, to be fair, I noticed there were a few surprisingly cool stamps to choose from. One can’t spend all one’s time being down on everything, so check back in a few days (or, putting it in terms those of you who still use stamps will understand: one changing of the moon) for part two of this series — my rundown of the six best stamps currently available!

Tags: , | No Comments »