What else I saw 2

August 17, 2007

I drove for gas mileage.  So addled was I that I never managed to replace my non-functioning tire gauge.  For all I know, my fronts may be down in the mid-twenties.  If so, my 44mpg average is pretty decent.  [Just checked it at 38 left, 39 right.  Good retention for 8 months in all weather, and pretty close to optimal.  True optimal would be determined by taking tire tread temperature readings, across both profiles, from side-to-side, after coasting to a stop, after sustained highway driving.  I could have done this any day in 2 minutes as I got off in Warrenville, digital temperature probes make it a snap these days.  Like I said, a zombie]. 

I’ve got a fuel-flow issue, and often can’t restart warm if I’ve touched the accelerator with the engine off, so I didn’t dare shut off while coasting up to a long light.  I might have got to fifty if I could.  Mostly I upshifted as early as possible, and held my top speed to 55-58, and anticipated on surface streets.  As that philosopher and religious-programming host, D/ryl W/ltr/p—start your own blog and become aware of the kind of searches that cause visits, if you want to know why that was google-proofed—summarized it: “Stay out of the squirters and off the brakes if you want to save gas.” “The squirters” are the diaphragms, accelerator pumps, that squirt fuel into a carburetor, still used in NASCAR, to keep the car from hesitating when the throttle is opened quickly; the mechanism is different but the principle is the same with the throttle-body injectors most cars have today.  Holding speed under sixty made surprisingly little difference in the time it took get places.


What I saw

August 16, 2007

During the eight months I spent three hours a day in the car, I had some recurrent thoughts and observations:

1. My driving got a lot smoother and more instinctive. I was noticing this just today, when I switched lanes just as I arrived at a stoplight where a number of cars were waiting, timed the start from green and inserted myself back in the moving stream, all without thinking or touching the brakes. On balance I don’t think my driving is safer, because I’m timing things much more exactly and without margins of safety, but I do it a lot.

2. The sheer number of large SUVs in suburban areas is staggering. I would count the percentages around me from time to time, and it was often over 50 percent. Young people, with whom I worked, were driving new ones, presumably they, or their parents were making payments. Massive, clumsy, vision-blocking—my most immediate beef with them—and God knows what their mileage is. Their tires make a groaning noise when they’re at speed. These are the used cars of the immediate future, particularly if gas prices really do jump. They’ll be just like the big sedans of the sixties were in the early seventies: unwanted, poor people’s cars. Eventually they may have a certain cache, and can seem cool in retrospect, but not at first.

How would I try to adapt them, were I for some reason able to get one of these with my budget, and not something more sensible? The situation that also obtained in the early thirties, as described in Steinbeck’s essay Jalopies I Cursed and Loved, where he couldn’t get a Ford or Chevy, but could get a 16-cylinder Marmon with an aluminum engine, getting about 5 miles per gallon? I think I would right away take the pushrods out for four of the cylinders, converting an eight into a four. This would leave the valves shut for those cylinders, and the compression would cause the closed cylinders to absorb the piston strokes and deliver it back on the down stroke, acting like so many springs. Eventually smaller and thinner wheels, in the meantime high tire pressures. Strip as much weight as possible. All of this is conventional thinking, if a little unusual now. I wonder if it’ll become necessary?

I’ll return to the subject of how I spent my time later, but for now I feel as if I’m awaking from a zombie state. Long hours, portal to portal, and getting up at 5:30 meant I was continually sleep-deprived.

So, did you die or something?

April 23, 2007

At the end of January I started a contract assignment.  It’s not long-term or anything, but the impact of working has caused making entries here to be dropped completely.  I’d known things would be different when I started working outside the house, but I’m genuinely surprised by how different they are.  I get up very early and drive on the expressways and toll roads for about an hour—a little less in the morning, a little more in the evening, actually—so that I drive about seventy-five miles a day.  At work I have fairly undemanding work to do, although we’ve had our adventures and I’ve been instrumental in upgrading the work, so much that we’re actually being paid more to keep us.  I like the people I work with.

 The impact on my habits has been profound, however.  I wouldn’t have thought I was doing very much serious housework, wouldn’t have wanted to claim I was, anyway, but we feel the lack.  Trying to make up in the few hours I have left before it’s bedtime doesn’t leave much time: I’m talking about basic stuff like cleaning the kitchen, laundry and keeping up with the bills and mail.  If I had every evening for this stuff it might be manageable, although we’d still have to let things go, but two or three nights a week I’ve had something going on, and my wife does too.  That leaves everything else seriously behind.

There’ve been other changes, too.  My riding has had to be pushed to weekends, at the most three hours a week.  I’ve had to defer maintenance on bike, car and house in a way I find frustrating.  I have to multitask, and make the most of my time.  I never get enough sleep, and haven’t been able to read except in tiny snatches.  Anything sustained or difficult has been out of the question.

  The upshot is that I’m very seldom at the computer for long at home.  Like many workers, I’m easily able to comment on blogs from work, since it’s easy to work while checking blogs and snapping off small comments, but blogging is more time-consuming, and I haven’t been able to do it.  So while I’ve had ideas, and some activity—Niles Frantz himself commented, and I’m only now acknowledging it—I haven’t felt like doing anything. 

 But, I’m starting at last to get a grip, and will be back among the bloggers very soon now.

I want you to want me

January 11, 2007

It’s receiving a lot of buzz already, but this is as pure an example of art and skill transcending and transforming what we would ordinarily take to be inferior materials as I could hope for. Heard on the last program of Niles Frantz’s Coming Home last Saturday night.

Blood reading

December 30, 2006

The phenomenon discussed here has a corollary in my experience: when I am in a place with exactly the same sensations each time I visit it, that permits reading, I remember what I read in great detail the last time I was there. The El is the most frequent of these for me, and I often connect entire passages with the sight of whatever happened to be outside the window when I looked up. It’s as if pages from books were plastered all over Chicago.

Another example is giving blood. Just to go there is to think of everything I’ve read there. Today I was reading Phoenix, D.H. Lawrence’s uncollected prose, in this case about relations between men and women. I realized once I got there that when I was last giving, in September—I give by Alyx, which takes more red cells and puts plasma and platelets back, so that my cycle is about four months—I was reading George Scialabba’s essay about Lawrence’s sexual non-fiction, Fool for Love, which sent me looking for Phoenix in the first place.

I wonder if it’s common for thoughts and readings to be “mapped” on to physical places and repetitive experiences like this?

Say it ain’t so

December 29, 2006

A very welcome holiday gift was Tony Judt’s Postwar: a history of Europe since 1945, where I read, appropos of Germany’s coming to terms with the Holocaust:

The real transformation came in the following decade. A series of events—the Six-Day Arab-Israeli War of 1967, Chancellor Brandt dropping to his knees at the Warsaw Ghetto memorial, the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics and finally, the German telecast of the ‘Holocaust’ mini-series in January 1979—combined to place Jews and their sufferings at the head of the German public agenda. Of these the television series was by far the most important. The purest product of American commercial television—its story simple, its characters mostly two-dimensional, its narrative structured for maximum emotional impact—’Holocaust’…was execrated and abominated by European cineastes from Edgar Reitz to Claude Lanzmann, who accused it of turning German history into American soap opera and rendering accessible and comprehensible that which should always remain unspeakable and impenetrable.

But these very limitations account for the show’s impact. It ran for four consecutive nights on West German national television and was watched by an estimated twenty million viewers—well over half the adult population…The public impact was enormous…Henceforward Germans would be among the best-informed Europeans on the subject of the Shoah and at the forefront of all efforts to maintain public awareness of their country’s singular crime. Whereas in 1968 there had been just 471 school groups visiting Dachau, by the end of the Seventies the annual number was well in excess of five thousand

When I read this, I was disgusted, for reasons similar to Lanzmann’s: It seems grotesque, a kind of national pratfall. I guess I want even, perhaps especially a culture perversely obstinate and wrong to have more dignity in their error; but to be convinced en masse by this!

Looking back, though, I realize it was a big deal. It was much ballyhooed, and featured, as I remember, future stars like Meryl Streep, Michael Moriarity and James Woods. When it was shown here a year earlier, a lot of people crowded into my single room, at the University of Chicago’s old Shoreland, to watch on my 12″ black and white portable. After awhile, some people were outraged but most of us were laughing at it; we were not the target audience.

But maybe I should just suck it up, and realize that this is how big things are communicated. Coming Soon: ‘Abu Ghraib, The Miniseries!’

One speed fits all

December 22, 2006

mybike1.jpgReading something of Megan’s, coupled with the fact that heavy rain keeps me from riding today, makes me feel like writing about my bike.

It’s a Schwinn Continental, made here in Chicago in 1975, which the serial number tells me. A Continental may be distinguished from the otherwise similar Varsity by the tube fork, the Varsity has the heavier solid blade fork. I bought it for nearly nothing at a garage sale about ten years ago. It’s been painted black all over, including components, perhaps because it was stolen. As you can tell from the picture, it’s huge, probably my best protection against theft. Even so, I’ve had to make some changes to have it fit me.

I replaced the wheels, originally steel, with alloy. I’ve stayed in 27″ X 11/4″, rather than go to 700cc, because I like to make the smallest effective change, I’ve acquired them for nothing, and the tires are much cheaper, at old-time hardware stores or Walmart in a pinch. Rotating mass is much more significant than dead weight, which is not insignificant either. You feel it immediately.

Although the frame is huge, at about 26″, so that I (75″) can just straddle it, it would have been sold with standard components way too small for the rest of me. When I got it, the drops, the handlebars, were both too narrow, causing my arms to constrict my chest, and too tightly curved for my hands. The discomfort many millions of people have felt with road bikes, particularly during the “bike boom” of the seventies when this one was made, is mostly due to this kind of misfit, but you have to know what’s wrong before you can correct it. Alloy drops in the biggest size I could scavenge; this is a “no money” project. I leave the bar untaped, also the brake levers, with the egregious original “safety levers” removed and the projecting pivot pin extension sawn flush. The stem, by which the handlebar is attached to the frame, is from a mass-market department store mountain bike, fortunately in the 13/16″ size Schwinn used. It lifts the bar and extends it forward of where it was originally, for my size, again. The saddle is the original shell, with the padding removed. An excellent, simple mod.

The crank, still a one-piece, American “Ashtabula,” is 185cc on each arm, the only component I bought specially, about $17, made for BMX. The bike came with a 165, way too short for anyone big enough to ride this, another recipe for discomfort and failure as sold. As it was not made for Schwinn, I’ve had to scrounge different bearings and cups, and shape them to fit. Worth it though; before a correct saddle height for me, 39.75″ inches including crankarm, had me much higher and more delicately balanced. The longer arms permit a lower center of gravity as well as a much better pedaling circle. Because the Ashtabula uses a 1/2″ pedal spindle, I’ve married that to the larger pedal, plastic, sold bubble-rapped in dept. stores. Aside from the threads, I’ve discovered that the spindles are identical. Also plastic toe clips.

I ride single speed. I rode a fixed for about ten years, on a folder I kept in the trunk of my car and assembled for an hour’s ride at lunchtime—yes, that much of a nerd—and still own a fixed-gear bike. This one freewheels, which is useful in traffic, although I spin almost continually anyway, and on a slight incline can easily do a track stand with a slight ratcheting motion. I’ve used a BMX freewheel before, but this wheel is still dished, because I’ve found I break fewer spokes than I did when I had wheels I had re-centered, so I’ve made the freewheel by taking all but one of the cogs off a standard multi-cog freewheel. I don’t have a chain whip, but wrapped an old chain around a cog and stood on the end of it, and tapped the locking cog off with a hammer. This is not only a lighter rotating mass, but allows for the exact chain alignment which is one of the secrets of single speed efficiency.

Single speed permits vast weight savings: outer chainring and bolts, shifting components, cables and levers, and more than a foot of chain. On a mass market bike, those are the relatively heaviest, worst-adjusted, poorest-quality, most obsolete parts anyway. Gone at a stroke. This bike—remember, it’s huge; I’m about two inches taller than the largest rider in the Tour de France Peliton, Axel Merxx— only weighs 27lbs despite having rusty steel fenders, a steel Ashtabula crank and an electro-welded frame. Good enough.

Obviously, there is an ideology at work here. I want to apply high end thinking to mass market components. “Jawbone of an ass” as my wife says for some reason. It’s the hot rod ethos. When sports car racing began in the US after WWII, many people acquired European sports cars and affected social airs to go with them. Legendary American hot rodders like Micky Thompson, Frank Kurtis and Duffy Linvingston took them on, using the old ford roadsters they knew, with solid front axles and flathead V8s, and a hodgepodge of American passenger car parts. What they had was knowledge, skill and passion, and they often beat the obviously conceptually more advanced and much more expensive, cars of those they defensively derided as the “Teabaggers.” I don’t disdain advanced, expensive bikes: they’re a tremendous value, even for a poor student, and are much more reliable for a neophyte, who can’t repair as s/he goes. But I always want to see what I can do with what I’ve got, and learn something in the process.

Gasoline Alley

December 12, 2006

Every year since I grew up, I have found myself under my car in the dead of winter.  And it’s already happened this year.

This is because I actually can fix cars, drive cheap cars that are likely to need work in the winter, and because I’m willing to do it.  This time it was changing the alternator, often a standing, through-the-hood sort of thing, but on my ’88 Honda, it must be done from underneath the car.  And after it’s unbolted, the axle has to droop a bit for it to clear the things in its way on the way out.  So I had to jack up the car to make this happen even though it was already on ramps.

I was deliberate, calm, and took great care to stay comfortable.  I set up a space heater under the car, and laid lights all over the place.  It paid off; I finished fairly quickly and without pain or broken skin.

So I’ve learned something in thirty-five years.  I wonder how long I’ll keep doing this?

I hear this when you say that

October 13, 2006

It seems I’ve been in a lot of fruitless arguments lately about terms.  Sometimes these are turns of phrase, but more often they are technical terms that escaped into general use, and are contested territory, at least to some.  Names for social movements, psychological diagnostic terms, things like that.  Lately I’ve been more quibbler than quibblee, but it amazes me on reflection how much time is taken up by what are often misunderstandings.  I don’t think there is much I can do about it except change myself, that is, remind myself not to be caught up in it.  Just adapt to people’s use of language, be prepared at a moment’s notice to change terminology myself, even if the term I was using was precious to me, and check always the impulse to react emotionally to word choice as if it were intended, unless it obviously was and perhaps even then.  It seems this capacity to use many ways of saying whatever I would say is something a writer ought to be able to do and take pride in doing.

Nonetheless, the problem of malice raises its head constantly.  “How can that not be meanly meant?” is my reflex.  Part of my problem is with the social dynamic of needling.  I realize that I just detest it; I always associate it with bullying and with the abuse of power or privilege.  Now, huge numbers of people do not have this association at all, or feel the threshold, where it goes over the line into bullying, is a lot higher than where I would put it–on the floor.  Such people are confused and taken aback by my reactions, by my rather sudden hostility, because incredible though it seems to me, they actually mean to express familiarity and affection by it.  They are aware of boundaries, of course.  Relatively few people needle constantly and casually, without regard to whom they’re talking to; the more usual occurrence is that someone gets familiar with me, senses that we seem to have enough in common, values and knowledge, that we might become familiar.  Seen from that point of view, it’s an overture of affection.  It amazes and depresses me just to reflect on that.  I must have rebuffed hundreds of people in my life, just because of this basic misunderstanding.  From their point of view, it must look like I’m signaling that I prefer a more formal relation, that I’m rejecting, probably with personal animus, a closer bond with them.  Au Contraire!  The degree to which I hunger for affection and companionship, from most people I have much in common with, would be hard to exaggerate.

Yet I wonder.  I obviously enjoy satire, wit, jokes often at my own expense.  I have had exactly the kind of intimacy I’m always searching for, from people who seem to have no trouble not doing this thing that gets to me.  From this I infer that it shouldn’t be hard at all, that I’m unlikely to be the only person sensitive to this that people have ever met, that in fact my feelings are rather common.  So what’s left? where do I think the problem lies?  There appear to be lots of people for whom real camaraderie requires this needling, or is greatly facilitated by it.  Men particularly appear to often have a special need for such memberships, for at least one group characterized by this style of discourse.  There do seem to be many activities and occupations where not just tolerance, but fondness for this style is a virtual prerequisite.  Of all of that, of the apparent real affection for which it is the normal means of expression, I appear to be utterly disabled, and instinctively, destructively hostile.

Safety razor

October 10, 2006


I used to watch my father shave with this. It’s a brass Gillette, made in Canada, issued to him on his induction into the Navy, probably in Regina. He had a drill, a ritual. When he was done, he would unscrew the top, wash and wipe the pieces with a towel. I must have watched him do it hundreds of times, probably mostly on weekends, although having watched him do it several times, I would often come in to the bathroom during the process and know just where he was.

I know this made an impression on my sister too, because I remember she mentioned it in a column, which I can’t find now. I have read that many women have found watching men shave to be a very sexy thing. A careful, deliberate, sensual thing. I can understand that. I use it, but not every day, not to do my whole face, and not always at the same time when the bathroom needs to be shared; neither of my kids has ever watched me.

Safety razor refers to how much safer it is than the straight razor, which preceded it. We had one of those in a drawer, which had been my maternal grandfather’s. Barbers use them still, or did a few years ago when my neck was last shaved. For someone who knows what they’re doing, the straight razor, with a good edge that can be kept keen by stropping on a piece of leather would be much more flexible, and could be used with a minimum of fuss all day long. The safety razor, with its paper-thin disposable blade, good for a half-dozen shaves perhaps, is principally valuable because the unskilled won’t cut themselves so badly with it. The shaft of this one is hollow, and my dad kept a styptic pencil in it; the one I’ve been able to buy won’t fit in the shaft. That’s good enough for the cuts this razor will make.

The safety seems to come from the right-angle handle, much easier to hold and manipulate, and the way the edges are enclosed and guarded. All these features are still with us now, in the latest versions, with three or four blades–like shaving with a venetian blind. But disposibility is already part of this design, about 80 years old, and my razor is not a superior device: it is the ancestor of what’s available today, and does the same job. Supplies are still available, generic blades from one local grocery store/pharmacy, brush and soap from another, styptic pencil from a third. But when blades are no longer readily available, I’ll just toss it back in the drawer I found it in and move on. I think my father would have been amazed at my still using it, and why would my son use it?