5/23/2011

Standing on the Edge

For years, my life has kind of plodded along, without much change in some ways. Oh, I've been happy enough. The kids are a constant source of revelation for me, and of course my relationship with DL runs ever deeper as the years go by.

But aspects of my life--job, religion, spirituality--have been in stasis for a while. All of these things are (or have been in the past) a large part of my life, and yet I have done little to nurture my growth in those areas.

Until lately.

I feel that I've come upon an awakening of sorts over the last several weeks, and things are beginning to change. I find myself about to take leaps off of new precipices, and actually looking forward to the excitement of the unknown. I'm realizing the strength within myself to take control of those aspects of my life, and for the first time in ages I am not just thinking about it or talking about it; I am doing something about it.

3/07/2011

It's Official. Winter Sucks.

Okay, I'm so tired of cold and snow, that I compiled a list of summer projects today, that I'm actually looking forward to doing. Things like painting the fence and repairing outdoor light fixtures. Yeah, I know. Wild stuff, right?

It's not just me, either. DL is going crazy, too. Our conversations lately generally follow the same pattern:

Me: How was your day?

DL: Oh, you know...

Me: Yeah.

DL: Yeah.

Blech. Even E, who has a room full of still-relatively-new Christmas and birthday toys, as well as several Wii games he has hardly even played, has become a surly home-body. His attitude resembles that of a 14 year old, and lately everything that comes out of his mouth is some variation of angry.

On top of that, L and M have both been really sick lately, and only just now are getting better. All in all, it was a REALLY rough February, and March doesn't seem like it is holding much more promise right now.

I gotta figure something out.

And yes, I would like some cheese with my whine.

11/17/2010

Hero.

My brother Bob is about seven years older than me. He is the second of the seven of us, and of the three eldest of my siblings, Bob was always the one who sorta "stuck out" as being a little bit different. Our eldest brother is an academically inclined philosophy professor, and the third in line a socially adept, successful attorney. Although he followed in our father's and our oldest brother's footsteps at Marquette, Bob quickly realized that college wasn't for him. He left Marquette without a degree, and proceeded to hold several odd jobs throughout the next several years of his life. I didn't know Bob all too well throughout those years, but it always seemed to me that he was a bit lost and, despite his abilities, seemed destined to be a wanderer in search of his purpose.

What Bob lacked in a sense of purpose or direction, he has always more than made up for it with his personality. Whereever Bob goes, he quickly becomes one of the most well-liked persons in the room. When he was a kid, Bob always struggled to keep his temper under control, and he was often the "odd man out" because he was different than everyone else. Bob obviously struggled with this for much of his life (as would any of us), but at some point, he won his internal battles. He stopped trying to be what he thought others wanted him to be, and came to peace with just being himself. Bob now is one of the most genuine, gentle, and honest people I know. I admire him for his ability to put himself out there--like him or not, you know what you are getting with my brother. He welcomes the moniker bestowed on him by his nieces and nephews of "Crazy Uncle Bob"--Bob knows it's okay to be crazy, as long as you are living your life right. This is one of his strongest traits, borne of his lifelong struggle with self-acceptance, and it is a virtue that is truly hard to come by in this world.

I've always said that one of the best things that ever happened to Bob is the U.S. Army. I don't recall exactly when it occurred, but when I heard that Bob had enlisted, my first reaction was to think "Great. That will give Bob the structure that he needs to flourish." Since joining the Army, Bob has gained direction, purpose and, ironically enough (considering he is in the business of war), peace. Bob started out driving tanks, of all things. Luckily, he never saw combat while in that role, although he was stationed along the DMZ in South Korea during that time. Despite what had to be a rigorous and stressful assignment, Bob's positive personality handled it in stride. When we spoke about his role there, he would cheerfully describe his unit as the "speed bump" that Kim Jong-il's forces would have to go over, in the hope of slowing them down just long enough for reinforcements to arrive.

After returning from Korea (and forgive me if I get the timeline wrong--I'm horrible with dates!), Bob decided to re-enlist and eventually to spend his time back in the States gaining medical training--basically becoming the Army's version of a physician's assistant. Some time passed, and the inevitable happened--we learned that Bob was going to Iraq. He was stationed at a medical facility just south of Baghdad, after the end of "major hostilitites," but certainly in enough time to experience the grim realities of battle. I only saw Bob once on leave during that time and, typically, Bob downplayed what must have been an exceedingly difficult and often horrifying experience, instead choosing to look at it in a positive light.

Bob returned from Iraq in early 2009, and again re-enlisted. This past spring, I asked him again about what he had seen over in Iraq. For the first time that I could remember, Bob didn't respond with his typical optimism. Instead, he got a distant look on his face, while he told me the story of a young trooper that everyone liked that he worked on after the soldier lost a limb to a IED. While telling the story, you could see in his eyes that he was reliving it, and that he would continue to relive it for the rest of his days.

Although Bob quickly reverted to his normal happy, positive self, with that glimpse inside I realized a few things about my brother: the first being that he had gained a certain wisdom and maturity beyond his years that I may never possess--the kind of immediate understanding of life and death that can only be bestowed by the experience of war. The second thing I realized about Bob was his newfound clarity of purpose--Bob is passionate about helping to save soldiers' lives. Bob is not the type of person to be a lifelong "shooting soldier," but he is loyal to his comrades. This is the purpose of his life, and this is how he chooses to serve his country--by doing what he can to make sure her sons and daughters return home alive.

Late this spring, Bob was sent to Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he started out by resuming his duties at a medical aid station, caring for wounded soldiers. The other day, he sent all of us a long email, explaining that he had been given a new assignment, to monitor computers and coordinate the response to requests for medical help in the field. Although this is an important task, in Bob's words, "this job is pretty much driving me crazy." Bob's the type of guy who needs to "get his hands dirty," to see the visceral results of his work. Sitting at a computer monitor (a job that some of us might find very attractive considering the alternatives) is Bob's idea of hell.

In the same email, Bob told us that he, at 42 years old, has decided to put in for duty as a flight medic--the guy who rides the helicopter into combat zones to pull out the wounded soldiers. Needless to say, this is an extraordinarily dangerous job. Obviously sensing that we would need or want some explanation as to why he would choose to do this, Bob explains:
I figure for every kind of task there is in life, there are four kinds of people. There are those who can do and do; there are those who can't do it but try anyways; there are those who can do it but never try; and there are those who can't do it and don't try. I like to think that for this kind of a job, I'm part of the first group. I think that I can do it and I'm going to see if I can.

Reason why I want to do this? Because we got troops on the ground who won't make it home without people to go in and bring them home. It's as simple as that. Without the men and women that make up the MEDEVAC crews, there are a lot of young men that wouldn't be coming home. That also means that there are a lot more parents who would be grieving over the loss of their child, a lot of young wives mourning the loss of their other half, and a lot of young children who would be growing up without their daddies. And I think that's plenty enough reason to try to become one of those men and women to bring them home.
As I re-type this, tears again threaten to well up in my eyes, even though I've read it several times. In two short paragraphs, Bob shows me how far he has come from the lost and troubled youth that I grew up with. He is now a man to be reckoned with, with conviction and unwavering moral purpose, humility, gentleness, and a sense of quiet courage in life that stands as an example to us all.

After we received this extraordinary letter, DL and I were talking it over. She asked, why would he do this, at this stage of his life? I admit, I had the same questions cross my mind. This almost ensures that he would go back overseas for continued dangerous duty, and he is now engaged with plans to be married as soon as can be arranged.

E (who, like many 5-year-olds, is fascinated with soldiers and tanks and fighter jets) was listening as we were talking, and was very interested in the new job that his Uncle Bob would be doing in the Army. After making it known that he was very impressed that Bob would be flying around in a helicopter, he also asked, "why is uncle Bob going to do this?" I thought about the things Bob said in his letter, about helping his fellow soldiers, and about all the lives that would be made better when he brings a wounded man back alive.

After a pause, I told E that, simply, "Uncle Bob is going to do that job because he is a hero."

Bob, you are in my prayers everyday. Come back safe to us, because the world would truly be a worse place without you.

5/27/2010

Taking this Thing International

I just noticed on my stat counter that I appear to have a regular reader with an IP address purportedly from the Russian Federation.

That's right, baby. We've gone global.

I think I shall celebrate tonight by changing my usual nighttime ritual from drinking beer alone until the wee hours of the morning, to drinking cheap vodka from a plastic jug alone until the wee hours of the morning.

5/26/2010

Irony is a (painful) Bitch.

(This is another cycling-related post, but I promise that it will appeal to all two of my readers, regardless of their cycling prowess.)

Although I can't recall what it could be, I've obviously done something to piss off the karmic forces of this universe. Time and again, I've said or done something, only to have it come back and bite me in the ass, often in an unusual or unexpected... or painful way.

Example number 1,238 occurred over the weekend. It was a really nice weekend weatherwise, and DL and I accomplished a lot around the house, while still having time to play with the kids. One of the fun things we've been doing is teaching E how to ride the brand-spanking new bike that he got for Christmas. Actually, it's been mostly DL doing the teaching (again with her super psychological powers). This has kind of wounded my pride a bit, as I consider myself a cyclist, and as I think I should therefore be in the best position to teach my 5 year old how to ride his first real bike.

However, you can't argue with the results. After only a few sessions with DL, E is balancing, pedaling, starting and stopping on his own, with relatively little work. One such session was Saturday, where we went to the local park to play on the playground/watch E tool around on the basketball court. As we were finishing up, I saw a kid riding by on his bike, some distance away. I remarked to DL that you could tell that his bike was put together by an idiot, because the fork was installed backwards (unfortunately, this is a relatively common occurrence when cheap bikes are put together by people working at the big-box stores). DL was all, "how can you tell that from here?" And I was all, "trust me, I work on my bikes all the time, and I think I should know what it looks like when a bike is put together wrong." I hate to admit it, but I probably came off as a bit of a snob about it, although that wasn't my intent.

Anyway, fast forward to Sunday, where E was having another session of riding his bike around on the street in front of my house. I and DL, DL's sister, grandma, and the rest of the kids were out as well to watch him and encourage him. I was pretty excited to be able to ride with him, so I got out my trusty singlespeed mountain bike that I had built from the ground up a few years back. It's my "project bike," and it usually inherits all of the older parts from my other mountain bike as I replace them.

I had just done some work on the bike, so I was happy to be getting it out and riding it again. I tooled around a bit with E, and we had a lot of fun. Of course, I then decided that I needed to impress everyone with my mad skillz, so I started hopping curbs, doing little bunny hops, etc.

Well, on about the fourth of fifth curb, my front tire hit kind of awkwardly and turned sideways--not too big of a deal, except for the fact that the handlebars stayed pointing straight. The bike stopped and I went OTB (over the bars), landing in the middle of the road with a crunch on my right side, with the bike on top of me.

Ugh. Irony strikes again.

After making sure that I hadn't suffered any worse injuries than a few bruises, DL was kind enough to voice exactly what was going through my head: "You know," she said with a wry smile, "it's kind of funny that the guy who was bragging about being a good bike mechanic yesterday just had a nasty spill, because he didn't do a good job putting his bike together."

Thanks, hon, for pointing that out.

Perhaps the funniest part of the episode occurred after it was over. Walking back up the driveway, the rest of the family gathered around to see if I was okay. "Yeah, I'm fine," I responded, "the most painful thing is my bruised ego."

To which my four year old nephew promptly responded, "whoah, can we see it?"

4/23/2010

NOW CAN I GET SOME FREE STUFF?

I'm constantly bugging a friend who works at Trek over in Waterloo to start comping me free stuff. I tell her that I'd be happy to ride it hard and put up a review on this here website. To her credit, she has yet to succumb, probably because I'm a mediocre rider and she knows that nobody really would care what I have to say, as evidenced by the lack of readership of this blog.

However, to show my good faith, I thought I'd review some new swag that my friend has helped me procure over the past few weeks--a new tubeless wheel setup. First, a pic of the old girl with her new shoes:


Previous equipment: 2003 Bontrager Select wheels with 2.35 Klein Deathgrip wire bead tires and tubes.

New equipment: 2010 Bontrager race lite wheel system; Bontrager tubeless wheel strips; 2.2" Bontrager XR4 Expert TLR tire on the front; 2.1" Bontrager XR2 Expert TLR tire on the back; Shimano six bolt centerlock adapters.

I loved my old Klein deathgrips, and I was sorry to see at the end of last season that they had finally come to the end of their lives. Since I had to replace them, I thought I might as well try to shave some weight, too.

I was looking to find a tire with a similar tread pattern to get the same kind of grip in front. While not identical, the tread pattern on the XR4 is similar to the DG's, although the knobs are a bit deeper and spaced wider apart. While I didn't actually measure it, the tire seems a bit wider than 2.2 when inflated to 25psi, but definitely not as wide as my old 2.35 DG's.

While mimicking the grip of my old DG's was my main goal in front, I was really looking to shed weight on the back wheel. The suspension componentry on the tail end of my bike makes it slightly heavy to begin with, so there were times when I felt like the bike was dragging me backwards on steep inclines. So I went with the 2.1 XR2 in back, since it shaved a bit more weight as compared to the XR4, while still maintaining a reasonably aggressive tread pattern. Unlike the XR4, the XR2 looks like a 2.1 when inflated to 25psi.

The main way that I shed weight was with the new wheel system. The old Selects that came with the bike were very sturdy and are still serviceable (they will continue to be of service on my SS), but they were pretty heavy. I probably cut about 350-400 grams on the wheels, while shaving another 150 grams per tire over my old setup (even taking the centerlock adapters into account). Good stuff.

Installation: I used soapy water liberally applied to the wheels and the tires, but I still had to use some gentle nudges with a tire lever to get the last ten inches of the bead onto the rim. After getting the tires on, I removed the core of the schraeder valves and squirted 100 ml's of the Bontrager super juice into the tire (more than the minimum recommendation, but the manual says to add more to help seal small punctures). After replacing the core, I was able to easily inflate the tires with several quick pumps on the floor pump. Both front and back sealed almost instantly, although the XR2 hissed for a few seconds before sealing all the way around. I spun the wheels to distribute the super juice, and then took the bike for a ten minute ride around the neighborhood (as recommended), and I was set. There was no discernable air loss the next day. Sweet!

Okay, on to the actual riding. I tested out my new stuff at Glacial Blue Hills Park in West Bend. The terrain is fairly typical for southeastern Wisconsin--tight twisty singletrack through the woods, with constant short but steep climbs and descents, and littered with roots and rocks. It was about 55 degrees and trail conditions were optimal-tacky hardpack with no mud or standing water.

I'd been sick with a head cold and a cough all week, so I wasn't feeling my best, and I had done no physical activity for a while. But, I decided to give it a go anyway. Imagine my surprise when I shot up the first ascent like it was hardly even there. Accelleration was noticably faster, and I didn't feel the "drag" that I had felt on the same ascent previously. I attribute this to the lower weight of the race lite rims, as well as the advantages of the tubeless ready tires. The wheels were stiff and felt more solid than my old set, and the hubs spun smoothly.

As for the tires themselves, I was extremely pleased with the XR4 on the front. Granted, conditions were nearly perfect, but I didn't feel the tire slip once. I was able to take hairpin turns with confidence and at speed. There wasn't much mud, but nevertheless I didn't notice any dirt packing up between the knobs. The XR2 in back also performed well. I had no issues with spinning out while climbing, and the lower weight of the tire and the bontrager tubeless system contributed to the difference in accelleration. However, there were times when going around tight corners at speed where the tire slipped out from under me a bit. This may not have been due to the tire: I had the tire inflated to about 27psi, and I have a bad habit of over-using my rear brake. Next ride, I'll try to run it at a bit lower pressure (and lay off the brake!) and see how it goes.

Overall, I was extremely pleased with the new setup. The bike feels far more nimble and responsive. I am a pretty happy camper.

(One short note on the Shimano centerlock adapters: if you have the choice, just go with centerlock rotors. The adapters allow the rotors to jiggle a tiny bit. I got used to it, but it was a little annoying at first).

3/31/2010

Ode to the Jerks Riding the Milwaukee River Trails in the Middle of a Sunny Warm Weekday



I see you, you college kids, you jobless losers, you carefree individuals.

I see you riding your new mountain bike at the north trailhead of the West Side Milwaukee River trail on this gorgeous 70 degree March day, all pasty white and gasping for air as a result of too much time on the couch this winter.

I see you riding past my parking lot... past ME... but I am invisible to you. If you notice me at all, your thoughts are likely, "HA! Look at that stiff in the tie! Glad I'm not him!" (On days like this I wish I was not me, either).

I know that you are laughing at me, as I stare wistfully down at you from my third floor office window, secretly wishing that I could BE you, even as I disdain you.

Watching you, I can almost smell the earth drinking in the warm sunshine, and can almost feel the breeze rippling my jersey.

I resent you for having what I cannot have; I am so friggin' jealous of you.

Give a wave to the third floor, for Fish your brother is watching.

"Ride on!" I cry, "Ride on! I am with you in spirit, if not in body!"



fin