Thursday, June 26, 2008

Bicycles, One Year Later

“You know, we really don’t need more than three speeds on a bicycle.” So said my friend as we rode to the riverbanks. This was 21 years ago. I had just dropped $1000 on a bike with 18 gear configurations. His bike was a spanky 12 speed. And he was right: for Winnipeg riding, most healthy young adults will be well served by three gears.

I moved to Toronto shortly after that. It's a city of many hills plus a ravine or two, if you’re up to it. I now resorted to a total of seven gear configurations. The trouble was, these seven configurations required three gears on the chainwheel and four on the freewheel. That’s how we end up owning 12-speed bicycles.

My friend’s observation snickered in the back halls of my memory when I had my conversation with a guy at this shop last summer. The fellow I talked to was in the business of making bicycles for Winnipeg, and he was loathe to install any sort of derailleur system at all. Derailleurs are touchy devices: they require constant readjustment, no matter how many “improvements” are made to the technology. I could see the beauty of his argument, but the style of riding I wanted to do and the locale I was going to be doing it in required some gearing flexibility, so I went with an 18-speed bike.

The hills I face look pretty manageable, don’t they? The guy I bought the Jake from said it was perfect for touring, and showed me a picture of a customer riding one in the Canadian Rockies. She’d apparently taken it from the West Coast to the East.

I can’t quite believe it — at least, not with the gearing my bike has. It’s technically a competition bicycle, so even on these weenie hills, I find myself struggling to make it up the grade on my lowest gear. Granted, I’m a 43-year-old male working on increasing his lung capacity, but I still can’t imagine that young lady grinding up the mountains of British Columbia using the standard-issue gearing. Conversely, I’ve yet to use the Jake’s highest gear. Perhaps it’s the gravel surface (plus the occasionally startled deer or bear) that prevents me from throwing all caution to the wind, but I get alarmed at the speeds I reach as I hurtle down the hills, and I’m usually three gears away from the top. Note to self: should I attempt anything longer than a day’s journey, I’ll probably want lower gearing.

Derailleur adjustment is something I seem to be doing more of with this bicycle than I did with my last. I’m also not too crazy about the shifting system. For one thing, the location is a little inconvenient: you twist the brake levers or thumb the shifter on the inside of the lever hood. This has to be done with your hands on top of the bars, as opposed to inside the drop bars, where you generally want to be as you prepare to zoom downhill. For another, shifters are “indexed” these days: the rider punches and clicks the gear combo he wants, and — ka-chunk! — Bob’s-yer-uncle. Again, this is a very nice shifting system to have if you’re in competition; so long as it’s combined with a finely-tuned derailleur it will save you many precious split-seconds. For my purposes, however, I can’t help but think fondly back to...

...those old friction shifters. *sigh* It took some time to acquire a feel for the gearing combinations, but once you’d adjusted the extreme ends of the shifting spectrum (and let’s face it: if you’re riding hills, that’s where the majority of your gearing resides anyway) your maintenance work was done — usually for months afterward. As for shifter position, just a few inches south on the down tube was darn near perfect no matter how you gripped the handlebars.

Speaking of handlebars, another look at the Jake's reveals an irony I rather enjoy:

See those little silver brake levers? If you’re a cyclist of a certain age, they’ll remind you of this:

Oh, how gauche those levers were — in 1985! Those were kiddy-brakes, a mere half-step removed from training wheels. If you had ‘em on your bike, you were a dilettante and not a serious cyclist — in 1985. My, how times have changed (although it’s worth noting that the old brake levers were not good in emergencies, and that the new brake levers are actually tighter than the ones on the drop bars).

Alright, enough kvetching. The bottom line is, I love riding this babylove it. It is far and away the lightest, fastest bicycle I have owned. Once I get on it, I don’t want to get off, even after an hour-and-a-half of country hills. The frame geometry is more stable than the Sekine’s, and more comfortable, too. As with my beloved Fisher, the Jake's wheels absorb the bulk of the shock and are built to withstand unbelievable punishment — certainly far more than I take on with these washboard roads. On the other hand, aluminum is noticeably more rigid than chromoly steel, so I’ll be curious to see what shape the frame is in some 15 years from now.

Now all it needs is a gun-rack, for those pesky bears....

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Introducing Old Spies To New Readers (And Viewers)

Agent 86 [Maxwell Smart] was a little boy who would go into flights of fancy and flights of empowerment but who really didn't think things through very carefully. Siegfried was [slips into Siegfried's voice] contemptuous, he vas supercilious, he always had za answer, und everyone was not as good as he vas [resuming regular voice] — but he was defeated by Max 100% of the time. And I can just imagine little kids saying, “Yippee! We bested the bad authority!” -- Bernie Kopell ("Siegfried"), interviewed.

Were we to apply the same analysis to James Bond, we might have to amend “little boy” to “adolescent boy,” but otherwise the template fits. And Sebastian Faulks adheres to the template, as laid out originally by Ian Fleming. Faulks' The Devil May Care (Amazon) takes place in the late 60s and Bond is in recovery. He's reeling. He's been the convenient punching bag for one too many villains, and he lost his wife in a botched attempt on his own life. Worse than that, the Rat Pack is now a bunch of has-beens.

Against this backdrop Bond is called into duty, and performs to spec: he beats the bad guy in an early competition of wits, corrects an incompetent French waiter, snoops around a certified lair of evil while wearing nothing but his bathing suit — then receives the sort of physical punishment that kills most mortals.... I won't bother with the rest, because what matters is the entertainment factor. And I was as entertained by Faulks as I ever was by Fleming, which is to say: fair to middling.

It's possible that, as Michael Dirda suggests, Faulks stuck to the Fleming template just a little too closely. Even when I was a kid reading the Bond books for the first time I had the impression that the author finished the books in a state of exhaustion, not exhilaration; the dramatic high-water mark is usually achieved shortly after the halfway point, when Bond is captured and tortured. How he survives and escapes makes for a spellbinding read. The long slog back to his Jamaican retreat and the girl beneath the mosquito netting, however, is just that — a slog — and little more.

Faulks understands the appeal of Bond's physical torment, and pulls that narrative as tautly as Fleming ever did. He also takes advantage of Fleming's penchant for lectures. Again and again Bond receives accounts of the British Empire ruining the rest of the world while in pursuit of their own benefit and pleasure. In fact the villain's chief motivation is to punish Empire Britannia for her imperial transgressions. Bond doesn't bother to counter the accusations with rhetoric of his own, or even to register that he's heard the complaint. As he gets closer to his goal of defeating and killing the villain, he accrues a few personal motivations, but even those aren't particularly deep-seeded. His response is basically, “I don't care: you're going down.” Again: vintage Fleming.

But again, as the book winds down to its complete full stop, so does the author. I get the impression that Faulks considered the new assignment a bit of a lark, which is too bad. Had he applied himself a little differently, he might have actually improved the Fleming template.

As for Agent 86, the movie looks like it's a mess. I can't say I'm surprised: recapturing the charm of the original Get Smart television series is a nearly impossible feat. Kopell has it right: Max is a little boy surrounded by adults. With good direction Steve Carrell could probably hit the right “little boy” notes. The trickier role is Agent 99. In the show's first episode, when Barbara Feldon is introduced as Max's co-agent he looks her up and down and says, “Why you're a girl!” as if he can't decide whether to be insulted or completely twitterpated. 86 may be a little boy, but 99 is his babysitter — and no-one falls harder for a 16-year-old babysitter than an eight-year-old boy. What makes the predicament so delicious is the notion of near possibility: play your cards right, and the babysitter might just fall for you (and then what do you do?).

If there's a Hollywood writer who understands that, I've yet to make their acquaintance — Stephen Spielberg is probably the last director to get in touch with his inner-eight-year-old, and on this score he's getting a little creaky. But let's say the Get Smart movie-makers have the naif-babysitter mix just right: what are the chances they've peppered it with biting political-social commentary?

No, it's best to just stick with the original series — which is, to date, still the best DVD investment I've made on behalf of our family.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Why "Dat Dah-Dat Dah-Dat" Is So Uniquely Canadian

Okay, like, today’s topic is going to be about that strange confluence between public policy and private initiative that produces uniquely Canadian cultural cornerstones. And if you’re too much of a hoser to know who I’m channeling, you better go here, eh?

I don’t know how big the McKenzie Brothers got in the States, but in 1980s Canada they were HUUUUUUUGE. And they can’t have been unknown Stateside, because it got to the point where I couldn’t even attend a stadium rock concert without the singer and the drummer exchanging at least one, “Take off, eh?” The way the audience erupted, you’d have thought the drummer had just finished a marathon solo. This one-note shtick developed by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas is what qualifies, still, as a Canadian cultural cornerstone.

Another, even larger, cultural cornerstone for us Canuckle-heads is the Hockey Night In Canada theme song. As of this posting there isn’t a link to its most recognizable form: the opening of the show. That’s because the copyright issues surrounding the theme are contentious in the extreme — so contentious, in fact, that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, who originally commissioned and for the last 40 years made exclusive use of the song, just lost it to a private sector broadcaster, the CTV. This is VERY BIG NEWS up here in the Great White North. There are any number of blow-by-blow accounts of what really happened, but the gist of it is the song’s composer, Dolores Claman, did not consider the income she was receiving to be commensurate with the popularity of the ditty.

And it is very popular. If you’re not Canadian, and you can’t wrap your head around why a TV theme song has become a national treasure, head over to the CBC website and check out Stand Up In Kandahar. It’s one of the Corp's finer concepts: fly a few Canadian stand-up comedians to entertain the troops in Afghanistan, then film the proceedings. The video highlights at the bottom of the page are all worth a look, but I want to direct you to Tim Nutt. Go on and give it a click, then come back and read the rest.

Welcome back. That’s why that little ditty is a big deal. Canadians all know it by heart, the rest of you do not, it’s “ours” — end of story.

Getting back to Bob and Doug: their creation came about when the suits at the CRTC came down to the studio and told the SCTV crew they didn’t have enough Canadian content in their material. Moranis and Thomas responded with, “You want Canadian content, we’ll give you Canadian content.” And that’s how we got two toque-clad, beer swilling idiots who couldn’t tell their right foot from their left lecturing the world about, like, why it’s so great to be Canadian, eh?

In his "official" history of SCTV, Thomas' contempt for the CRTC and their idiot demands is palpable. There is, of course, a double irony that boomerangs back on him: the McKenzie Brothers went on to become internationally recognized SCTV characters. Had it not been for the CRTC, none of this would have happened.

It sucks to be the square who enforces the rules, even when it's the right thing to do. Three million dollars is chickenfeed for a song like this, even to a public broadcaster. But when the CBC let it go to the private sector, they did the right thing. The song is still "out there" — it just moved to another Canadian broadcaster. As for the CBC, no Canadian hockey fan is going to stop watching HNIC just because the theme song changed.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Today's Kirk-Spock Mash-Up

Every bit as brilliant as this one, and AMSFW -- Altogether More Suitable For Work (so long as the volume isn't too high, and you're not dancing to it).

Via boing-boing.

Gratuitous Hockey Post

This morning there are 29 coaches whose first item of business is placing a phone call to their tech crew and ordering a copy of every single game the Detroit Red Wings played this season. That will mean spending a lot of time in front of a bank of television screens even though the golf course beckons, but there is simply no alternative. At some point this season Detroit gelled into a team that was fated to win the Stanley Cup.

I composed fewer Gratuitous Hockey Posts this year than I have others, and I blame Detroit for that. The excitement factor, for this viewer, was limited entirely to the first game in each series. Did the Nashville Predators have any surprises for Detroit? Not really. The Avs were a talented, albeit injured, crew: could they rattle the Wings? Nope. Okay, Dallas: whattaya got? Um ... nothing?

If coach Mike Babcock looked unflappable, it was because he had no reason to look anything but. Detroit was a machine. They didn't just play a deep, offensive game: they routinely left their opponents skating behind them as they pummeled their goalie with shots. The way Babcock's team was playing, he could have watched the games from home -- along with the bulk of Detroit's fans, who seemed to find the prospect of an 11th Stanley Cup win about as exciting as the rest of us.

This was the team that deserved to win the cup, no doubt about it. I just hope the rest of the league does its homework, because if someone doesn't throw a cog into that machine, the Wings will be gearing up for a long, predictable, extended Stanley Cup legacy.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Pneumonia, One Year Later

One year ago I was sitting out on our porch, with my wife and daughters and a few members of my wife's extended family. My father in law was just getting over an incredibly nasty chest cold, which still reduced him to heavy fits of coughing that concluded with a nasty rattle. I sat in my deck chair, nursing my drink and silently wondering what the odds were of me dodging that bullet.

Not good, as it turned out. The chest cold hit me, and settled in for the long haul. Shortly into my first week of the cold, I had to take my younger daughter to an oral surgeon to get a blocked saliva duct removed. It's a minor in-and-out surgery, but when I drove her home I felt like an emotional basket-case. I attributed my soppiness to the unwanted specter of seeing my eight-year-old lying in a dentist's chair with a gas-mask strapped to her face, and chose to focus on the long drive home.

It really did feel, though, like something in my disease had turned on a dime that very day. Eventually, after one misdiagnoses, I was told I had diffuse pneumonia.

Other sufferers can provide you with a blow-by-blow account of this affliction. For me, there were two conversational exchanges that summed up my experience. The first was courtesy of a visit from two friends, who came right over when they were informed of my condition. The first thing they said to me was, “Don't be surprised — and above all please don't get discouraged — if it takes a year or two before you feel like you're back to normal.”

Those were far and away the most useful words I heard. As recently as March I still spent the early part of the morning coughing up gobs of milky white phlegm — 10 months of waking up with a smoker's cough. The cough was just the most obvious physical manifestation of pneumonia. It is, after all, a respiratory infection, and that affects everything in a person.

Which brings me to the second exchange: in the fall a friend asked me if, after I'd recovered from the worst of the infection, I'd experienced any depression. Answer: yep.

In hindsight, the only surprise to any of this is that any of it caught me by surprise at all. Forty-two year old male, fannying about with this and that, figuring I could still live like a kid, albeit with a few superficial changes — if it wasn't pneumonia, I was surely going to get hit with something else. So, yes: with recovery came depression. Not a “I can't get out of bed” depression; more like a “I seem to have lost my bearings” depression. Since I was ambivalent about my bearings to begin with, this matter remains more profound than I generally let on. My mode has been to speak discretely to a select few, and otherwise just keep my head down and mull in silence (hardly a surprise, if you've followed this blog for the last year). I can't yet report that I am on the other side of that experience.

Helpful elements: the presence of family and friends; a local herbalist who has given me various concoctions and dietary advice throughout (I adhere more stringently to some recommendations than I do to others: wheat and dairy are big no-nos for anyone with respiratory woes, as is alcohol. So much for cheeseburgers and beer); and finally, skating at Christmastime and bicycling the rest of the year — because there is nothing that lifts the spirit, or expands lung capacity, like self-propelled gliding motion.