Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Riding the white line

This winter has been a non-event this year in the Old Dominion. 

I hesitate to write that because I feel like when it’s published, Mother Nature will come at me with a vengeance and we’ll all suffer for it.  I’ll chance it, I guess.

What’s been great for all of us is the experience of extended autumness.  Sure, it’s cold first thing in the morning but by afternoon the temperature sneaks up to something that feels like fall or maybe early spring.  As a result, golf courses have been crowded with golfers trying out their Christmas presents, runners are pounding out the miles, and cyclists are spinning along the roads and trails.

Quite a few of these people are out there as a result of New Year’s Resolutions, having sworn to lose weight or get back in shape this year.  I hope the weather stays nice if for no other reason than I’d hate to see them fall back off the wagon.  It’s difficult enough to build habits and maintain discipline without the weather foiling your plans.

As a fairly new member of the cycling family, I’ve been taking advantage of the weather whenever I can.  I’m not a fan of riding when it drops below about 40 degrees because I just end up being miserable.  I guess that makes me a bit of a wuss.  At that temperature, my fingers and toes are really hurting by the time I wheel back into the driveway and I just can’t make myself go buy more accessories for the brief cold snaps that are typical of winter in Virginia.  I’ll just go to the gym, thanks.  I do, however, find myself missing a ride.

This past Saturday, I was really jazzed to jump on my bike for a couple of hours.  The temperature was in the mid-50s, there was a little wind but it wasn’t steady, and the sky was that perfect, stark blue that you only see in January.  Part of the excitement was due to a post I read on another blog about the hypnotic effect of the white line.  The blog is fatcyclist.com if you want to go explore the adventures of Fatty; he is a little different than most of us based on what he’s gone through.  He entertains me, though, and that’s why I read him.

So, Fatty recently blogged about how he is one of those road cyclists who stare at the white line while riding and, as a result, misses a lot of really cool things that happen while he’s out there.  He asked his readers to weigh in and we are not alone, evidently.

It’s easy to do!  Road bikes tend to put you in a position where looking down is just easier to do.  Holding your head in an upright position can be painful on your neck and upper back muscles.  (I’m thinking it’s because of my riding position, the fact that my bike hasn’t been professionally fitted to me, and the weight of my knowledge is just difficult to bear....okay, it’s because I haven’t built up the muscles yet.  I get it.)

When you’re trying to take up as little space as possible because you’re sharing the road with two ton vehicles, you tend to think of that white line as part of your defense.  As long as you’re on it, or very close to it, you have much less chance of having your speed suddenly increased by a wayward fender or rear view mirror.  So, you keep it in your view and under your wheels.

Moving on.

As a result of Fatty’s post, I decided to be intentional about my viewing habits during Saturday’s ride.  I was going to spend two hours or so in the saddle.  Instead of going mind numb through white line hypnosis, I would look around and see what there was to see.  Yogi Berra’s old line, “You can observe a lot just by watching!” was resonating with me.

The first few miles were uneventful.  So much so that I had to make myself stop staring down at the white line.  I kept reminding myself to look up and around at the world. 

At first, there wasn’t much to see that I hadn’t already seen from behind the steering wheel of my car.  A couple of “For Sale” signs that I hadn’t noticed yet.  There was a really nice addition underway on a very small house.  I became much more aware of the condition of the pavement, more broken here, nice and smooth there.  There’s a really bad patch job over there and that edge is broken off on the other side of the road.  Freshly painted white line on this stretch…oh shoot, I’m doing it again.  Gotta look up!

It finally began to pay off as I rounded a bend in the road and came out from behind a stand of evergreen trees.  A gust of wind hit me in the face.  I mumbled my usual wind epithet and pushed to keep my revolutions up.  As I passed into the shade again, the wind subsided.  I realized that I could gauge when I was going to be protected from the wind by the trees and suddenly, I was looking for, and at, trees! 

Once in a while, no breeze would hit me as I rode into the open.  When that happened, I would silently rejoice.  A couple of times the wind hit me when I was in a grove of hardwoods and I realized it was probably because they had no leaves to block the wind.  I was suddenly wishing for spring’s arrival to test my new theory.
Around another bend, I looked up and caught a glimpse of the road ahead as it winds back and forth twice and then disappears up the hill and around the next bend.  I realized that this section of the road, with a little country church and cemetery on the left, a farmer’s field with cows on the right was really pretty.  It looked like a picture from a cycling magazine of “pastoral rides in the Piedmont” or something.  I found myself wishing I had a camera but then realized I’d probably fall off the bike trying to take the shot.  That would ruin the day! 

I committed it to memory with a promise to myself to watch and contrast how the image changes during the seasons.

About three more miles down the road, I saw something really amazing.  I caught a glimpse of a large bird out of the corner of my eye.  Turned out to be a hawk.  It was about twenty feet off the ground and just starting to pull out of a dive with its talons out.  As I watched, it continued to the ground where it snatched a small animal out of the grass – in midflight! – and continued to fly on, straining to carry it away.  The hawk flew at right angles across my path and was at an altitude of about thirty feet, about thirty meters in front of me when it dropped its prey.  The field mouse (that’s what it looked like) landed on the edge of the pavement and bounced into the grass.  I wasn’t able to watch the hawk’s next move so I don’t know if it went back to harvest the kill or if the mouse survived the fall and scurried off, or if everything returned to the way it had been a moment before.

But it wasn’t the way it had been a moment before. 

My brain was flooded with thoughts about everything from the brutality of nature to the amazing flight characteristics of large raptors to wondering if that mouse had survived the capture and subsequent fall.  Had it squirmed out of the hawk’s grasp or had he dropped it because he was struggling to maintain flight?

And I realized, I was changed.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Pool - it's an addiction....

I play pool.  It’s one of the things I really like to do, especially when I’m playing well.  When I’m playing badly it makes me nuts.  Not nuts enough to quit altogether, although I’ve threatened to do so many times, but nuts enough to stop for shorter periods of time.  Like a day.  Okay, maybe an hour.

I think anything that has that much of your attention is healthy and unhealthy at the same time.

The game of pool has been around since the 1600s and was originally played by royalty.  Legend has it that royalty wanted a game to play indoors when the weather didn’t allow for the playing of croquet.  Pool was originally played like croquet on a table top.  The green cloth on a pool table is meant to mimic the grass of a croquet field.
I’ve been in pool rooms where the tables were about as well kept as a croquet field, come to think of it.

The reasons I like the game so much are many.  It’s incredibly exacting; the difference between a good shot and a bad one are sometimes measured in microns.  There are times when you’ve hit a shot so perfectly and it still doesn’t go in and you can only wonder what you did to cause that.  That’s another reason I love it; causation.  When I’m at the table, I’m responsible.  My success or failure is all on me and my skills, not my opponent’s ability to defend.  I like to be responsible.

Like golfers, pool players have no one to blame but themselves.  That doesn’t stop us.  Some of the best excuses I’ve ever heard have been in a pool room.  Sometimes, to keep our sanity, pool players won’t own up to mistakes.  We attribute things to the “pool gods” or bad rolls.  There’s even a theory that we’re on a large ball that is traveling at several thousand miles per hour, while spinning at a thousand or so miles an hour and then you hit a ball into another ball and each of them has some spin; it’s a wonder one ever goes into a pocket on purpose!

I always blame myself because I didn’t see anyone else hanging on to my cue. 

I also like the varieties of games that can be played on a pool table.  There are dozens of different games, all with their own nuances.  Eight ball is the one seen in most public places with nine ball a close second.  They’re completely different games in that one is about cue ball movement and offense (nine ball) while the other is about patterns and choices (eight ball). 

One pocket is often described as chess on a pool table; it’s very popular among players that like to play for money and is one of those games that require a lot of playing time to learn.  A knowledgeable player can often win against a more talented player that doesn’t know the game’s subtleties which makes for some interesting matches. 

Straight pool, officially known as 14.1, is a game that blends all of the pieces of good play into one contest.  It’s also making a comeback after a long hiatus in the pool world.  I saw several younger players at my local pool room playing a game to 150 the other night and that made me smile.  It was fun watching them work to wrap their head around a pattern of their own choosing instead of connect the dots as happens in a nine ball game.  The difference is like trying to paint something by Monet on a blank canvas instead of paint by numbers.  Not everyone can do it.

There’s even a game called billiards played on a table with no pockets and three balls.  The object is to shoot a cue ball into another ball that then strikes three cushions while traveling around the table before striking the third ball.  This scores the shooter a point or billiard.  A really good player may do this five or six times in a row.  The first time I tried it, I had a no hitter going for almost an hour.  It’s a very difficult game and beautiful to watch when played well.

There’s the perception that pool is a game played by seedy individuals in places your mama wouldn’t want you to be.  This reputation is earned to some degree, I guess.  The financial aspect of running a pool room dictates that you can’t put one in an upscale mall.  As a result, they tend to be placed in “lower rent districts” and may attract more of a blue collar clientele.  Having spent plenty of time in pool rooms around the country over a forty year span, I can tell you that the folks that play there are just like you and me, however.  The demographic may be different than your own.  The conversations may be more colorful that what you hear at home.  But the concerns they have, the laughs they share, and the celebrations of success are just as genuine as those in any board room in the country.

My local pool room has been around for about twenty years.  On many occasions, when a regular has passed away or had some bad luck, a large glass jar appears on the front counter with the person’s picture and a quick note that describes what’s happened.  In almost no time at all, the jar is full of money that is used to offset expenses.  I’m always impressed by how quickly people will respond in a crisis and how deep they’ll dig into an almost empty pocket to share what they have.

I’m a league player and even run the league that I play in.  It’s an eight ball league with anywhere from fifty to one hundred members.  It’s one of the most competitive leagues I’ve ever seen with no quarter given to anyone.  And in all the years I’ve run or played in it, I’ve seen very good sportsmanship practiced by the members.  There are exceptions, of course, as there always are.  But these are often managed by the other players in the league and require little direction from me.  That speaks well of the game, in my opinion.

My league has players from all occupations and all age groups.  I’ve had players from eighteen to eighty five years of age.  I’ve had unemployed laborers, plumbers, executives, college professors, lawyers, real estate tycoons, bikers, roofers, tow truck drivers, sales people, and dentists play in my league.  That’s a colorful group!  And they all interact as you might expect because they have differing beliefs, values, politics, families, diets, and behaviors.  But they unite over the game of pool.

We all play the game because we all love it.  And hate it.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Would Dr. King be pleased? Surprised?

I’m writing this on Martin Luther King Day and I find myself thinking about how far we have to go instead of how far we’ve come. 

Don’t misunderstand me.  I don’t claim to know what it’s like to be discriminated against.  I’ve pretty much lived a life without any kind of isms against me; I was raised in the suburbs in a lower middle class family (blue collar) and don’t recall ever being told I couldn’t do anything because of who I am, how I look or how much I make. 

I may have felt uncomfortable from time to time, spending time with people who I felt were better off than me but that was my own bias, not theirs.  I felt slightly downtrodden when I was unemployed the last time because it felt as if no one was hiring middle aged people when there were plenty of younger people willing to work for less money.  Once again, it turned out to be my own feelings instead of the facts; no one was hiring anyone, really, so we were all in the same boat.  There were also so many people looking for work that it was easy to look for something else to blame.  Like most humans, I did.  Hey, it’s called human nature for a reason.

I guess I’m kind of ashamed to be living in an age where, after all the time and effort that has passed since Dr. King told us about his dream, we still have a lot of folks living in a discriminated state.  And look, I realize we have biases.  Some of them we aren’t even aware.  You don’t think you have any?  I guarantee you do!  We all do.  If you’re overweight, you may have a bias against skinny people.  If you’re educated, you may have one against those who couldn’t be bothered to graduate from high school.  If you’ve a blue collar worker, you may have one against white collar workers.  See?  It’s not just race or gender.  We all see people who are different from us as being different from us.  If you believe Dave Barry, the only thing we, as Americans, seem to have in common is that we all believe we’re all above-average drivers.  (I believe the opposite is true as long as we hold our cell phones while driving but that’s another post.)

But when legislation is enacted to discriminate against groups of people, that is when I feel the shame.  In my home state marriage has been legislated to be strictly between a man and a woman, effectively making it illegal to two women to marry and for two men to marry.  Further legislation and / or decisions/rules have made it impossible for homosexual couples to adopt children together.  These both seem incredibly sad and morally wrong to me.

The religious right (which has always seemed an oxymoron to me) appears to have driven this agenda forward with the belief that homosexuality is a choice, and a really bad one to hear them tell it.  This group seems to think that, “if only those poor misguided souls would choose differently, there wouldn’t be a problem here.”

I desperately want to ask, “If you had a choice to go along with society and be allowed to have every opportunity available to you or go against society and have many opportunities taken away, would you ever take the latter?”  Because that’s really the “choice” that homosexuals are making.  I don’t believe it’s a choice, anymore than I “choose” to be heterosexual.  I simply am heterosexual.  They simply are homosexual.  We’re different, at least on this issue.

If you believe it’s a choice, do you recall ever making the choice to be heterosexual?  This seems like one of those big life choice deals, to me, and you ought to remember it!  I don’t remember it.  I’m going to guess you don’t remember it either.  Why?  Because it’s not a choice!  It’s just the way we are. 
And because it’s the way we are I don’t believe it’s fair to discriminate against those who are different than the majority.

Some folks think that homosexuality is an “act against nature.”  They must not pay close attention to National Geographic or the Discovery Channel.  There are constant examples of homosexuality in nature, not just in humans but in darn near every species.  I don’t think that argument holds water.

Some folks say it’s a sin.  If it is, why didn’t it make the top 10, you know the Ten Commandments?  Look, I’m not a Bible thumper so don’t go by me on this one but I don’t recall anything from my study of the book about this.  I’m sure someone will enlighten me.  The thing is, if you believe in God and you believe that he created all things and you believe that everything he creates is perfect I don’t see why you’d have a problem with this.  Oh, right, it all goes back to the “it’s a choice” argument, doesn’t it?  That’s what makes it a sin.  I guess we’re going to have to disagree on this one.  Which makes us different from one another, again. 

And that’s where I started this essay, pointing out that all of us have biases against others that are based on differences.  I’m pretty sure I didn’t cover any new ground but I got it off my chest and that’s why I write, sometimes.
Now, if I could just get some of these laws repealed………..