Saturday, February 18, 2012

He who dies with the most toys wins?

Unfortunately, they still die.

Like a lot of guys, I like toys.  I like power tools, high quality hand tools, guitars (that I can’t play very well) cars that are fun to drive, and new golf clubs.  There’s something about teeing up a golf ball and taking a swing with a new driver that launches the ball into low earth orbit that brings a huge grin to my face.  (Note to self – go play more golf this year.)

That said, I don’t think I spend a whole lot on them. 

I haven’t bought a new car in over twenty years, for example, preferring instead to buy decent used cars and driving them until they’re ready to be donated to a local charity.  We have one cream puff of a 1995 Buick that I got from a friend a few years back.  It had about 65K miles on it when I bought it in 2005; used to be his company car.  I got it for our daughters to drive but they hated it so I drove it for 5 or 6 years as my primary vehicle until putting it out to pasture as our “last resort” car when someone is home from college.  The car’s name is Reggie; all our cars are named by our middle daughter and she saw this one as a stuffy, older English gentleman.  My current car is a 10 year old BMW convertible named Franz.  We’ve also had Garth (Nissan pickup truck) Vivica (My Bride’s Chrysler) Penny (MB’s Mazda) and Frank (my pickup truck).  

Driveway is kind of weird, now that I think about it.

Anyway, I don’t spend a lot on toys.  I only buy new tools when I need them although I’m sure MB would say that’s because I already own at least one of each anyway.  Since my golf game is infrequent these days most of my purchases are for golf balls.  I’ve got enough guitars for the rest of my life.  I can’t say that I need any more pool equipment although I do have an eye out for a particular custom cue if the price is right.  (It won’t ever be I’m sure.)

So it was a bit of an anomaly this past week for me when I took my road bike and got a tune up.  I bought this Giant CFR3, circa 1996, for $200 off Craigslist back in October and have been riding it ever since.   Mine is purple but here’s a pic.

 The ride is good, terrific actually, with my lone complaint being that it provides me with a pretty aggressive riding position.  (In other words, this old guy is leaning too far forward.)  

The other issue, and what was really driving my desire for a skilled mechanic to look at it, was the problem I was having shifting into the third cog in back.  It just seemed to skip it all together, in both directions, and the mechanism sounded kind of loud to me.  Like it was pissed off about something.  Mechanical stuff isn’t supposed to sound like that and it won’t for very long.  That’s why I was concerned.

I’m a do it yourselfer to a great degree.  My dad was pretty frugal; still is for that matter.  As a woodworker, I’ve also learned a lot of skills outside the world of wood and tend to put them to use whenever I can.  Based on the availability of good help, or even finding someone that can do it, I’d rather do it myself rather than throw whatever it is out and buy a new one.

But I’d already gone as far as I could after buying a bike repair stand ($79) and watching a bunch of videos on Youtube on how to repair/adjust/fix/maximize bicycles and their most mysterious of parts, the derailleurs.  (Don’t you just love that word?  It’s French and I think it means gear shift.  Or take another train, or something.  Those French have a different word for everything!  Steve Martin was a genius back in the 70s and he still is.)

Besides, I’m in training to do some serious rides including my first century.  That’s 100 miles.  In one day.  Like a whole day.  Seriously.  For charity.  (Shameless plug for Tour deCure and wouldn’t you like to donate?  Go to

So I didn’t want to be a long way from home and have something major break down.  Walking in cycling shoes is about as difficult as anything I’ve ever done.  The cleats make you look like a bozo, they’re hard plastic and really slick on the bottom and you just don’t want to do it.  (I’m sure the folks in cars at the traffic light that observed me doing this have kicked themselves for not recording my antics and posting to Youtube.)  I’m prepared with a tire repair kit so I can fix a flat if need be but not really keen about trying anything else if I don’t have to.

I like to support local business people so I went to the RABA website (that’s the Richmond Area Bicycle Association for those of you keeping score at home) and they had a list of vendors.  I chose 2 Wheel Tune Up, a guy working out of his garage not far from my home.

Quick aside in the Holy Cow category – RABA has a newsletter where they call out things about the members.  The January issue had a wrap up of the prior year and it made mention of one member who had managed to log over 10,000 miles on his bike in the past year.  Seriously???  As if that wasn’t enough to make me feel like a slacker, it pointed out that he’d been doing that for quite some time as he is now 70 years old and has lifetime mileage of 355,000!  That’s about 10,000 miles per year for 35 years!  I mean damn! Shout out to Rickey Davis.  You sir, get my first Holy Cow! award.  (I don’t know what that means but if I ever meet you, I’ll buy you as many beers as you want.)

I connected with Greg, the owner of 2 Wheel, and brought my bike by his shop.  We talked about what I was looking to have done and he promised to get back to me with an estimate as soon as he could.  That turned out to be later that night.  Greg told me I needed new tires as they were probably original to the bike, new brake shoes as they were scratching the rims, and in order to raise the handlebars I’d need a new stem set.  I gave him the go ahead.

My bike was ready to be picked up the next day so I swung by after work.  Greg showed me everything he’d done, showed me the list of parts and their prices, his labor costs, and how to make adjustments for myself in the future.  (You have to love a small business man who wants to help you do it yourself!)  Total bill was $316.

Now, why on earth would I put that much money into a used bike?  Well, as Greg told me, it’s a great bike.  The frame is actually a combination of carbon and aluminum – I’m thinking it’s one of the first carbon frame bikes available to the general public.  It sold for well over $1000 when it was new.  Greg let me look at his current ride, an Italian bike that sells for about $6000!  (Don’t worry MB, I’m not even thinking about it….much...)  His bike weighs about a pound or two less than mine.  Sure, it’s got other whiz bang coolness that mine doesn’t have but the coolness to dollar ratio is really steep and I’m not ready to invest.

I took my bike home and tried it out.  Wow!  The ride is even better, the fit is far more comfortable and mechanical issues are gone.  Evidently, I don’t have the skills just yet to handle that French stuff on my bike but I’ll keep learning and working at it.  After all, I plan to have this bike for a while.  (Seems as if bikes are a lot like guitars, you never actually get rid of them.)  In other words, the money spent on this tune up was well worth it.  And there’s one really important reason for that, too.

The motor is still good.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Pool League Night

Last Wednesday was the opening night of the new session of my pool league.  I’m the league operator (that’s an official title!) of an in-house 8 Ball league that is sanctioned by two different organizations, the American Cue Sports alliance or ACS, and the BCAPL or BCA Pool League.  Sanctioning is a highly convoluted and difficult to explain process that probably deserves its own post, especially if you’re dual-sanctioned, so I’m going to leave the details out for now.  The value of sanctioning is that players in the league have a national body they can rely on if problems occur (don’t ask) and an opportunity to play against other league players across the country in national tournaments for major cash.  (Seriously, national winners often pocket thousands of dollars!  That’s enough for a new cue, sometimes.  Custom cues get pricey….)

Unofficially, my title is The Commish, as in the league commissioner, and I’m the guy that makes sure everything is run properly, interprets the rules (It’s okay, I’m a trained referee) and handles all the complaints when things go awry.  Here’s my calling card:

Whenever you’re seen carrying a cue case, outside of a pool room, people come out of the woodwork to ask questions.  (Especially if it’s a custom case with spiffy engraving that my bride got me for my birthday last year.)

The most common one, at work, is “What’s that???” I usually respond with, “It’s a cue case.”  Sometimes that ends the interaction but about half the time I get a follow up question or two, something like, “Pool cues, huh?  Are you a pool shark?”
If it’s someone I actually know, I’ll take the time to explain that I play pool in a league and if they have any interest, they should join us because it’s fun.  We’re always looking for new players and it’s a great way to really learn the game.

At some point, I’ll get the “Are you any good?” question.  I struggle with how to answer that one.

There’s always that part of me that wants to offer to play them and find out.  It comes from playing competitive sports all my life and wanting to keep score to see who is better.  That response, typically, cuts the conversation short. 

Some of them, I’d love to get in their pocket, too.  That’s the best way to keep score in pool!

There’s also that part of me that knows how hard the game is and how hard I’ve worked to play as well as I do and know that when comparing myself to the real players, I’m a hack.  Really.  I seriously suck.

I think it’s all relative.  Here’s an example.  If you are a really good golfer, you might be able to get your handicap down to 2.  When you do, you’re in the top one percent of golfers in the world.  You’re the envy of nearly every other golfer.  Now compare that to the top golfers on the professional tour, all of whom have a handicap around plus 4 or better.  That means that they are six or more strokes per round better than you!  That is an enormous, gaping, chasm between skills.  You couldn’t carry it with a 3 wood.  In other words, you suck.  Seriously.

So, if you’ve not played a lot or maybe only batted balls around on a table at a bar you’d probably think I’m a decent player.  Much like someone who has never tried to play the guitar would think I was a guitar player.  (I suck at that, too.)

Moving on.

The first night of league is always interesting.  First, you’re never sure how many teams are going to show up.  Pool players are notoriously bad at commitment to anything, even the game they love.  They’ll drag ass in at the last second and say, “I told you we were going to be here!” and be really hot if I haven’t saved a spot for their team.  This past week though, all nine teams were there early.

Another interesting part of opening night is how short everyone’s memory gets.  I can understand if someone sat out a session and doesn’t remember their handicap.  (Handicaps are used to make the matches fair.  A little bit.)  Of course, if they do remember it, they remember it being lower than it actually was before.  That’s why I keep several years worth of stats available so I can say things like, “No dude, you really were an 8 last time, not a 6.  I know you haven’t been playing much lately but don’t worry, the computer will average it all out in 2 weeks anyway.  Just humor me for now, okay?  Thanks!” 

One thing that makes the first night of a session fun is that everyone is tied for first place.  That feeling ends, of course, as soon as the first round is completed.

Suck floats to the top.  Or bottom as the case may be.

Finally, there are always new players looking to join a team if they don’t have an entire team to bring.  This past Wednesday, there were three news guys.  One caught on with an existing team that was looking for a player and I signed up two of them on my own team.  Our team has been in a state of flux due to work issues, health issues, upcoming marriage issues.  We got issues.  What we don’t have is a core team that can be counted on every week.

There are good and bad sides to playing in your own league, both for me and my teammates.  I like to set a good example and insist the players on my team do, too.  (Pisses ‘em off occasionally.)  I try not to ask for anything from other teams that I wouldn’t be willing to do myself.  If one of my players is going to be late, and I ask if we can shoot around him until he gets here, I expect an affirmative response because I’m always willing to do that for others.  I also want us to be good sports, wishing others good luck, complimenting good shots, shaking an opponent’s hand after they beat us.  (So what if the bastard got the luckiest roll ever seen, tried to shark me with a white handkerchief in my line of vision and kept talking to me while I shot?  Not that I’ve seen it done to me or anything.)

Some people run pool leagues for a business.  I don’t although I do pay myself a small wage for running the league.  I file all the paperwork, handle the fees and the bank account, transfer scores into the website.  I’m also the expert for rules questions and the complaint department.  I run the league because I actually enjoy it.  And I give a shit about doing it correctly.  I’m not sure anyone else would but I guess I’ve never really checked, either.  Probably the hardest part of it is working to do it right, knowing you’re going to piss someone off, rather than try to please everybody.  In the end, that requires far less effort because you don’t have to think about how people are going to take your decision.  You just decide.

Once I was sure which teams were going to be in, I drew up the schedule, called all the team captains together, and announced which team was playing which other team, the table the match would be on and which team was the home team.  Whenever I do this, I make a mental wager with myself about how many captains will come back and ask either, “What table did you say we were on?” or “Are we home or away?”  If you set the over/under at 50%, you’d be just about perfect for setting a line.  (In addition to a lack of commitment, pool players have a short attention span, too.)  This past week, 3 captains asked which table and one asked the home or away question.  It was a push!

Tables are available for practice at 6:30 and matches begin at 7:30.  Amazingly, most of the time, matches start on time.  There are even a couple of teams that will start early if everyone is there.  And then there are one or two teams that roll in at 7:31, ready to go.  As long as there is time to get a beer, order some food, and go outside to smoke, first.  Whatever.

It’s funny, the biggest complaints I get from my league players is about pace of play.  Speed is a personal thing and finding a rhythm that feels right to you is key to getting better at the game.  There are a couple of league members that just give a whole new meaning to the word, deliberate though. 

We have one guy that, when it’s his turn to shoot, he takes his little bottle of baby powder (makes the cue slide more easily in your fingers) and powders his hands.  Then he slowly circles the table while chalking his stick and plotting his course.  Then, he gets into position to shoot, makes a few practice strokes, pauses, and gets back up.  Chalks up again, walks around to survey one more time, gets down into position, makes his practices strokes and shoots.  Finally.  Most of the time, he makes it, but wow.  I’ve seen him spend that long over the simplest of shots.  He’s on a team that is not quite as deliberate as he is but they’re pretty close.  As a result, they are always the last team to finish, along with their opponents.  Who, by then, are ready to introduce blunt force trauma as a motivator. 

What’s most interesting is that I had this team complain about the speed that another team was playing!  Self awareness is another competency that is lacking in pool players, evidently.

Whenever anyone complains, I just point them to the rule about speed of play, mention that I have a half dozen kitchen timers so they can rest assured that 60 seconds will be the magic number for each shot.  And no one ever comes to me and asks to be put on the clock because both teams have to be, not just the one that’s taking too long.  

Maybe self-awareness is situation specific.

About four months from now, all the matches will have been completed.  The bad rolls will be tallied, scores will be posted to the web site.  We’ll meet at the usual time and the snack bar will put out a buffet of things that are bad for you, a small keg of beer will be tapped and drank.  Some people will load up plates like they skipped eating all day.  A couple of guys will ask for pitchers of beer instead of a mug because no one can get enough free beer.  We’ll eat and drink for a while, lying about how badly we played during the session or complain about all the bad rolls our team got.  I’ll call everyone together to hand out the prize fund and announce where everyone finished, handing out prizes to every team as well as some individual prizes.  The pool room will give us free table time that night for a couple of hours.  A few people will gamble with their winnings while others will put theirs in their pocket and head for the door.

And we’ll all be back for the next session, which begins the following week.