Wednesday, November 12, 2014

my favorite "business" books

Making a quantum-leap-like departure from the usual goatspeak fare, I'm going to post something vaguely related to what I do for a living...which is to say the thing that I do that allows me to pay the bills and allows me to live, or at least live the life I'm living.

Most folks I interact with outside of work know that I'm a professor, but, oddly (to me), folks don't ever seem to think I do what I actually do, even people who really should know. When I force people to guess, they most often reveal that they've always assumed I'm an English professor, "or something like that." Nope. I teach management.

Yes, indeed. Perhaps the least sexy discipline in the academy. Management. It even looks sort of lame just sitting there like that. And it's hard, sometimes, to even define what management is. But whatever it is, it should be clear that it's pretty darn important. To paraphrase someone way more famous than me, mangers (oh, say it isn't so!) determine whether society uses its resources effectively to solve human problems or does not. And when it does not, the results can be catostrpohic. So, yeah... Not sexy, but pretty darn important.

But I don't really think of myself as a management scholar. Rather, I'm a social psychologist. And I do applied social psychology. I was trained at Vanderbilt, enrolled in the Graduate School, but hosted by the Owen Graduate School of Business (they paid my bills, that's where my office was, and I was the responsibility of the faculty there), but the program was a sort of informal multi-disciplinary social psych program. I took my statistics and methods classes from sociologists, anthropologists, developmental psychologists, and operations management faculty. I took classes at the law school and taught by philosophers, political scientists, English scholars, and cultural studies folks. I worked on research projects with students and faculty across disciplines. I presented research at multi-discplinary brownbags. I blah blah blah...anyway, I was all over the place...

And now I work in a business school. I'm part of the Department of Management and Marketing, and I teach classes about working in organizations, negotiating, and, sometimes, leadership and decision-making.


Occasionally, I'm asked to recommend "a good business book." Sometimes it's hard to figure out what people are actually after when they ask that. "Business," is a lot of things. I do the people things. Not finance. Not accounting. Not supply chain. Not information systems. But the people stuff. (And not the HR or marketing people stuff.) So, with that in mind, here's a short list of some of my favorites. Saved, conveniently, so that I can simply cut-and-paste next time someone asks me for "a good business book."




(1) The Freakonomics franchise. I haven’t yet read the latest one (Think Like a Freak), but the first two (Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics) were excellent. What are they about? If there’s a central thesis (they’re sort of a collection of diverse array of sometimes only tangentially related research findings and illustrative stories), I would say that it’s about decision-making—the hardest and most important work humans do. Reading these books will raise your IQ.

(2) There are several Malcolm Gladwell titles worth reading. I’ve read The Tipping Point, Outliers, and Blink. I think Outliners is one I would most recommend. I didn’t get a lot out of The Tipping Point, but it remains hugely popular. Blink is about decision-making (obviously one of my favorite subjects), but I think it’s done better elsewhere, like…

(3) …in Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide. This is a great book. Unfortunately, Lehrer has sort of been disgraced as a journalist. I’m not sure all the details, but he was caught, I think, making up a story about Bob Dylan and, interestingly, plagiarizing himself. So he probably won’t be writing any more books like this, which is a real shame, because he’s an excellent communicator. (Another book he authored, with a very different theme, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, I also enjoyed, though it’s a bit more dense.)

(4) If your’e interested in negotiation, the seminal text is the slim, super readable, Getting to Yes. There is so much brilliance and insight captured in this one slim volume. Frankly, I believe this book has made the world a better place and, of course, would make it even better if more were to read it.

(5) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. A much more dense text, long and in-depth, but a great exploration of a fascinating psychological/social-psychological phenomenon. There are some really great lessons here for folks tasked with engineering a workplace that taps into employee’s intrinsic motivation.

(6) The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement. Written as a novel (and, as a novel, it is truly horrible) this is a wonderful book for anyone interested in work process. Simple, but very powerful ideas.

(7) Michael Lewis is a wonderful author. He doesn’t tackle social science directly in his writing, but his books are full of social science. Each book investigates a specific market. A market where something interesting has happened. Broker life in the 80s (Liar’s Poker), the credit default swap disaster (The Big Short), high-speed trading (Flash Boys). But my favorite is probably his most famous, Moneyball (hint: it’s about baseball).

(8) Moral Mazes. This text is getting pretty dated, but I don't think it's any less important because of it. Man, what a great book... Robert Jackall does an extensive ethnographic study of multiple very large corporations in the early 80s. He's specifically interested in management. The culture of decision-making in management. The ethics and values that guide decision making. But it's much more than just that. It's a fascinating peak into the phenomenon that is the modern corporate organizational hierarchy.

(9) Thinking, Fast and Slow. Again, decision-making. Good science on decision-making. Less anecdotes and storytelling (though there are anecdotes and stories) than with the Gladwell/Lehrer genera, but still quite readable. Although it is also quite long.

(10) Influence. Robert Cialdini. Good for anyone that has to work with and influence others (and for those that others try to influence, which is all of us). Including the marketeers and sales folks. In fact, if you're in sales and marketing and you want to read that kind of book, this one is probably the best on the list.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

wed & thurs, july 2 & 3, 2014: glacier national park

Wednesday & Thursday, July 2 & 3, 2014: Glacier National Park

Glacier Nat'l Park is essentially a north-south mountain range with highways up either side and several roads that run up the drainages.  Here you can see I was camped at one and rode to another...and back.

Most of the same terrain on this ride...but instead went up the Many Glacier drainage, which was very pretty, by the way, and highly recommended.
A mandatory shot.

Glacier National Park.  It's still a bit of a surprise to me that I haven't been here before.  I've been to a lot of places, a lot of parks, but never here.  And I'm scared of bears.  Really.  I mean, it's the only place you hear about bear attacks.  And they have grizzlies here.  And while I know the odds of actually experiencing any sort of incident with a bear--or a grizzly bear--are super low, it's the unpredictability of these big dudes.  If we were to fight, the bear would win.  This realization makes me uneasy.

Though I'm not scared of bears when riding my bike.  On the road.  So I put in some quality road miles.  (And they don't allow off-road riding in the park anyway, so that wasn't an option.)

But let me back up a bit.  Our original plan for the westward leg of our trip was to head northwest from Minneapolis and into Canada, run west along the Trans-Canadian Highway to southern Alberta, then south into Glacier.  Thus, weeks ago, we did our due diligence and got Audrey (16) a passport (kids under 16 only need a birth certificate).  What we did not do, however, was check the parents' passports.  No problem with Valerie's, but mine had expired.  Fourteen months ago.  And we discovered this about 14 minutes before leaving Shippensburg.

We changed our plans.  We'd head west (Go West!) from Minneapolis, through North Dakota (staying a night in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, a gem we discovered two summers ago), then take the northern route through Montana to Glacier, make camp, sleep the night, and then Valerie and the kids would head north to Canada for the original rendezvous with Valerie's friend and old roommate, and I'd stay another night in the park, without car, but with bikes.

So I had Wednesday to myself.  And wanted a nice long, hard ride.  I got it.

I'm told the route across the park, the only route across the park, over the Road-to-the-Sun, is a cyclist's must-do.  I'm sure the road offers spectacular views.  But June snowstorms closed the road and, from the east side, the road was only open 13 miles.  Bummed, but still anxious to get a taste of the road, I left the Two Medicine campground in the south end of the park and headed for the Road-to-the-Sun.

Well, you can see the profile...  The east-west roads in the park, those that run along the glacial lakes, are remarkably flat, pleasant affairs.  But getting from one drainage to the next requires an effort.  And from Two Medicine to the Road-to-the-Sun requires the effort of climbing over five ridge lines for nearly 3,500' of climbing.

A shot of US 89...from the side of US 89.  Super fun, twisty road.  With lots of climbing.

But what a beautiful road!  And lovely climbs!  I'm generally not keen on highway riding, but this was really nice.  In part, I think, because the roads were pretty twisty, keeping traffic going slower--slow enough on the descents for me to comfortably exceed their speed.  And of course the view to the west was full of glacier-carved (bear-infested) alpine grandeur and the view to the east wasn't too bad either.

On the Road-to-the-Sun

Park road construction.  Only 13 miles of the Road-to-the-Sun was open, I rode nine, only the first five of which was paved.  After I waited about five minutes to make it through this roadblock I just turned around and went back.

One of the things I love about the old national parks is that they are just as much a monument to the turn of the (20th) century leisure ideal as they are places of preservation.  Visiting Old Faithful I'm more in awe of the Old Faithful Lodge than I am of the geyser.  Glacier is full of this stuff.  It's lodges and hotels and "motor inns" are just awesome.

Many Glacier lodge.  I'd love to come back here and stay a few nights in the hotel.  Sans kids.
The lodge in East Glacier.  The railroad passes just below here, and the railroad company built the hotel to promote the park and thus increase rail usage.  Glacier was being called "America's Alps" in the promotional material.

On Thursday, I rode north over the same route as the day before to St. Mary, then continued north to Babb, had breakfast in a roadside diner, then rode the 12 miles up the Many Glacier drainage to the Many Glacier Lodge when I met Valerie and kids.  Then we hiked.  And sang songs.  And hoped our tuneless glee would keep the bears at bay.

Reuben, doing some very fierce hiking.  (Probably to scare the bears.)

Ride Stats:

Miles: 89.5
Time: 5:09
Elevation: 7,270'

Miles: 56.0
Time: 3:19
Elevation: 3,993'

Saturday, July 5, 2014

sunday, june 29, 2014: the "judson," chicago, illinois

Sunday, June 29, 2014: The "Judson," Chicago, Illinois

Yes, it's flat.  No wise cracks necessary.
If your search for a group ride in Chicago happens to lead you to, you will see "Judson" listed as starting at 7:30 am, that the ride starts at Judson and Greenleaf, and this peculiar note:

“Team Judson is first and foremost an anarchy, and whoever is in front gets the ultimate choice about the route we take.”

It turns out that the only accurate piece of information from the three is the start time.  Well, that and the name.  If you ride bikes in or around Chicago, you will have heard of the "Judson."  Even if you haven't ridden it.  The ride has a reputation, though based on my experience, perhaps not deserved.

The Judson doesn't actually start at Judson and Greenleaf, a nondescript intersection in a wealthy Evanston residential neighborhood just south of the picturesque Northwestern University campus, but at Dempster and Chicago, in front of a Starbucks, which is exactly two blocks north and four blocks west of the advertised starting place.  The ride itself follows a very determined route (I did this once before, two summers ago, and from what I could tell we followed exactly the same route) which all the regulars will know.  Therefore, I would like to suggest a change to the ride description: "Team Judson is first and foremost an anarchy, and by anarchy we mean that we don't start where we say we're going to, but everything else is determined and predictable."


My morning on the bike started around 6:00 am and began with a leisurely spin north, northeast from Forest Park to Evanston (the starting place for the Judson, both advertised and actual, was about 18 miles from where I was staying).  And let me just stop right here and say that rolling out on your road bike, regardless of the location, at six o'clock on a Sunday morning in late June is simply one of the great joys of life.  There's a stillness in the city (or the countryside, or forest, or whoever you are).  For an hour or so, anyway.  Combined with solstice sunshine, summer greenery, warm morning temps.  It's a magical combination that I will describe simply as good, good stuff.

That good, good stuff, however, was interrupted a few miles from my destination with a morning biological imperative.  We've (likely) all been there.  That place where you'd pretty much trade your front wheel for a public toilet.  Fortunately, I rolled across a Starbucks and needed only trade the purchase of orange-mango smoothie.

Today, the Judson started out pretty chill, but picked up steam suddenly and intensely about three miles in.  There were, all told, maybe 30-40 riders in the group.  Folks were quite courteous.  We stopped at stop signs and red lights.  There was friendly conversation.  Riders would sometimes shoot off the front in a sort of breakaway attempt, then guys (like me) would move up to and pull them back.  (No attacks here, I didn't know the route!)  The pace stayed high and the mood animated for 30 miles or so, but somewhere on the route back I suppose folks just got tired of riding fast or something because the pace dropped considerably, the animation was gone, and I cut off from the route a bit short of Evanston and simply rolled back home.

The Team Judson website includes this quote from Friedrich von Schiller.

"Anyone taken as an individual, is tolerably sensible and reasonable -- as a member of a crowd, he at once becomes a blockhead."

Schiller, a thinker and playwright particularly concerned with aesthetics and the question of individual freedom, might have enjoyed the liberating aesthetic of the bicycle.  This sentiment on crowd mentality is perhaps the most truthful observation of bicycle riding I've ever read.  But having died in 1805, I think we can safely assume Schiller had some other context in mind.

But while the Schiller description seems a particularly insightful description of any weekend morning bicycle group ride, the Judson, despite its reputation, proved civil, friendly, and well-behaved.  Perhaps all it takes to calm a crowd is an understated, preemptive, cynical prediction of its behavior.

Someone else out for a bike ride Sunday morning.
Ride stats:

Miles: 89.6
Time: 4:38
Elevation: 1,460'

Saturday, June 28, 2014

saturday, june 28, 2014: western suburbs, chicago, illinois

Saturday, June 28, 2014: western suburbs, Chicago, Illinois 

One of my secret pleasures is jumping in on an out-of-town group ride.  Meaning that I'm from out-of-town, and I'm jumping in on someone else's group ride.  Yay for the internet.  (How did anyone find anything in the pre-internet age?)

Two years ago, on a similar trip through Chicago, I rolled down the street a few blocks from Valerie's brother's family's house and joined the 6:00 am Saturday Lake & Harlem ride.  That was a fun ride.  Nice group of guys (maybe 15).  Reasonably brisk pace.  Maybe a 50-mile loop.  A much more gentlemanly pace and feel than the more famous (and maybe more fun, but in a very different way) Judson ride in the north.

Today, I was't quite so lucky.  A much-later-than-ideal departure meant we pulled into town just after 4:00 am.  I was up at 5:15 and rolled out 25 minutes later.  But today there was only one other dude waiting at Lake and Harlem.  We rode for 45 minutes and came back to the meeting place for the 7:00 am ride.  Ten or twelve guys.  All a super good sort.  But the pace was a little too casual and, well, it's a _different_ sort of ride when I, at 40, am likely the youngest one there.

Lake Street / East St. Charles Road is not really an awe-inspiring bicycle route.  Sort of run-down commerical/industrial.  A sprawling freeway overpass dominates the landscape.  Though I'm in love these old suburbs.  Because they're old.  And because they have life.  And history.

The modern suburb is full of curvy subdivisions built around uninspiring cul-de-sacs and populated with ticky-tacky houses.  But these old Chicago suburbs, with their distinct street-parking-only town centers and block housing with row upon row of brick bungalows...these suburbs have character.  Neighborhoods that have a distinct flavor and feel.  And you feel like every block is a book with a thousand stories of love, tragedy, triumph, hope, fear...  In other words (or in another word), life.  These are Mystic River neighborhoods (even though I know that's Boston and this is...not Boston).  As I roll along, block after block, house after house, door after door, I'm a little overwhelmed with the infinite complexity of the human experience cast in the shadow of the soft Saturday morning sun.

The route back (we rode in a clockwise direction) offered fresher, greener, more monied scenery.  Again, how cool are these suburbs with their distinct town centers.  Local shops.  Not big-box stuff, but real stores, probably with real storekeepers.  The butcher the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker.  (Though, really, more like the deli, the coffee shop, and the hair salon...but, you know, still awesome.)

And how about Western Springs and Riverside with their super cool water towers:

Western Springs water tower, now a museum.
Riverside, Illinois.

Who wouldn't want to live in a neighborhood where you could walk a few blocks to a cool little restaurant and eat on the sidewalk in the shadow of one of these?

Of course Riverside isn't just a pretty water tower.  The Wikipedia entry for the town calls it a "architectural museum."  Check it out yourself.  I mean, come on.  I want to go back and do laps.

Riverside, with its curved streets in a sea of right angles, stands out starkly.  (Notice there are curves, but no cul-de-sacs.)  The neighborhood was apparently planned by Fredrick Law Olmsted, the architect of the slightly more famous Central Park.
Ride stats:

Miles: 56.5
Time: 3:08
Elevation: 1,014'

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

2014 trans-sylvania epic, stage 7

In Down the River, Ed Abbey publishes perhaps the most entertaining book review I've ever read.  And he didn't write it.  His friend Dave did.

The book reviewed was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and Dave, according to Ed, is an expert.  On motorcycles (if not exactly zen).  Abbey says Dave is easy to spot, "he's the large red-bearded gentleman at the pool table, a tattoo of a rattlesnake on his left arm, wearing purple shades, a sleeveless shirt, a Levis vest with a dragon embroidered on the back, original blue jeans dark with grease, and black engineer's boots."

Let me interrupt here for a minute to comment on that description.  There's a picture of my dad (I wish I had a copy with me, because I'd obviously share it) after he got out of the Army.  Drafted during the Korean War, my dad did his time in Germany, and brought home with him the sweetest 50s-era BMW motorcycle you ever did see.  Well, in this picture my dad is standing next to his bike, army pants tucked into army boots, old-school leather motorcycle jacket, clean-cut flat top, horn-rimmed glasses, and an ironed button-up.  He stands a perfect caricature of what, in the 50s, wasn't a caricature at all.  In that picture he's as legit, as genuine, as non-poser as a dude can be...but that no one else in the decades that follow could imitate without posing through and through.  (It's also the only picture I've seen of my straight-laced, politically conservative, engineer father where he could be described, without irony or sarcasm, as a badass.)

So when I think of Abbey's description of Dave, I remember this was written in the late 1970s, and that this costume of Dave's, in that era, was legit, genuine, and utterly non-poser.  It's only with passing decades that a rattlesnake tattoo and a Levis vest becomes cliche and a little ridiculous.

Anyway, here's Dave.  And he's reviewing Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  The entire book review (it's only two pages) is worth posting, but I'm not going to make it that easy.  If you want to read it, you'll have to find it yourself.  But here's a few snippets:

"This here book Zen and the Art of *bleep*ing Motorcycle Maintenance or I call it ZAMM for short has some interesting things to read about motorcycle maintenance but the trouble is the author don't give us much technical information about his own machine, just some little hints here and there, so I guess he was riding a Honda "Dream" of before 1970, probably the 250 cc. model, but no motorcycle I ever heard of and I been fooling around with bikes since 1950 needs all that *bleep*ing obsessive, man, obsessive *bleep*ing around with the rear chain and adjusting and oiling that this hear Pirsig gives his rear chain.  That was a sick bike."

He clearly isn't using the word "sick" like the enduro riders were during TSE.  Or Anthony Clark.

"...he gives us tips on setting up your own home mechanic's workshop but forgets to tell you the most important of all which naturally is a ing big shade tree in your backyard and a good trained hungry *bleep*ing Doberman attack dog to rip the head off any *bleep**bleep*ing mother *bleep*er lays a hand on your tools."

"All in all I'd say though this ZAMM has some useful stuff for you if you are a biker, man, that it is scattered out through too many pages and there's a lot of fuzzy philosophizing and too much half-assed mystical *bleep*ing ancient history, man, keeps getting in the way of the book as a *bleep*ing whole."

Good stuff.  One of the best book reviews I've ever read.

But, what does all this have to do with stage seven of the Trans-sylvania Mountain Bike Epic?  It's this:  Sometimes you've gotta just forget about all the *bleep* and just go out and *bleep*ing race your *bleep*ing mountain bike.  And good things can happen.

Incomplete podium pictures really drive me crazy.  Third place, where are you?!

After Friday's race, maybe because I finally had a good day, maybe because it was the end of the week, maybe because I was feeling a little passive aggressive against the hired hand that was keeping Jermiah Bishop and Tim Waite's bikes showroom clean between outings, maybe because who knows why, I wasn't all that motivated to do a comprehensive wash of my bike.  I barely remembered to put a little lube on the chain just before race time on Saturday.  I may have forgot to check the air pressure in my rear tire.  I didn't think too much about hydration and fuel, just stuck a couple of Cliffies in my pocket and loaded my Camelbak with CarboRocket.  I don't remember which kind.  I don't remember the ratio.  I didn't pour over the map of the stage.  I didn't think about what I would take on at the check point.

I don't know, maybe I'm trying to oversell the point.  Maybe it's a point I wouldn't have made had I not read the book review and been thinking about it.  But on Saturday I just tried to keep things simple.  Made sure the wheels spun freely.  Made sure the chain was moist.  Made sure I had something to drink.  And just went for a bike ride.  Well, not quite a ride, but you get the idea.

And of course it felt good to close out the week with a win.  How could it not?  It was a shorter stage.  Twenty-six miles.  But still plenty of singletrack.  On my way back in I caught and passed a Redline rider.  Clearly a pro (but I don't know his name), he had had it with the bumpy stuff and told me all about it.  He was from the midwest, and all too happy to return after this week on East Coast Rocks.  And when the trail smoothed out he ripped passed me and I didn't see him again, but it felt pretty good there for a while to be chomping through the crud, the stuff I've always said I don't do well, better than dudes that, really, in every other way, can out ride me.

Route and elevation profile of Saturday's stage seven.  Most of that section ridden twice was bumpy, twisty East Coast Rocks.  And I rode it pretty well.

And the win was not without its drama.  The second place finisher, Javier Lopez, well...  I didn't overtake him until eight miles or so from the finish.  Passed him on the last dirt road climb, rode as hard as I could to put maximum distance on him before entering the singletrack, and had him breathing down my neck all the way to the finish.  So I'm proud of that, holding someone off through six or seven miles of a wide variety of technical singletrack.  And, of course, I like winning.

So in some sense I learned how to ride my mountain bike this week, during Singletrack Summer Camp.  And I'm a little proud of that too.  Maybe there will be a little more mountain bike racing in my future.



--You can read a little write-up about the day's race on DirtRag.  My bit is buried way down at the bottom (where it should be) under "Other Categories."

--The time gaps on stage seven were not big, but I made up enough ground to move into eighth overall on GC for the week, not that it matters much.  I did the math...and had I finished with the winner's time on Wednesday (the dirt road stage where I believed I had the best chance of winning) and the third place finisher's time on Thursday (a stage that I'm confident I would have done well on had I not suffered the broken derailleur) I still would have only finished third on GC.  I say "only," but, really, I would have been super stoked and super humbled by that result.  My point is just that some really much better riders put a whole lot of time on me on Monday and that it would have been very difficult to overcome those differences no matter how I rode the rest of the week.

--I remain super impressed with the strength of the 50+ field.  Even if everything had gone right for me all week, I think the top two in the 50+ would have still beat me on GC.  Those guys are some super tough riders.

--The week in numbers, based on my Garmin:  223.2 miles; 22 hours, 12 minutes (that includes time fixing mechanicals and a little bit of garbage time); 28,954 feet of elevation gain.

--Will I do it again?  I'll say this, I had a great week.  Better than I thought it would be.  And by the end I was riding better than I thought I'd be (but still so much room for improvement).  But camping and cooking on my own got a little old.  Having Alan up there for two days was great.  If I do it again, I need a couple of buddies to hang out with.  They don't even need to be racing, necessarily, just need some dudes to chill with.  My brother talked about it...  If I could get him to come race the week with me that'd be a lot of fun.

Very cool finishing awards.
--Drove home Saturday night, unpacked myself, but not my stuff, then was off to Waynesboro to pick up a gaggle of teenagers from a birthday party.  I was happy to do it.  Really.  But the contrast between bike-racer life and normal-daddy life sort of smacks hard.

--Sunday evening I started feeling a little woozy, and then spent Sunday night / Monday morning violently emptying the contents of my stomach into a large plastic receptacle.  Rather awe-struck at how much came up, actually.  (I should have taken a picture of that!)  Fought a bit of a fever all Monday, but Tuesday felt good enough to mow the lawn, if a little doggedly.  Comparing notes with others at TSE it seems that nearly everyone got sick Saturday night into Sunday.  At first we blamed the shrimp at Saturday's post-race meal.  But it seems some that ate nothing still got sick, and a few were sick on Thursday or Friday.  So an impressively contagious stomach virus, I suppose.  Impressive in how very nearly comprehensive it's impact was.  Fortunately, no one at the Goat Farm has been infected.  So far.

--Because my last post was about cancer, and because other events keep it on the mind, I have to end on a bit of a somber note.  (It'd be ok to stop reading here.  Really.  Race report over.)  On Monday, Reuben Anders Wilde Goates (age 5 and a half), had his regular check-up MRI.  And it looks clean.  Approaching five years since miracle surgery and being cancer-free.  Which is especially good news today, it seems to me, because 10 years ago, on June 4, Valerie's dad died.  Cancer.  That personal, corporal betrayal.  Cancer sucks.

We served up root beer floats to the team after Reuben's t-ball game.

--We discovered Reuben's cancer the evening we celebrated the one year anniversary of Marian Grace Goates' (age 12) successful bone marrow transplant.  (We told Val's dad she was pregnant with Marian on the day he told us he had cancer.)  Marian didn't have cancer, rather some rare disease that no one has heard of and doesn't conjure the same immediate emotional response (though in every way it should, and then some) of those that do.  Plus, it's the same sort of docs and nurses that play with cancer everyday that saved her life, so it seems linked.  Anyway, our lives felt brutally cursed in those days.  (A fault in our stars indeed.)  It was a dark time.  But Marian is healthy.  Reuben is healthy.  And Audrey has always been healthy.  So the curse has lifted, it would seem.  And this is how normal people live...  All healthy families are alike; each unhealthy family is unhappy in its own way.  (Tolstoy won't mind; he's dead.)

--I can't remember exactly how old I was...ten, maybe?...when my dad told me he had cancer.  It could have killed him.  It might have a few years earlier.  But after one operation, and another a handful of years later, he made it, and lived to 80.  But I still remember that conversation.  When he told me he was going to the hospital and he might not come back.  It was weird to me, but it takes a parent to realize how devastating that conversation must have been for him.  And he had to have it five times.  (I've four older siblings.)

--There's a movie out now, The Fault in Our Stars, and of course (spoiler alert) it's about cancer.  Kids (teenagers) with *bleep*ing cancer.  The book was great (I hated how the parents were written, but it was still great), but I don't ever want to touch it again. I hated reading it.  I swore a lot.  I'd get that dry, tight feeling at the back of my throat that I get when I'm very, very angry (which I'm not very often).  And I swore a lot more.  I don't think there's any chance I could ever see the movie.  *bleep*ing cancer.  The normal of the lives of the families in that story...  I don't ever want to know that normal again.  And for those of you that do know that normal, who live it, well...I don't know what to say.  I'm all anger.  I'm all rage.  And I'm completely devastated for you.  Because I'm all empathy.  Cancer sucks.

Friday, May 30, 2014

2014 trans-sylvania epic, stage 6

Yay.  It finally came together.  Third in the 40+.

Here's your proof:

Aaron said I wasn't smiling.  I thought I was smiling.  I was happy, anyway.

Fun day today.  Forty some miles.  Lots of trail.  Some pretty rough trail, but I rode it ok.  Not awesome, but ok.  And I had a lot of fun, so an all-around cool day.

Was craving a salty snack today like you wouldn't believe...

Won some cool socks from Freeze Thaw Cycles in State College.

One trail in particular, Tussey Mountain Trail, is worth noting.  It was billed as one of the 10 best mountain biking trails in Pennsylvania.  And I think it lived up to the billing.  It's a fun trail to ride, lots of variety, but the thing that make the trail stand out is that it runs along at the northern end of Rothrock State Forest, about 2000' feet above sea level.  (Which, in this part of the country, is high.)  Really cool views on either side of the trail.  It reminded me a bit of the Great Western Trail north of Guardsman Pass.  A bit.  Obviously the majesty of the surrounding terrain pales in comparison to that, but in the Pennsylvania mountains there are so few vista opportunities, and fewer still ridge line trails, that this one really stands out.  There was even that sort of windswept wildness to the flora and terrain along the trail that any Rocky Mountain hiker would recognize, which left this one with a vague sense of deja vu, even though I'm quite positive I've never been anywhere near that trail before.

Another notable section of the course rode along the John Wert Trail.  This section stands in stark contrast to the Tussey Mountain Trail; while the Tussey pretends to alpine grandeur, riding the John Wert felt like a jungle expedition.  Lush greenery brushing your elbows as you attempt to navigate wet and slippery roots and rock gardens.  (I actually passed people through this section.  Proud.)

Anyway, most hiking trails in Pennsylvania I find less than inspiring.  But I would like to hike back and forth on the Tussey Mountain Trail.  We'll add that to the family itinerary when we come up to camp in R. B. Winter SP.

When I was perusing my Facebook feed during lunch, I saw that Valerie (my wife) commented on one of those Facebook pages set up to support a sick someone.  From what I could gather, in this case the sick someone was a kid, and the kind of sick was cancer.  She commented on a picture of the little boy getting his transfusion.  All of the comments--except Valerie's--were of the kind you would expect, thinking of you, we're praying for you, give him our best, be strong, etc.  Valerie's comment?  A conversational nostalgic fondness for the days when she took her kids to get transfusions.  They go in all pale and tired, come out rosy-cheeked and full of life.  The wonder of blood.  (It takes a parent who's been-there-done-that, twice, to make comments like that.  We feel ownership of the sick kid terrain.)

Islands of joy among seas of pain.  Because cancer sucks.  It does.  It isn't something to triumph over.  And having cancer isn't a fight or battle, implying that those who win are strong and those who don't are weak.  Cancer is your body betraying you.  It's your body killing itself.  And cancer sucks.

Today I read a piece Ed Abbey wrote in 1978 about the Rocky Flats Truth Force, a group protesting the Rocky Flats Plant near Golden, Colorado.  The Rocky Flats Plant, built in the 1950s, produced the plutonium triggers used to ignite hydrogen bombs.  "Triggers," they're called, yet each apparently has the explosive power equal to the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The plant was apparently an environmental disaster from the beginning (I'm drawing on Wikipedia research here).  All sorts of leaked waste, in the water, in the air, and of course the ground.  In the late 1980s, the FBI began an investigation of their environmental crimes and, in an episode that should really be made into a movie, served search warrants to corporate executives of Rockwell International, the DOE contractor that ran the site, and DOE officials as well at a meeting disguised as a briefing for a potential terrorist threat.  Simultaneously, FBI agents raided the facility itself, which must have been quite an undertaking, given its intense security and the shoot-to-kill directives of the guards.  (Part of the facility's security included ground-to-air missiles.)

So, yeah, cancer...  Cancer is your body betraying you.  And when you get cancer as a down-winder, well, that's your government betraying you.  In the name of security.  In the name of protecting your liberty.  In the name of patriotism.  Which can be a kind of cancer.  The kind of cancer that Samuel Johnson must of had in mind when critiquing what he considered false patriotism, "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel."  And Dick Cheney.  But Oscar Wilde (Reuben's namesake) probably said it better: "Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious."  And isn't it?

It's easy to whip up a righteous fury in light of such things.  Easy as whipping cream.  But to whom do we direct the fury?  To whom should we yell and scream and point our indignant fingers?

Can we go back to Wendell Berry?  "Bosses are everywhere and all the bosses are underlings."  Ah, the safety and insanity of bureaucracies!  Robert Jackall, in his seminal "Moral Mazes," describes the moral two-facedness that corporate bureaucracies demand of their managers.  Things that would be unquestionably wrong in the private sphere become matters of cost-benefit analysis in the business sphere.  Moral reasoning is replaced with rational decision-making models, and the only ethic worth pursing is self-interest.

Who makes the decision that results in radioactive material leaking from storage barrels?  The answer is no one.  The answer is everyone.

Who makes the decision to live in a world tied in the suicidal knot of nuclear Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD)?  The answer is no one.  The answer is everyone.

Well...  Here's to the kid who got a blood transfusion today.  May his cheeks be rosy, his spirits lifted, and his dreams full of cool dinosaurs or legos or pirates or cowboys or clone troopers or whatever coolness the kid is into.  And hopefully tomorrow there will be less cancer.  Both the literal and the metaphorical, so that we can all live healthier lives.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

2014 trans-sylvania epic, stage five

Today's stage was out of R. B. Winter State Park, at the far north end of Bald Eagle State Forest.  TSE base camp is at the far southern end.  It's about a 45 minute drive.

The stage was billed as "raw."  Meaning, I think, run on less-developed, less-used trails.  And "raw" was also intended to mean, I think, that the trails would be rough, chunky, and a little difficult.  For me, they were not.

This was easily my favorite stage so far.  Thirty-one miles of really, really great riding.  The second half of the course had a bit of fire road, but the rest of the course was on a variety of trails that were just awesome.  There were some challenging bits, to be sure, but nothing insane.  And nothing was very challenging for very long.  Think Michaux Lite.

These trails were so lovely, and in fact the area so beautiful--deep, dark forests the lushest shades of green--that I've vowed to return.  I want to bring my family there, because I'm 100% confident they'll find abundant quantities of fairy colonies in these woods and my goat kids, well, they love that sort of thing.   And I want to bring my mountain bike buddies there (Paul, I'm pretty much looking at you), because I'm 100% confident there will be similes a'plenty after spending some time shredding* this singletrack.

And so...  The trails were terrific.  My legs were feeling good.  It was time to slay some trail.  And I was proceeding to do so until...

How does the saying go?  If I didn't have bad luck I'd have no luck at all?  I think that's how it goes.  But let me tell you what I think of sayings like that.  I think about as much of them as I do as the shivering loudmouth in the parking lot complaining (very loudly) that "if I hear Clinton/Gore say one more word about global warming..."

Anyway, here I am cruising along this fairly flatfish section parallel to the highway, riding with the guys I want to be riding with, and I hear (and feel) something snap.  There's a little metal piece on modern Shimano MTB rear detailers that acts as a sort of second derailleur hanger.  When something goes wrong back there, this piece of metal gives way saving (hopefully) the rest of your gear from disaster.  Well, that's what happened.  That piece bent, and then the bolt holding it in place sheared at the hanger.  For those of you reading this who have no idea what I'm talking about it, let's just say that when this happens you're not riding your bike anymore.

The temporary fix for something like this is to remove your derailleur and shorten your chain so that you can continue to pedal, limping, to your car, your shop, a friendly house, whatever.  So I did this.  It's not a super simple operation, and took me I'm sure 5-10 minutes to complete.  In fact, I felt pretty lucky with how easily it came together.  And lucky that it held together for the next 10 miles.  I came rolling into the checkpoint asking for another bike one.  And so I was able to finish the stage on a loaner.

Washing the not-my-bike.  Major kudos to BMC for coming through with such classy neutral support.  I would much rather not had occasion to use it, but the bike was awesome all the same.

But back to the mechanical difficulty and its fix.  When you shorten a chain like this, turning a geared bike into, essentially, a single-speed bike, you have to pick a gear, one gear, and that's what you'll have until the end of the ride.  Thinking the course had a pretty aggressive sawtooth profile, I picked a relatively easy gear--28x25, I think--which was cool on the climbs, and fine on the descents (because no pedaling), but did very, very poorly on the remarkably long sections of relatively flat terrain I had to cover before the checkpoint.  I was spinning out at about 10 mph.  So even when I was riding I was losing time.  At least on the flats.

All a super bummer, but I did get to demo a new bike for half the day, which is fun.  And, as I said, the trails were awesome.  I'm not positive, but I think I finished about where I did yesterday...somewhere around 9th or 10th.  So a GC top 5 seems out of the question now, if it wasn't already (that was my goal coming in), but we've still two stages to go, and I've been feeling, really, better every day.  If that continues, then who knows if I can't finally put it together for a decent stage finish.

New derailleur, installed and ready to roll.

On my way back to base camp from the race I stopped in quaint little Centre Hall and ate a sandwich at Brother's Pizza.  Abbey wasn't with me, so I read something else.  On February 7th, sometime in the mid-1990s, Sam Rushforth wrote the following:

"From where Scott and I stand, the sun yellow-gods the valley below and lights the hillsides with a warm memory of fall.  The remaining autumn leaves of the oak and maple turn the slopes auburn in the evening slant.  The color tugs at memory, melancholy and distant.  I brush my mother's hair a hundred strokes on a windy childhood evening, a soothing tradition for both of us.  Her hair is long and auburn, with a slight curl.  I brush nightly for some years, acting also as the grey-and-white hair police, alert for any of the turning hairs, which must be pulled from the beautiful auburn mass.  At some point, through some kind of pitiful masculine conditioning, I come to know that boys don't brush their mother's hair.  What a shame.  It may have been the most meaningful thing I ever did for her (and for me)."

That paragraph was later printed in a local paper as part of a regular column.  Later, the same paper printed a letter to the editor, from the daughter of the columnist.  The letter is long, so let me share just the last paragraph:

"I look up from the column, tears on my face.  I am sitting in a coffeehouse and I am thirty-two years old.  I stand to leave.  Eighteen years after her death, I have encountered my grandmother, through my father's words, as the color auburn.  Cheeks still wet, I walk out of the coffee shop.  I decide not to color my hair today."

I'm exceptionally moved by that.  Wonderfully and exceptionally moved.

I'm not sure exactly why--I can't relate to any of it in any concrete way--except for the inter-generational connection.  I guess that's what I find moving, that a resident of one generation can steal a glimpse through a wordsmithed wormhole and touch the soul of a resident of another.

* Words used more in a day at Single Track Summer Camp than a non-mountain biker might expect to hear in a lifetime include, but are not limited to: shred, rip, rage, slay, crush.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

2014 trans-sylvania epic, stage four

Today was (supposed to be) my day.  Lots of dirt road.  Long, grinding climbs.  Not a ton of single-track.  Home last night, I readied the Superfly for service.  New brakes.  New tires.  But--and I so hate to see that word in here like that--I got lazy, figuring I would just be using the bike for one stage, and didn’t take the time to set my tires up tubeless.  Which turned out to be a big problem.

So here’s the woe-is-me portion of the race report.  Through the last enduro section, just about halfway through the course, I flatted.  Pinch flat (the tire compressed hard enough against the rim so as to puncture the tube through pinching).  I stopped.  Got to work.  And then all the dudes I was so excited to be in front of came screaming past.

Tire fixed.  About seven minutes lost.  But then I flatted again.  And again.  Three flats in a stretch of just about as many miles.  The second because I didn’t get enough air in the tire with my hand pump (thus another pinch flat).  The third likely because the tube I had was covered with muck, as was the inside of my tire, and probably there was just too much crap in there and some little something punctured that poor tube. 

Fixing the third flat (with a second bummed tube) I took the time to walk down to the creek and wash out my tire, clean the tube, and spent a little extra time getting that tube in there just so with so much tender loving care.  Had I flatted one more time I may have just lost it.

When I was 17, I was once driving a lone and dusty highway through southern Idaho.  I was rolling along in my little pickup, probably with headphones, most likely with the windows down, feeling good about life and generally happy when my engine began to cut out.  ?Cut out? is probably the wrong term to describe what was happening.  The engine would lose power, intermittently, and when things weren’t going well I couldn’t get over 45 mph.  Forty.  Five.  Miles.  Per.  Hour.  On the interstate.  In there’s-nothing-around-anywhere southern Idaho.  What I remember about the whole thing was the frustration.  Oh, the frustration.  And that word isn’t near strong enough.  At one point I stopped on the side of the road, opened the door to the desert, and began to run like a crazed madman through the sand, dodging lumps of sage along a random spaghetti path of insanity.  Except I wasn’t running like a crazed madman, I was, indeed, in that moment, quite mad. 

That’s where this was going.  If I were to get that fourth flat.  (And there were a ton of bugs--gnats, mosquitos, and other flying pests--that would congregate around me in a cloud of blackish ire at every stop.)

I made it through, found someone to loan me a floor pump which allowed me to finally get my tire seated on the rim properly, and then enjoyed a lovely 15 or so miles of dirt road riding back home. 

Now, however, I’m looking at the results for the day, and realize the guy I was riding with when I flatted, that guy won the stage.  By six minutes.  There’s no way to say for sure, of course, but I’m pretty confident that I could have stuck with that guy.  I was ahead of him early, he caught me through the rough stuff, there wasn’t much rough stuff left, and I was feeling good.  At least a podium finish...

So, lost opportunities...  What can you do but write about it and sigh?


Ed Abbey said that he and his wife (which one?) lived for a time “in a glassy cabin on a mountain peak.”  In the middle of a national forest, it was their job to watch.  For forest fires, officially.  If they saw smoke, they’d call (on a radio) whomever they are supposed to call, report the details, and then keep them updated on changes as time passed.  But of course they spent a lot of time watching other things too, unofficially.  Like birds.

Vultures.  Apparently a group roosts in one spot at night, like a dead tree, but during the day, when hunting, they split up and each take a territory to patrol.  Circling effortlessly high above the ground, they scope out their treats.  When one dives in for dinner, the rest take note and join the lucky spotter.  How cool is that?  Cooperation.  Abbey calls it mutual aid. 

There’s a little of this in mountain biking.  I mean, sure, in all mass start cycling there’s the kind of self-interested cooperation that results in pace-lining and such, but that’s all done as race tactic, and is the sort of cooperation is, ultimately, driven by self-interest.  But in mountain biking, you sometimes find yourself out—way out—and in situations where if something were to go wrong you’re looking at a long and uncomfortable hike to safety.  And today I thought a little about this as I relied on one, and then two strangers, fellow competitors, for aid.  They brought their spare tubes for their use, wisely, as did I.  But had they not given them up for me then what would I have done?  It would have been a long walk home.

But the thing I like most about the vulture-watching is in the inter-species interaction.  Abbey, in his glass-roomed throne.  Watching.  Observing.  Making sense of the nonsensical.  What he’s doing seems more like anthropology than biology, even though he’s not observing anthropo.  Later in the essay Abbey imagines being a vulture.  He muses that he fully expects to be one someday, if only through consumption.  Then he wanders on to reincarnation, and being the vulture.  So let’s allow that.  His flesh was consumed by vultures, perhaps his soul was reincarnated as one.  And perhaps he’s circling over these woods*, with his buddies, engaging in mutual aid and cooperation.  Watching.  What would he make of these anthropos following each other on these odd, wheeled contraptions around a circuitous path through the woods?  These sojourners, out of place and ill-equipped for wild living with their exposed skin and tiny teeth.  

Maybe I’ll write that essay someday.  Do a sort of Horace Miner thing with cycling.  It needs to be done.  But not now.  I’m tired.

Results: Ninth on the stage, dropped to 9th overall, 1:13 (that’s one hour, 13 minutes) down on the leader.

* As far as I know, there aren’t actually any vultures living in central PA forests.  Correct me if I’m wrong.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

2014 trans-sylvania epic, stage three*

Stage three.  I woke up thinking that’s when these things usually end.  With three stages.  I’ve done a couple of four-day stages races.  One of them twice.  But the most we usually get is three.  But I woke up this morning thinking ok, well, stage three…after today, four more to go.  Not even half done.  Crazy.

Today we rode enduro.  What is endure, you ask?  Well, let’s start with the race profile.

Lots of up and down.  Only the down mattered today.

While the entire course is 20+ miles, the only parts that count are those light green sections.  Those sections are timed—we swipe a little card past a reader at the beginning and end of each segment—and placings are determined by your combined time through those five sections.  The rest doesn’t matter.  You can ride fast, slow, walk, crawl, whatever.

The kicker here, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, is that those five timed segments are all downhill.  They can all be ridden very fast.  In fact, are supposed to be ridden fast.  And, for me at least, can be terrifying. 

Enduro day brought out the big bouncy bikes, a lot of POC helmets, and a noticeable decrease in the number of Lycra-clad legs.   What’s that, you say?  You thought a mountain bike was a mountain bike was a mountain bike?  You thought you'd dress the same no matter what you were doing on the bike?  Oh no.  Perhaps you’ll find this instructional video…instructional.

Culture, kids.  There are rules everywhere, and the playaz know the rules.

Anyway, today was a fun day.  Even the one, terrifying, saw-the-face-of-God moment I had on Wildcat, now, with the passing of multiple hours, seems like it added to the general feeling of having had an awesome day on the bike.  But let me back up and mention that moment.  On Wildcat.  The fourth segment of the day.

Most people, when talking about this trail, will savor the bottom portion of the trail in their telling.  How the trail sort of descends into this creek bed, and how there are drop-offs and large rocks and how the water makes it all the more hard to ride.  That part was gnarly, and I’m not ashamed to say I walked it (dudes with skillz far beyond mine also walked it).  However, it was a section much further up, where the trail dropped off from steep to insane, with largish loose rocks and nowhere to bail and where it would be impossible to stop even if you wanted to (and believe me I wanted to) that I saw the face of God.

Imagine you’re driving a two-lane country highway, you’re tired, and your eyelids droop just a bit.  The next thing you know you’re halfway in the other lane with a semi-truck barreling towards you and death seems a very real and very present possibility.  Imagine your heart skipping a beat, and then drumming out 100 beats or so in the next five seconds to make up for it.  That’s how it felt.

Now, had I known that the cliff (I’m struggling to think of a better word, though those with more descending bravado will roll their eyes if they know the trail) had a fairly comfortable run-out near the bottom, and that it’s reasonable, even for a guy like me, to go mach zillion down this bit and then recover shortly--or, to put it another way, had I ridden this trail before--I likely would not have been so pale faced.  But I didn’t, I hadn’t, and the few half-thoughts that I was able to process during that moment involved what would likely happen—how it would look, and how much it would hurt—if I went OTB (over the bars).  I would not have escaped serious injury. 

As today was a short stage, I finished up, jumped in the car, and drove straight back to Shippensburg.  My family missed me.  I missed my family.  I was intending to go to a T-ball game, but the rain cancelled.  An early day tomorrow, to get back up and back at it for stage four.

The two-hour drive cut my reading time.  To exactly zero minutes.  So without Abbey’s help priming the pump, I’ll return to yesterday’s theme and add just one more thought on being exceptional.

The insurmountable problem with competing, with the measuring of one’s own performance to the performance of others, is that no matter how good you are, there is always someone better.  Win a high school track meet?  Great.  There’s still a hundred people faster than you in your state.  Win a state meet?  That’s something, but there are legions in college that could trounce you.  Win a collegiate national title?  That’s downright awesome, but you didn’t even meet the Olympic qualifying time.  You’re on the Olympic team?  That’s truly noteworthy, but you’re not even going to crack the top 20 at the games.  Win a gold medal?  You’re on top of the world!  For exactly one day.  Tomorrow, someone will topple you.

I’m reminded of something Wendell Berry wrote about bureaucracies:

“Corporate life is composed only of underlings and higher underlings.  Bosses are everywhere, and all the bosses are underlings.”

As true in athletics as it is in our work lives. 


* I realized late yesterday I’ve been misspelling the name of this race I’m doing.  It’s “Trans-Sylavnia Epic.”  There are two s’s, a hyphen, and a capital.