Category Archives: Senseless Acts

Little house of men

MY FATHER MADE it clear to me that I was mechanically inept. “Sometimes it skips a generation,” was the phrase, and we believe what we’re told by people who love us. He had it, I didn’t, and because it had skipped me, I never would.

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ALL THE QUOTES are from Pastime, a 1991 Spenser novel.

“Remember,” I said, “there were no women. Just my father, my uncles, and me. So all the chores were done by men. There was no woman’s work. There were no rules about what was woman’s work. In our house all work was man’s work. So I made beds and dusted and did laundry, and so did my father, and my uncles. And they took turns cooking.”

The first thing I bought to improve my kitchen was a serving spoon. I was working at Scholastic Books in Manhattan, and across from it was Dean and DeLuca, a very expensive gourmet shop where sometimes, to make myself feel better, I’d drop several dollars more on a treat than something only a scant degree less enjoyable would have cost at Cafe Duke.

They had utensils there, too, not just tony takeout. I bought this big, pretty, satin-finish serving spoon. An insignia of intent—of seriousness, if impulsive. A single piton.

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THEN, BECAUSE I was reading Consider the Fork, and she swore by tongs, a pair of those, also from Dean and DeLuca; and thanks to a minor casino windfall of my wife’s, a rice cooker from Mitsuwa Marketplace—the largest Japanese grocery store in the US, which I’d sometimes stop into after riding my bike into New Jersey, to pack my single pannier with sake for me and mochi or candy for my family. Then the Microplane Zester/Grater—I think that was also from Consider the Fork—and I don’t remember the order of acquisitions after that. A thing here, a thing there. All haphazard, probably, from the outside, but tightly integrated to the emerging pattern in here. A pretty serving spoon was only needed if I was going to take food seriously enough to want to present it; we already had black nylon cooking spoons, which we used for both stirring and serving. This would not be used for stirring. Tongs were only necessary if I wanted to risk, on the say-so of a book, money on a utensil I’d never felt the lack of, but which an expert called her most valuable. And a rice cooker is a long-term decision about nutrition, expense, and self-reliance…and I have this Kurusawa/Mifune thing. The ronin in The Seven Samurai—as determined, scarred, and self-reliant as any knight-errant gumshoe—accept rice as payment.

Separated by weeks and freelance checks came: a good garlic press, a balloon whisk despite already having a spiral one, a small mortar and pestle, two nice big white serving bowls from Sur La Table, nested, even though mixing bowls had been serving the same purpose just fine. Each item requiring a second or third thought, and usually a second or third visit, before the purchase.

 

“So all of you cooked?”

“Yeah, but no one was proprietary about it. It wasn’t anyone’s accomplishment, it was a way to get food in the proper condition to eat.”

 

MY MARRIAGE ENDED, after a quarter-century, in July, 2014. She moved first, to the county in Connecticut we’d agreed on so the boys could have good schools and I could have train access to Scholastic. By the time the moving started, Scholastic had given all my work to a much larger vendor that could offer bulk pricing. No time to react. Two weeks later, I landed in the same county, different town.

I got the old raw-wood Ikea utility table. On our first weekend together, I had the boys sand and stain it with me, and it moved into our new kitchen as our new prep table. It fit precisely. We didn’t have anywhere to eat yet, or even a wastebasket, but I knew what kind of little family of men I wanted.

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THEY TURNED TEN soon after we moved. Now they’re eleven.

I called them to the top of the stairs to their room this evening, and said to the one who’s only intermittently interested in cooking, “There are two things I need done, and you can choose which. One, you can wash some dishes and set the table. Two, I need the chain taken off my folding bike, which is in the bike garage on the workstand, and put to soak in cleaner.”

“CHAIN!”

His brother’s dream is to be on MasterChef Junior; I’ve been working with him on cooking since we moved here. This boy’s equivalent started four days ago, when he began his career as a mechanic by replacing the rear dérailleur and shifter cable on a little secondhand mountain bike his mom bought to keep at her place. His career will probably not be as a mechanic; he wants to be a scientist. I will probably never be able to send him to college, but I was struck, long ago, by Richard Feynman’s stories of being “The Boy Who Fixes Radios By Thinking,” and I can at least give him a tactile understanding of basic physics. The classical simple machines are lever, wheel and axle, pulley, inclined plane, wedge, and screw. Bicycles are compound collections of four out of six, and the other two (wedge, inclined plane) are integral to fixing and riding them.

And not just of basic physics, but of applied physics; felt physics. Reading about springs and being able to repeat that they store energy is not the same as getting your finger pinched when a dérailleur snaps back on its hanger. The abstraction of reading says the physical world is readily understood and easily manipulated. The orneriness of reality teaches you that perseverance and endurance are the only things that really ever manipulate it.

The bike garage is the only room in the house where he’s allowed to swear.

I’ve struggled with dérailleur adjustment for two years, since I bought my first workstand and bike tool set during the same life epoch that pushed me to buy the serving spoon. Lightly guiding my budding mechanic through his own first repair blew away the last of the obstacles. I now get it. Last night after seeing my boys at a school concert and then leaving them and driving half an hour home by myself, I needed to make myself feel better, so I shouldered my randonneuring bike down the basement stairs and tuned up its winter-beaten drivetrain. I didn’t refer to any of my previous printouts from the web. It just makes sense.

It made sense to mechanical boy in a single day. Mostly I just tightened things his hands were too small for, made him stop when he jumped to the wrong conclusions, and told him not to hit himself in the face with the cable.

I also had him touch the cable near the shifter while turning the grip, to feel what’s going on up there, and then had him do it again while watching the dérailleur. His light bulbs went off so much faster than mine ever have. He’s got that thing I don’t.

 

“Your father sounds as if he were comfortable with his ego,” Susan said.

“He never felt the need to compete with me,” I said. “He was always very willing for me to grow up.”

 

SO I HAVE my fantasy house, my little family of men. I yell at them sometimes, which Spenser’s fictitious father and uncles never did, and feel unforgivably shitty and apologize. I’m trying to be an ideal, and that’s something nobody can maintain outside the hermetic chamber of a book. But even an unattainable ideal lies in a direction, and if we don’t aim for it, we don’t travel in that direction, and can’t get reshaped by the effort.

We’re still jerks sometimes, all three of us, including the one who’s not eleven, but I think we’re teaching each other how to be better men, one generation to the next.

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IT WAS A very simple dinner tonight because of work and being tired and not-recovered-yet broke, and as a pan heated, I went downstairs, plausibly to make sure the mechanic knew where the Chain Brite was before he got started, but really to see about fingers not being pinched, and he was already done. The chain and master link were soaking in the yellow Domino Sugar tub. So I agreed that yes, it is very fun and he should totally do more of this kind of thing, and went back up to the kitchen and his brother said, “Can I butterfly these sausages for you, Dad?”

I know how I got here. I don’t want to sound disingenuous. It was intentional.

This is just a night when I had that moment, and am amazed.

house_of_men

 

 

 

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Two stragglers

So first Fat Cyclist called me out, and then I called him out back, and then he missed his story deadline, and then I made my deadline for “The Rambler, Part 2,” and gave him more time and he got “Last Ride on the Kokopelli” done, and then November 30th at midnight, I missed my deadline for getting the whole book together and up for sale.

So…I can’t tell who won anything. I think we both lost—but we also both finished our stories, and I’m about to finish the book. That’s noble and honorable, right? Coming in under your own power after you miss the cutoff?

Here’s the cover:

RIDE3_cover_12_01_15

It still needs its back cover and spine designed, a missing author blurb snagged, ISBNs registered, and some other stuff that somebody’s got to do and I’m the only one here. I tried. Sometimes N+1 is how long it’s going to take to finish a book.

Should be a couple more days or so.

We also never quite got around to agreeing on exactly what would happen if one of us lost, but now that both of us have, it seems to me it should be doubled.

So if we take [never really figured out this bet] and double it, we get…uh…well, I think we get “donate money to each other’s favorite charity.”

What say you, FC?

two_stragglers

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Some notes to myself, upon embarking on draft 2

THE PERSONAL

You can tell when it’s special and when it’s not.

You can tell when it’s right and when it’s not.

You know more about words than most readers. Use the right ones. They’ll get it. Eaters don’t need to be chefs. Chefs need to be chefs.

You’ve learned about structure from reading and thinking about mysteries. Use that.

But you’ve never actually cared who did it, and you’ve learned more about structure from jokes than from mysteries. Use that more.

You’ve never dreamed of being a financial star. Don’t start now. Be special, be right, be small.

THE MECHANICAL

Know what everyone’s doing, and where, and why, including the ones that aren’t in this scene.

Know why everyone says everything, including the narrator.

You found out what you were really getting at in draft 1 when you wrote its climax. Write draft 2 like it’s a joke: If you look at the plot backward, everything should hang from the punchline.

But since it’s a novel, what’s hanging on that nail should be a mobile.

If you’ve seen it before, cut it.

2nd_draft_notes

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Simple machine

I WAS DEPRESSED when I woke up yesterday morning, and weight loss had reversed since I got sick earlier in the week, and it was 15° out and gloomy and there seemed no point. So I posted on Facebook:

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Because I’d posted something all tough-sounding, now I had to be able to say later that I’d done it, so I eventually found all my winter cycling clothes (not the Lycra ones, the jeans and parka ones) and went outside.

Because I keep a very cheap bottom-end single-speed fatbike outside, and still have the buckskin mittens I got in the Arctic and never thought I’d use again, I could ride to my new workspace without worrying about getting stuck there if it snowed during the day.

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Because cycling drives your psyche clean, I got there in a good mood, and because even 3.7 flat miles is a workout on a 60-pound bike with 15psi tires, I got there in a good mood and invigorated—and hungry.

Because I was now in Danbury, I didn’t have to eat random leftovers out of the fridge.

And because I was invigorated and fed, and have always loved any unfamiliar cold sweet drink, I was friendly and happy.

Because I was friendly, I got into a friendly conversation with one of the guys who started the Hackerspace, and because I’m “the book design guy,” was taken forcibly by the lapels and hauled across the street, to a medium-small press, where I was introduced to the publisher and acquiring editor.

Because I don’t have a headlight on this bike yet, I rode home just before dark.

Because I was home before dark, I had time to check out Open Mic Night at my local coffeehouse, which I liked better than the open mics I’ve checked out at local bars. I have a new song that’s almost done.

Because I hadn’t written all day, I felt the day had been a failure. But not the kind of failure where everything’s hopeless, which is how I’d felt in the morning; the kind where you know it actually is a failure of sorts, but because you got your riding in…eh, you know, no point being despondent. And the lard thing was pretty funny. Just do better tomorrow.

Here’s the lard thing. I have no idea how to count calories when buying Chinese food cooked by the owner of the grocery store:

Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 6.30.26 PM

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THIS MORNING I weighed in at less than 220 for the first time since November.

I was also a little sorrowful for no very clear reason, and a little sick, still. But the depression wasn’t so bad. And because I didn’t want to break the new streak, I rode to work again.

Bicycling gives you the same ideas you get when you’re falling asleep, only you can write them down when you get there. When I got to the Hackerspace, I wrote down what the climax and ending of this novel are.

(Because bicycling also replays painful old gaffes on a loop, I imagined how people I’ve been weird to—because at specific times of my life, my personality wasn’t back together yet—would react to the book. Eh, Snyder. Yeah, don’t like him. YOU can, I’m not saying otherwise. We all have our tastes, and none are wrong. Just…you know…*raised eyebrows and shrug*.)

(Because bicycling also pumps good mood through your entire being, I remembered I don’t actually care all that much that I sometimes fumble the social thing.)

Because I know the climax now, I’m taking a break from plotting and narrative and working on blurbable reviews. Publishers Weekly will call it one of the first masterworks of the early twenty-first century. The New York Times will marvel that a genre writer could have produced such a layered work of subtle complexity. These are advance blurbs, and subject to change.

I will be accused, by my friends, of snobbishly distancing myself from genre, and will patiently explain what I really meant in the interview. My explanation will be grudgingly accepted, but only four of my friends will still talk to me a month later. That’s a net gain of two, so this works out great.

Metal tubes, cables, rubber, leather. Gears and levers. Miracles.

Bruno the Big-Boned

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The Man Who Designed Books

I REMEMBERED, WHILE compiling a big list of production managers, small press owners, and anybody else I could think of who might need my services, that they always ask for samples, and it always takes hours to figure out just what they want and which things to send. If they specialize in how-to for sports-loving arthropods, I wonder if the self-help for anxious cetaceans I did will be quite the right thing to send, and I notice, while browsing EXO-STRIKE! An Invertebrate’s Guide to Bowling (in order to familiarize myself with the publisher), that it contains a lot of diagrams; there are none in my design for EASY ECHOLOCATION: Mackerel Without Worry.
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Breezy!

“DON’T WORRY about it. I can be the controle goy.”

Hopefully I didn’t sound flippant. It actually tickled me to do. Because it wasn’t kosher, he couldn’t buy anything to get the receipt.

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“IT’S NICE TO see you finish with some comfortable time.”

I finished in 10:39. This is only three minutes longer than the fastest 200K I’ve ever done, which was in Malibu and didn’t have headwinds, but did have a folding bike with concrete commuting tires and a wacky rear hub.

“What do you think made the difference?”

I said, “I’ve been doing a lot of commuting,” but on reflection, I think it’s more that this year, I know I can probably afford to take another shot if I DNF, so I can push harder and risk wearing myself out early.

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“YOU DID THIS one your first year.”

That was the most shocking thing all day: Someone knew that? And:

“I saw a rider going past _______ Road and I thought, that looks like Keith.”

It was! But I realized it half a block later and turned around. I think I went off-course three or four times, but my total bonus miles were less than one.

People pay attention when you don’t know they’re doing it. Weird. I always think I’m fated to fly solo.

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“NICHOLAS AND ZACHARY SAY MOOOOOOOO!”

The cows do not respond.
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Ziploc bag duct-taped to handlebars

High-tech map case

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A 30° TEMPERATURE range: 49° in the morning, 79° in the afternoon. I own two pairs of bike shoes: Clipless winter boots and clipless sandals. No normal ones, just those.

I dithered for a week. Then I brought sandals and Sealskinz socks. They were perfect. And I remembered to spray my feet with sunblock in the parking lot where the Sealskinz finally got peeled off. They were the last winterizing layer to go. Jacket, skullcap, glove liners, neck gaiter—a spring brevet is a six-hour striptease and then sunburn.

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I WASN’T lanterne rouge.

I wasn’t lanterne rouge.

Don’t get cocky, kid. Princeton’s coming up. You DNF’d at Schooley Mountain last time. It’s 300K of hills.

Humility: Reinstalled.

(Wasn’t lanterne rouge.)

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I LIKE MY tires. Schwalbe Durano Plus don’t have quite the buttery road feel of Schwalbe’s pure racing tires, but they’re more puncture-resistant, and, say…85% butterfat.

I learned in 2012, on this very brevet, that when the voice asks politely if you think you ought to change your tires yet, “Nah, still some life in them” is the wrong answer. The voice is itself the answer. If it’s saying anything at all, they’re already time bombs.

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SELF-RESPECT TIPS its hat. Nod back but don’t stop pedaling. You’re not done. Eat on the bike, drink on the bike, bask on the bike.

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I SPENT CONSIDERABLE time on this brevet trying out different ways of saying, “Breezy!”

(There were 30mph headwinds all the way down the Jersey shore.)

The delivery that works best is the one that sounds like I’m very pleased. But nobody understood it. Doesn’t matter, that was the one.

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MILE 105 OF 126, I’m sitting on grass, waiting for a bonk and caffeine headache to stabilize. I have three hours in the bank and a spring-lever tea ball in three inches of water in a bidon. I don’t actually call them bidons. I call them water bottles. I make a point of enjoying the scenery. I respect the moment and pay attention. I really see. Now I don’t remember anything. I think there was a fence.

Three hours in the bank minus ten minutes sitting on grass equals this was not my best 200K finishing time ever, but was instead 3 minutes over.

I bought a bike food cookbook after I got back.

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“YOUR SHORTS ARE ripped all up the back,” said a guy in the paceline that came up behind me at a stop. His voice was raised. The headwinds were punching us all right in the kisser.

“They are? Here?”

“Yeah.”

“The funny thing is, I wore these because my other ones had a hole in them. THERE IS NO ESCAPING DESTINY!”

I got a laugh.

“Breezy!” didn’t play, though. Everyone is wrong about this. It is the proper delivery.

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Arrivée

Arrivée

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“THERE’S A 6:40 train.”

“You know how to get there?”

“I do.”

I put my helmet back on. “Let’s go.”

So we sprinted for the station. Well, I sprinted. From the outside, it probably looked like I was drafting.

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“HAVE YOU recovered?” (Two days later.)

“Besides the achy quads and intermittently firing brain cells? TOTALLY.”

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AND NUMB PINKY finger and toes, and bruised hands. I’m going to miss this bike for all the best reasons, but the new one’s going to fit.

 

wing_96W

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Filed under Bicycling, Bikes, Randonneuring, Senseless acts of beauty

Lately I’ve gotten interested in my Strava heatmap. The randonneuring doesn’t show up on it much–I can see Patrick’s Queens-Montauk route, and little pieces of George’s up in the Hudson Valley, and the entirety of the Shore By Night, and I’m proud of those–but I didn’t get the Garmin until recently, and I didn’t use the iPhone much on brevets because it always died halfway through.

What I like is my tracks all over the grid of Manhattan, and the vectors radiating from it in all directions–East into Brooklyn and Queens, Northeast into Westchester, Northwest and Southwest into New Jersey. I’m a New Yorker, and I know these streets the way only a cyclist knows them. My legs drove every revolution of every wheel. I dodged all the cabs and potholes. It was me and the street and the bike in downpours, blizzards, blasting heat and perfect breeze. I did the uphills, I did the downhills, I dodged the trucks and stole interference from buses and deked around jaywalkers, and I fixed it or walked when it broke, or I broke it, or a mechanic broke it in a way that took 30 minutes or 3 days to show up. I leaned it against delis, I hit bad joints on bridges, I dropped roadies, I got dropped by guys with butts fatter than I accept that mine could possibly be.

“This is my city” is a nonsensical, gritty line written by writers who need another edit, but fuck yeah, this is my city. I laid the streets, I built the bridges, I mapped it. I rode it. This is my city. Whatever yours is, is yours. This one’s mine.

Keith’s Strava Heatmap

my_city

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April 1, 2014 · 10:06 pm