Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Career Without a Job

I was talking to a friend of mine recently who has had the same job for the last few years.  I have yet to do that.  The longest I've held any single job has been two years, and it was a silly job that I didn't care about but slowed my burn rate through savings while I pursued dance.  The runner-up for longest time is the job I had the first season I spent in Lake Tahoe, which got me a season pass, a food discount, and just enough money to buy food and gas for my car until I went back to New York and zeroed out my credit cards and rebuilt my savings account.  She also shared her yearly income with me, and it's significantly higher than anything I've made in a year.

My emotional reaction wasn't envy, though.  There are a number of reasons I've never held a job for a very long time.  The biggest one is freedom - since graduating college, I've done a lot of things that I think are really cool and that have been very rewarding for me.  I've also had a few periods of really low employment that haven't been cool or rewarding, but on balance, I'd make most of the same choices again.

I've studied dance at a professional school.  I've designed the lighting for over a dozen shows, including three really large-scale ones with big lighting rigs and some little shows that I'm really proud of.  I've skied a 90-day season.  I've been paid to take a vacation in upstate New York.  I've worked New York Fashion Week a couple of times, and seen the excess that goes into it.  I can parallel park a box truck.

My brother sent me an interesting article the other day, "The Case for Working With Your Hands."  There were a couple things that I really liked about it.  One was that later in the article, the author contrasts the feeling of working in a cubicle, accomplishing little, with the freedom and sense of accomplishment he felt as an electrician.  Another was his defence of the intelligence, diagnostic ability and skill of people who fix motorcycles and, by extension,  anyone who troubleshoots something concrete and physical, that may be constructed in ways that are inconvenient or even senseless.

It's a little disengenuous for me to say that before moving to Seattle, I hadn't had a job in five years.  It would be more accurate to say that I hadn't had a boss in five years.  When I lost my job waiting tables, in October 2004, I'd just started picking up freelance gigs fixing things in offices and hadn't yet done much theatrical lighting work.  I figured out my budget and realized I could scrape by without getting another job, as long as I kept freelancing at the same rate.  So I started promoting myself more as a freelancer, and working for some really stupid companies, and began to do okay for myself.  Over time, I worked my rate up and started working for better companies and doing a fair amount of off-Broadway work.  In between my ski bum seasons, upstate summer, and design gigs, I was working.  But I worked for a few different companies and through my off-Broadway connection, as well as random things on Craigslist from time to time, like putting up people's flatscreens, so there was never a person who could fire me and make my life take a drastic turn.  There was also not someone whose permission I needed to take a vacation - I just didn't accept work or call to book work.

There's a country song that goes "Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose."  I've had moments of feeling that way, especially during the long, hot New York summer when everyone who can afford to throw a lavish party leaves town, shows don't open and rarely close, and I can't afford to do much more than play video games with all the time I suddenly have.  But I think I actually have a lot to show for the time I spent working as a stagehand.  First of all, I'm really good at my specialty, which is electrics.  I may have started as "You there, coil that," but I finished as "Andrew, can you figure out why this isn't working?" "Andrew, can you figure out how to do this bizarre task?" or "Andrew, take this drawing and two guys and hang this lighting position."

Starting over in Seattle has been hard.  In a business where reputation is everything, mine is 3000 miles away.  At the same time, it's forcing me to take a look at what I've been doing.  I'm proud of being a good stage lighting technician, but I've also been a classic underachiever.  When I thought I wanted lighting design to be my career, it was one thing, but the problems in lighting design are either insoluble, at least within the bounds of available equipment and budget, or pretty easy to solve.  Sometimes I'm shocked that other people haven't solved them in the past, like when I found out that I was putting the heaviest hang in company history on the two frontlighting positions for the summer stock show I did, but it's not that hard a problem.  It's been nice to know trig, but I usually use CAD to do it for me anyway.

So that leaves me with nothing but a bag of hand tools, a pretty sweet drill, and a wide-open future.  I feel like I should wear a cowboy hat when I say that, even though usually if I need a cordless drill, a cowboy hat won't fit where I'm working.  I think I'm starting to get some traction in the stagehand scene, here, which is good, but I have no problem seeing that job for what it is for me - a facilitator.  I want a job in which I solve problems.  I want them to be weird, challenging problems.  They should be harder than "How do I get frontlight on this stage from two really tiny lighting positions" or "How can I get a couple of even washes out of this bizarre lighting inventory."  The projects involved should have more of an effect on people's daily lives than letting them know that right now, the main character is having a dream or that the characters onstage are really angry or that the location is in a forest.  And if it's not too much to ask, I'd like to build things from time to time.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Name for my Kona, Sort Of

A good friend of mine names a lot of her possessions.  I don't really like to do that, but it has happened to some of mine anyway - people have a thing for naming modes of transportation, and will do it for mine.  Including my cyclocross bike, which she had festooned with bits and pieces of commute/training bike accessory - different pedals, fenders, street tires, many blinkers, a cycle computer, etc. etc.

Since getting it back, I've been thinking about how to name my cyclocross bike.  It feels a little odd - I like the idea of a bicycle as a "human amplifier," something that increases the ability of a person to do a specific task.  The person remains the main actor in accomplishing the task.  Even the UCI is into this idea, although some of the equipment restrictions they place to support this can seem strange to those of us outside their administration.  Naming a bike feels a little bit like naming my drill.

The task in a cyclocross race is to do as many laps around a short, mainly off-road race course with barriers and steep sections as possible in a designated time, then cross the finish line before the next guy.  The courses are just smooth enough and emphasize rapid accelerations and lifting or carrying the bike just enough to favor a fatter-tired road bike.  Riding a road bike off-road is really brutal, both to the rider and the bike.  Not everyone finishes, and almost every race has a few finishers running across the line with pieces dangling from their bikes.  I think that one of the defining aspects of finishing a cyclocross race is simply refusing to stop.  "Flat tire?  I'll ride another mile to the pit, and get my other wheel."  "Broken derailleur?  I'll run to the pit, shorten my chain, and finish as a singlespeed."  "Broken collar bone?"  That guy quit his race, actually.  Same with the guy who broke his fork and blew up his front wheel.  I've destroyed a headset on my bike, and hit my brake hoods hard enough to twist them around on the handlebar a couple of times.  I also had a persistent problem with dropping the chain until I got a device installed to prevent that.  Despite all that, it completed the season.

Die Hard is one of my favorite movies.  I love that the hero, John McClane, starts the movie in pain.  I think he starts the others that way too.  Throughout the movie, more and more bad things happen to him, yet he continues on.  Eventually he succeeds, seemingly because despite overwhelming odds and no shoes, he simply won't quit.  It's as if the evil terrorists/mercenaries run out of ideas for how to kill him, get tired, and decide to die just so they don't have to deal with him any more.  I think that racing cyclocross is the spandex-clad equivalent of that story.  Unless you count the Paris-Roubaix, which lasts a lot longer and is contested on even skinnier tires.

I think that, now that it's back in my care and I'm returning it to its racing trim, the bike's due to get a name from me, if only so that it has one that has more relevance to me than "Damian."  I don't know if I'll ever use it, though - if you hear me refer to "McClane," I'm probably referring to the movie character.  I'm not likely to refer to my Kona by name until I start referring to my LeMond, my mountain bike and my drill by name as well.  My commute bikes have a little bit of a history of having names, now, so Mercedes gets to stay a named vehicle, although I think I call it "my Raleigh" more often than I use its name too.  Not that I don't get a little mystical about my tools - I consider my bikes to be an extension of my body, at least when I'm riding them and they're working.  I tend to think of my speed wrench that way too, but I spend too much time managing my tools and too little time accomplishing things with my other hand tools and my drill.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

On This Day, In This Race, The Fastest I Could Go

I felt a little fatigued from the very beginning of today's race, but I actually ended up doing pretty well.  It was on Whidbey Island, one of the islands in Puget Sound.  Being a cheapskate, I drove to the ferry terminal, parked my truck, and crossed with just my bike.  I figured riding three or four miles to the course would help me get warmed up, and it didn't make sense to me to pay a bunch of extra money just to have my truck to put stuff in, when I could just throw my bag in the bushes and be pretty confident that it would be okay.  The number of expensive bikes and amount of other stuff lying around at bicycle races is pretty staggering.

I actually bumped into one of my teammates on the ferry, and he took my messenger bag, which was really nice - it was a bit heavy, with all the water I brought, and riding to the race course with just a camelbak was much more comfortable (he'd already promised a ride to the race to two other people, and didn't have space for more bikes.)

Riding to the course, my legs felt tired and I found myself having a hard time finding the right gear.  When I got there, Joel, my teammate, had actually just arrived - he had time to park and walk the short distance to the course in the time it took me to ride there, so I wasn't going as slowly as I felt like I was.  We started to pre-ride together, but Joel's a faster rider than I am and we got separated pretty quickly.

The land the course is on is pretty flat.  It had some grades, including some pretty difficult climbs, but no really major elevation gain or loss.  Because it's been warm and dry lately, the course was very dry and very fast.  It had a lot of rollers and stutter bumps, so keeping the bike on the ground on the gentle downslopes was difficult and keeping the rear wheel hooked up on the climbs was sometimes hard too.  The soil was mostly pretty sandy, but the trees were quite dense and there were small ones getting very, very close to the trail.  I'm not usually nervous about using bar ends on my bike, but they scared me a little today.

The most interesting, and strangest feature on the course was the large grey dirt mounds.  They were very steep - probably the angle of repose of the dirt they were made out of.  They were a lot like really overgrown moguls from a dirt jumping track, but without a significant descent leading to them and at 10' tall, getting up them was challenging.  Two were in places that made it difficult to carry much intertia, and the trail actually turned passing over one in another location.  I thought they were lots of fun.

A lot of the course was on what looked like fire roads, although they seemed a little too narrow for anything bigger than an ATV or dirt bike.  They were mostly very straight, so the course pretty much alternated fast, non-technical straightaways with twisty singletrack.  The singletrack wasn't too technical either, but all the turns gave me trouble.  I think that it will change my lap times a lot when I can figure out how to take turns faster.

By the time I finished my pre-ride, the sport class riders were already staging for the start.  I still had time to eat another power bar and switch from my camelbak to a water bottle, but not as much as I like to.  I guess I also didn't have time to start questioning my ability to perform well, but I'd already been doing that since getting off the ferry, so it was kind of a wash.

The race followed the pattern I'm beginning to be accustomed to - my age group started hard and fast, and I tried to give myself a position that wouldn't force me to pass a lot of people once the pack started to spread out.  I did pass a couple people, but not too many, and I don't think I worked as much passing them as I might have fighting for a better position at the very beginning.  I tried to keep the lead group in sight for a while, but as tired as I was feeling, I wasn't going to try to maintain their pace - it was a mistake two weeks ago, and I was feeling a bit better that day.  So I ended up dropping away from the leaders, and I dropped the guys following me, and rode pretty much alone for a while.  Near the end of the first lap, the leaders from the older age group passed me, and then I started giving up spots to faster people from the 35-44 category every now and then.  Sometime during the second lap, I also caught up to some of the people who'd gone out ahead of me at the beginning.  That's always a nice vindication of my pacing.

On another day, I might have tried to ride really hard for the third lap.  Today was not that day, and I just continued at the same pace.  There were a few spots where I thought about trying to go a little faster, but ultimately the fatigue won - I was racing pretty close to the fastest I could go, and I was afraid that the recovery time that would follow a hard effort would easily outweigh any gains I might make.

Most of the way through the third lap, I caught up to my teammate.  I later learned he'd had some trouble with his chain on two occasions during the race, and wasn't having a brilliant day.  He had it solved when I saw him, so he hopped on my wheel right away when I passed him.  He followed me for a while, but two more riders chased onto us and he passed me defending his position from them.  The race was almost over at that point, so I started riding harder, and managed to keep him and the two other riders in sight for the rest of the race.  We went through the last few turns like the Four Horsemen of the Apocolypse, or perhaps the three horsemen of the apocolypse and someone's cousin who was available to cover a shift on short notice - I kept the other guys in sight, but it was a struggle.

The organizers for this race were taking the bottom strip off of everyone's race number and staple it to a bulletin board to simultaneously track and post people's positions at the end.  I think the immediacy of that is totally cool - no waiting while the marshals figure out places.  I'm not sure if the two other guys in the cluster I finished with were in my and Joel's age group or not.  He got sixth, and I finished seventh.

I think the field today was about the same size and at least as competitive as the group that came out for the Tucker Classic two weeks ago, so a seventh place finish is a little better than my last one.  I felt better going into the race two weeks ago, despite having had poor sleep, but I think that riding too hard in the beginning of that race cost me; this time I think I paced myself just right.  I was slowing down a little at the very end, I think, before Joel and the other two riders passed me and gave me some extra motivation, but not as badly as what I had to do during the middle part of the one two weeks ago.  When I last looked at the bulletin board, a little while after I'd finished (and had a chance to grab my camelbak again, since my bottle was empty) there were fifteen names up in my age group.  I'm not sure how many started, but I think it was more than that.  In any case, I definitely finished in the top half of my age and class, so that's good too.

I felt pretty demolished when I finished.  My legs were weak, I was thirsty, and I had a little bit of a headache.  One of the things I love about racing is that unless I have a failure in motivation, I almost always push myself to the limit of what I can do on that day.  I don't think there's anything I could have done differently today that would have improved my race.  Getting there earlier might have been nice, but I doubt that it would actually have made a difference in how I did.  In any case, I think that I rode the best race I could from when the organizer said "go" until I crossed the finish line.  I think a lot of this blog sounds a little negative - tiredness was certainly a theme today.  However, I did better than I did two weeks ago, and I'm feeling very fast.  I think that all my training and preparation is working, and I'm having a blast.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

I can totally true this!

People sometimes give me crap about having too many bikes.

This didn't just happen to one of my nice bikes.

I really will try to fix it, though.  Stay tuned.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Tucker Classic Race Report

Last weekend's race was a blast.  It's also the hardest I've ever ridden for 1:48.  I expected another really muddy race like the one a couple weeks ago but it ended up being a really beautiful day.

A couple weeks ago, after looking at my time and finishing position, I decided it was time to quit strategizing and go really hard from the very beginning, to try to stay in contact with the lead group of guys in my age class.  I got fourth place a few weeks ago, with a pretty large gap, but I also had a lot of mechanical difficulties and I'm sure I lost a lot of time to them, so I thought I might have it in me to stay with them if my bike could behave.

I put myself in the second row on the side, and gave myself a position a few riders back from the front racing up the paved uphill at the start.  I don't like to be in front until near the end of the race, unless letting someone else lead puts me at too slow a pace.  The format was going to be four and a half laps - we were taking a different turn at the start of the race, and skipping half a lap.  I let it startle me a little bit when we blew past the turn I was expecting and took the subsequent left, but I don't think that really effected me.

As soon as the pack got onto the singletrack, I started to lose my place a little bit.  The rider in front of me would open up a gap going into a turn and then I'd have to reel him back in.  Riding like that takes a lot more energy than maintaining the same speed if I carry more of it through the turns.

Before the lap was over, the lead group, with me still in it at that point, had started to fan out.  So it was more like lead riders.  I guess I was probably in sixth.  I was working really hard staying on the wheel of the guy in front of me.  He opened larger and larger gaps in the curvier bits of the course, and I had to work harder and harder to get back on him, and then I decided that if I kept doing this I was just going to bonk.  So I let him go, and shifted to a little lower gear, and then I rode pretty much on my own for a lap or two.

Some time after that, during the second full lap, one of my teammates passed me and there started to be more traffic on the course again - the faster Sport riders in the older age groups were catching me, and some of the 19-34 riders who hadn't started as strong as I did.  They weren't going a lot faster, so when they'd pass, I'd grab a wheel and hang on for a while.

My speed had been drifting up a little bit again during the latter half of the second lap, and I was feeling pretty strong again once I started racing the older Sport class riders.  I started to feel like I was a little too hard again, and I ran out of water during the third, but with only a lap remaining, I decided to quit worrying and just ride my bike.  Some time during the third lap, a guy I trade places with a lot on Wednesday nights showed up on my wheel.  He corners a lot faster than I do, but I climb a lot faster than he does.  He passed me going into the more technical side of the course and I didn't think I'd see him again.  Then I caught him again toward the end of the lap, on a climb of course, and managed to stick with him until the fourth lap.  There was another guy, wearing green, who passed me in some twisty stuff, then I caught in a climb, then lost in some twisty stuff, etc.

Kurt's in the same class as me, and I was pretty sure the green guy was close by too, a little behind me at that time, I think, so a little while after the fourth lap started, right after we came out of the woods and got onto the uphill road that the start had been on, I started riding really, really hard again.  I got by Kurt and into the singletrack, and I figured he'd probably be breathing down my neck and pass me somewhere on the dirt.  There's a sandy climb that's deep enough to give really poor traction and slow me down a lot, and on the last lap I ran up it because I'm faster on foot on that kind of surface.  I heard him cheering, "Run it out!  Run it out!"  I may have opened a gap there but I'm pretty sure he was still close further toward the end of the lap, when I got to a slightly sandy packed piece of trail that goes really, really fast.  The last part of the course consists of the really fast hard-packed section, followed by some sandy descents and climbs, and then a steep, firmer descent and a broad curve to the finish, with lots of grass on either side so there's plenty of room for several riders to sprint for position.  I'd had to adjust my pace down a little bit after my first attack during that lap, but I opened up again at the fast part before the climbs and I guess I just dropped everybody.

Thanks to ges5690 for the picture.

I guess that last sprint wasn't necessary.  It's not a bad habit to be in though - being able to sprint on tired legs has helped me defend my position at the end of a couple of cyclocross races.

When I finished, I felt like my heart was going to explode, pulverizing my lungs.  I also felt like my head was going to explode, and my legs, while not shaking, were pretty weak.  It's funny - I had it in me to keep charging while I was finishing the race, but then I was done.  Amanda says that she likes to see me finish races like that - it lets her know that I'm not some kind of cycling god (I'd say the sixteen guys who finished ahead of me are evidence of that as well) and I get tired too.

The race was four and a half laps.  I did it in 1:48:30.4, finishing in eighth place in my age class and seventeenth in the Sport class as a whole.  Assuming the first half lap was exactly half a lap, my lap time was just over 24 minutes.  The guy who won it in my age class (and finished first in the Sport class that day) did it in just under 1:39.  That means his lap time was about 22 minutes per lap.  The next six guys were in a group, and finished in 1:43:15.8 to 1:43:58.3.  That puts them at about 23 minutes per lap.  If I were 5% faster, I'd be in second place.  (Or I could race beginner - my lap time is just slightly better than the guy who won it.  That would be super-classy.)  The guy who won in Open had about a 19 minute lap time, and they raced two more laps than Sport class.

I'd say that my two main weaknesses right now are that I'm not able to corner as fast as the other guys - I actually fell twice trying to do corners a little faster, so I need to do them better, and then worry about speed - and that I can't maintain quite as high a speed in flat parts of the course as the guys who are beating me.  I'm doing a different kind of intervals lately that I think will do more for the speeds I can maintain during the entirety of a race, as opposed to sprints at really high effort levels, which are more applicable to cyclocross, and if I also go mountain biking more often, that should help with the corners.

I have another race in exactly a week.  I felt really strong going for a fast ride on my road bike yesterday, but I don't know if I'm enough stronger to hang in with the six guys right in front of me.  Next week, I'm going to try to be disciplined about letting the guy in front of me drop me if it's early in the race and I don't think I can spend another ninety minutes at that effort level.  Sometimes when I do that, I discover that he can't either and I reel him in later and sometimes I don't, but my overall goal is always to ride my own best race.  I think that not pushing too hard in the beginning is part of achieving that - I doubt that I'd have caught the seventh place rider last weekend even if I hadn't gone too hard in the beginning, but I'm sure I'd have had a better time.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Pictures from the Tucker Classic

I thought I knew where on the course this was, but now that I look at it, I really don't.


Thanks to ges5690, whoever you are.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Read My Friend's Blog (because I'm narcissistic)

I went racing on Sunday.  I'll write a real post about it later.  For now, there are some pictures of me, wearing spandex of course, warming up before the race over on Broken Thoughts.

And a picture I took today with my phone...

I try to restrain my impulse to snobbery concerning other people's bikes.  But when the bike in question costs $1900 at retail, it's hard not to be snobby when they don't make sense.  When I see this bike, it looks to me like a bike for going very fast indeed, but not in a UCI or USA Cycling-sanctioned race, and wearing street shoes.  Messengers like that kind of bike, but it seems like way too much money to leave locked outside all the time and ride on city streets constantly.  Also, messengers are reputed to use five-spoke wheels for their greater durability when repeatedly having chain locks shoved through them.  This guy is asking for someone to take his wheelset.