In praise of keeping stuff

I spent the afternoon reading multiple issues of Bicycling magazine. Why? As a member of the League of American Bicyclists, a subscription is included. It is a cold and rainy day. They were piling up next to my bed and it was time to clean up the pile. This morning I finished the book I was reading.

What did I learn? You need new stuff. The latest and greatest bike is way better than the bike you ride. Your clothes are outmoded. Short socks are out. Tall socks are in. Mostly I was reminded that magazines aren’t supported by subscriptions as much as by advertisers. Advertisers sell stuff. Therefore, magazines exist mostly to sell more stuff.

Over the years I learned that steel bikes were outmoded and everyone was riding aluminum…then titanium…then carbon fiber…and then I learned that “steel is real” and everyone should go out and buy a steel bike to go along with their fixie, areo bike, climbing bike, cyclocross bike, gravel bike, downhill bike, cross-country bike, trail bike, cargo bike, and e-bike. I’m sure I left out a couple of market segments, especially in the mountain bike world. To make it weirder, they started “Eroica” rides in Europe that require old bikes; old enough to have brake cables that route out the tops of the brake levers so you see a big loop of cable. That ended some time in the mid-1980s. In case you don’t have a bike that old, you can now buy replicas – brand new copies of 1985 technology. (So my bikes are just old, not classic. Just to be clear: the weird part, in my mind, is buying a brand-new replica of a 1985 bike; not riding an old bike.)

I’ll admit that there have been some useful changes in bike technology since I bought my Motobecane in 1974. And some of the new stuff I eschewed when I bought the Davidson in 1990 turned out to be good ideas. More gears are useful. Toe clips and straps with cleated shoes were way better than what came before, but modern pedal and cleat combinations are way better still. While I was skeptical of indexed shifting when it arrived on the scene (I know how to shift), it seems to have stuck around. Maybe electronic shifting will actually be useful (but I know how to shift). I remember the first wireless electronic shifting system. It didn’t last long. I don’t have any trouble reaching my downtube to shift, so those combination brake-and-shift levers seemed like just another way to take my money. But, by golly, I found it really helpful on the coast-to-coast ride to be able to shift without moving my hands. I realized I spent more time in the optimal gear (and it helped to have more of them to choose from). So I’m not a total Luddite, just slow.

I learned from household organizers that you should get rid of any possession that doesn’t bring you joy. Then, I suppose, you’re supposed to buy some new stuff that does. But when you talk about being green, the first step is not to buy the latest “green” product. The first step is to keep using what you have. So buy stuff that will last. Buy stuff that is of high enough quality that you won’t need to throw it away in a few years. To throw your old shit in the landfill and replace it with new “green” shit is not a net gain for the planet; just a net gain for the companies that make and sell stuff.

My dad bristled at the cost of down parkas when he took me shopping (the only time he ever did that) for my 18th birthday. We looked at cheap stuff. At the end of the day (I mean that literally), he bought the North Face parka I wanted. He paid a lot of money, but decided it was worth it. Forty nine years later I still have that parka. The cuffs are a little frayed. Granted, I only wear it when it’s really cold. It also gives me one of the few good memories I have of my dad. I bought a new Sierra Designs down vest last year. I wrote to them to complain that my old vest was leaking down and it was only 40 years old. I told them I expected this vest to last the rest of my life. I just spent too much money on a new jacket. But I bought it from the guy who made my winter bike mittens. They also cost a lot. But when it is -25 degrees, I don’t think about how much they cost. I think about the fact that my hands are warm. I plan to wear them for many more years.

I bought a tent in the 1970s. In the ’80s, the waterproof coating on the floor began to peel. I took it to the factory in Berkeley (yes, such things were made in the US in my lifetime – I’m that old). They told me that shouldn’t happen and gave me a new tent. Several years later a cow got out of its enclosure and trampled the tent, breaking a pole. Being in Nicaragua at the time, I used the repair sleeve to keep the pole together for the next month or so. Returning to the US, I took the pole to the factory to buy a replacement. He asked the circumstances of the breakage, handed me a new pole and a warranty receipt with “Contra cattle” listed as the reason for the free warranty replacement.

Bless your own damn bike.

This Sunday should be The Blessing of the Bikes at Vermont Lutheran Church. The minister is supposed to bless our bikes and we’re supposed to eat a pancake breakfast that can’t be beat, with the first taste of this year’s maple syrup, and mediocre church basement coffee.

Vermont Church

But there are no group rides, and there are no church basement breakfasts, and there are no crowds of bicyclists having their bikes blessed whether they believe in such things or not, because it’s a beautiful day for a bike ride and the road up to the church is great and the minister is a funny guy and the church members lay out a great spread.

And tonight should have been the first Wednesday Night Potluck of the season, which means Dave should have made his famous asparagus and I should have baked the first rhubarb pie of the season and we should have sat by the stone wall, sipping a beer and watching the sun set over my favorite stretch of road as we watch the last riders struggle up the hill on County F, our adopted highway.

But instead it was a solo ride, and I climbed that hill into a 20 mph wind with no leaves yet to block the wind or mar the view of the barren fields. And I got home just ahead of the rain and I drank wine with takeout Laotian food instead of beer at a picnic.

And it’s all because of this damn virus. And our State Supreme Court, in its Infinite Wisdom (and infinite is no different from nothing), has decided that the Safer at Home order is null and void, that the Director of Health and Human Services has no authority, and the state and all of its businesses are henceforth allowed to return to their pre-COVID state effective immediately, and we can gather in crowds as big as we want, and share that virus freely, because we are Americans and we are Free, and they trust business owners to Do the Right Thing because we know that business has our Best Interests at heart because what’s good for General Motors is what’s good for America and the god of quarterly profits must be appeased by human sacrifice and Give Me Liberty or Give Me a Virus that doesn’t really cause any symptoms and we only have 15 cases and that’ll be down to zero in a few days and when spring comes it will miraculously disappear and what’s a hundred thousand or so deaths among friends and we don’t need no stinkin’ rules.

The court ruled that the order wasn’t an order, it was a rule, and an unconstitutional rule at that; because this is Wisconsin and out constitution says we are “endowed with certain inalienable rights, and among those rights are the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of drunkenness in a crowded bar.” So folks bellied up to the bar in large numbers within hours and you can’t drink beer with a mask on so of course no one wore masks. I shouldn’t complain because crossing county lines to get drunk in bars is what makes my livelihood. I should be in those bars, making sure everybody has their keys and that they understand that the faster they drive the less their chances of getting caught by the cops for drunk driving. The trauma unit has been quiet the past two months.

But the county I live in decided to pass its own rule within hours, so we still have safeguards here. They just end at the county line, so like in the old movies where the bad guy just has to cross the county line to escape the cops, this virus just has to escape this county and is then free to wreak havoc but that’s okay because it’s all China’s fault so it doesn’t matter if we’re irresponsible because it’s all China’s fault.


Today was the first day warm enough to ride in shorts. Wednesday was the first Wednesday Night Bike ride of the season. In 26 miles I saw 12 other riders – 6 going the other way on the road I was on (scattered over the 26 miles) and 6 seen in the distance on other roads. Social distancing seemed to work here. There were those who chastised the organization for not canceling its rides. Being a rather anarchic organization, they decided to trust us to do what is right. I think we did pretty well.

On Thursday I rode with two friends. They made me ride behind them, 10 feet downwind at all times. Since I work in a hospital and they are sheltering in place, they figured they had a better chance of catching it from me than vice-versa. A reasonable thought, even if I wear a mask and face shield at work, wear scrubs that get carried home in a sealed bag and washed separately from all other clothes, and wipe down door handles, Purell dispensers, the time clock, keyboards, refrigerator and microwave doors, stair railings, flush levers on toilets…several times per day at work. A housekeeper told me we ran out of the Purell that comes in bags to go into wall dispensers. The homemade stuff from the hospital pharmacy is too thin to go in there. I suggested we thicken it with cornstarch. He was amused but didn’t think it would work. I suggested a wine reduction sauce. He didn’t think that would work, either. The trouble with alcohol without aloe or other moisturizers is that it dries your skin, leading to cracking and openings for icky stuff (that’s the broad scientific term for bacteria, viruses, molds, and fungi) to enter the body; in other words, an opportunity to make things worse instead of better.

I spent the afternoon in a recorded webinar about therapy with COVID-19 patients. It helped to convince me not to volunteer, being a frail old man with asthma and therefore susceptible to unfavorable outcomes like death. A major focus was on seeing the non-COVID patients more often than we usually would, to help them recover faster and discharge home instead of to a rehab center where they are once again at risk. Each morning I pass through a gantlet of nursing staff to show my ID and assure them that I have been self-monitoring and I have no new symptoms.

This will be my first 100+ mile week since before surgery. The coots and loons are in town, a brief stopover on their semi-annual commute. I saw an egret today. The robins and redwing blackbirds are back in large numbers. I saw 11 hammocks hanging over the lawns behind the Lakeshore Dorms this afternoon – I thought the dorms were closed and the students all gone – but this must be where they are housing the students who have nowhere else to go.

Bike by Bill Davidson, photo and 30 years of miles by Half-fast Cycling Club

In honor of my bikes turning 30 this year, I’ve been riding the old and trusty steel steeds and the carbon fiber bike has remained hanging in the basement. The Bruce Gordon is seeing heavy commuting duty and a couple of rides in the countryside. The Davidson came off the trainer and has accompanied me for the past two days and 60 or so miles.

John Prine

Our one and only president has accused healthcare workers of stealing PPE (personal protective equipment), such as masks.

I confess, Mr President. Current precautions (subject to change) at my place of work require me to wear a mask (plain surgical mask, not N95) with all patients, and a face shield over that to protect it so I can use the mask indefinitely unless I see a patient actually in isolation, in which case I am to discard the mask but clean the face shield. For known COVID-19 patients we use a fit-tested N-95 mask or a PAPR (powered air-purifying respirator).

As a result, I used one mask last week, as well as one face shield. I have cleaned the face shield more times than I can count, so I’ll confess I’ve also used some Cavi-Wipes, alcohol wipes, and Purell. Oh, I stored the mask and shield over the weekend and will use them again this week. There are several thousand other employees in the same hospital who are equally guilty. In fact, one of my co-workers replaced the elastic band on his face shield because it wore out, so he will confess to using a foot of Coban.

(Image from 3M)

So in one little ol’ midwestern hospital we used maybe 10,000 pieces of PPE more than in a normal week. Gee, Mr President, do ya think it’s possible that there is a legitimate reason hospitals are using 10 times more PPE than usual? If we used to use it for, say one in 50 patients, and now we use it for every patient, maybe a ten-fold increase means we are actually conserving equipment. [ed. note: these numbers are seat-of-the-pants estimates.]

John Prine has been intubated and ventilated for COVID-19. Having survived two cancers (including a lung), he may be too tough for this virus. Prine demonstrated more genius in his first album than most of us do in a lifetime. I still remember the first time I heard that record, at the apartment of a co-worker after a meeting in 1971. I thought I had a crush on her at the time, but it might have been John Prine instead.

The album opens with “Illegal Smile” – “it seemed like total silence was the only friend I had.”

If that wasn’t good enough, he followed with “Spanish Pipedream”, in whch he told us to “blow up the TV…”

He showed more insight into our neglect of the elderly than a man of 25 had any right to in “Hello in There” – “You know that old trees just go stronger and old rivers grow wilder every day. But old people just grow lonesome waiting for someone to say ‘Hello in there, hello.'”

“Sam Stone” told the story of a man returning from Viet Nam with PTSD and a monkey on his back: “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes…”

“Paradise” told the story of Prine’s parents’ childhood home, now an open mine – “‘And Daddy, won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County, down by the Green River, where paradise lay.’ ‘Well I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking – Mr Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.'”

I could go through the whole album this way – every one a gem, including “Your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore”. Instead, I’ll leave you with “Angel from Montgomery”, also recorded by Bonnie Raitt (speaking of crushes), and here as a duet.

As of this writing, Prine’s family says his condition is stable.

A bike club I ride with just deleted a few weeks’ worth of rides from their website. Another club posted their rides but urged people to start at different times and ride in different directions. Our “safer-at-home” order allows outdoor exercise, though not in groups.

It was one of those days. No matter which way I turned, and I rode in a loop, I never seemed to have a tailwind. It was a headwind or headwindier. The spring peepers were not practicing Social Distancing. They seem to get loud right around maple surgaring weather.

There also seemed to be a lot more cars out than I’ve seen in a while. The number of new cases of COVID-19 has leveled off in the past few days around here. That is not say we’ve turned the corner. The number of total cases is not decreasing or even leveling off. The number of new cases added each day has, at least for the past few days, leveled off. That appears to say that staying home is working. Keep it up. Go listen to the rest of the John Prine album.

Oh yeah – I sent in my absentee ballot today. Remember to vote.