Friday, April 30, 2010


I work in a place that has a busy service department. People wheel in - or carry in - their bicycles for repairs and upgrades. Sometimes it's just a flat fix; sometimes it's a full drivetrain replacement. One of the first questions people ask is "When can I have it back?" Remember, I said busy, and we're in the height of the spring frenzy with bikes being hauled out of garages or off decks, even, sadly, emerging from snowbanks. The mechanics are up-front about setting expectations. Turn-around could be about a week. No, you won't have it for the weekend, unless it is that simple flat fix or some other small thing that can be done while you wait.

Tune-ups are parked out of sight of the customers, so they don't see the couple dozen bikes awaiting their fixes. But our customers do know that when the time comes, their bikes will be given the TLC they need and they'll be able to pick the bikes up on the scheduled date. Unless a part must be ordered or something unexpected comes up: "We found a crack in your frame." "Oh." So I have high expectations for service. Yet here I am posting from Jon's computer instead of mine because mine is in the shop.

I wouldn't mind so much that my computer should be done later today, except that I was told it should be ready on Monday. But it wasn't done when I called them on Monday, so I called again on Tuesday. Then Wednesday. "Should be ready tomorrow." Okay. "Yes, we have both your numbers." When I made the call this morning, I was thinking, be calm. Be courteous and understanding.

"It's on the bench." (Funny, seems it's been "on the bench" all week.) "He's installing the data. It should be ready by noon; but you should call before you come over." "I'd like you to call me." "The techs are pretty busy; they can't always call." "I want to get a call." 'They can't call everyone." "It was supposed to be ready Monday; I want a call. Can you give him a note to call." This was not a question. And I think it's reasonable to get a call saying: "So sorry it took this long; the laptop you desperately miss is ready. We had some technical difficulties and wanted only our best tech on this." Sigh... And I thought about an event from yesterday.

A customer came into the shop to pick up a layaway that was originally scheduled for pick up in about 10 days. She said she'd called earlier and that someone had told her the bike was ready. As I figured the total she still owed on the bike and she stood nervously at the counter saying someone had already told her the total I explained that one of the add-ons she'd phoned in hadn't been tallied in. Sorry. It would be $20 more. But she was in a hurry. Yes, yes. I rang her up then went to the back to retrieve the bike from the shelf and noticed it needed a bit more air in the tires. This took maybe three minutes, tops.

I need to record the serial number; oh, you don't have your receipt. Let me record it on this copy & mark the bike as paid. Normally there are a few things we show you before you take a new bike...I'm late. I'm sorry, I hope you will come in at another time so we can... I'm late, I need to get to the gym. And off she went, pissed, mumbling her displeasure to her friend that I had taken 10 minutes of her time when she was in a hurry. Wow. I tried to remain calm and kind. Strange that the more stressed she got, the longer it took me to do things, not wanting to make a mistake. Positive... positive. (Sometimes I wonder why I must save so much kindness for people who are rude to me...)

Typically, when we sell a new bike, after finishing paperwork, we describe and demonstrate features like undoing the brakes, using the wheels' quick-release mechanisms. We set up the seat height, go over correct tire pressure, show presta valves and review shifting. We explain lubing the chain and offer to answer other questions before sending the happy, informed customer off on their first ride. Because she wanted to squeeze in this important errand, she got none of this information and will, I predict, not return for this information. I did my best to expedite her, but only one person can be responsible for her happiness with the bike or with our shop. She picked up her bike and rushed to the gym.

I finished my day, climbed onto my bike and rode home with a welcome tailwind.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

our habitat

Soon-to-be-green space west of the museum.

I didn't get up on time Sunday to be at the Anchorage Museum to see the new sculpture by Antony Gormley as it was installed on the corner of Sixth and C. With a busy weekend (now that I'm working weekends again) it hadn't been on my radar. So, when I made a lunch date for Tuesday to meet my friend Lynn, I suggested Muse, the cafe' in the museum. I pedaled the singlespeed from the East side, to Midtown, then finally to the museum, arriving right on schedule despite some detours due to slush that still covers parts of the paved trails.

After lunch (oh, delicious blt with lox!) and a cappuccino, we strolled outdoors into the early afternoon sun. We had a surprise visit from our friend Kim who works across the street from the museum and came out to say "hi," then we moved on to look at the sculpture.

Habitat. It's grey; made of block upon block of steel. Looking south, contemplating what? The birch trees that were transplanted last year? The city as it has grown, pushing south since its early days as a railroad town? People walking by? That Anchorage is now home to a work of art by Gormley says something about our city. Taken as a part of our museum expansion that includes a grassy park filled with trees right in the heart of downtown, this 1 Percent for Art speaks to me about what our city can be. So contemporary, yet connected. Active and contemplative. It says, "Here we are!"

I guess some people have tossed around some criticism about the work, but maybe they need to be in its presence, to really look at it and think about it. To think about what it means; what it could mean to them. To me, it is a thinking figure, an appreciative figure, maybe a guardian. And the name, Habitat, well, this video on the ADN site is insightful. That's one of the great things about art, it can mean different things to different people or even different things on different days.

Habitat is behind a fence until they finish the installation (in about two weeks) but as Lynn and I were looking at it, a worker unlocked a gate and began opening the fence so a pro photographer could take some shots for the artist. I asked if I could take some as well and she kindly said I could go inside. Later, when I told her my idea for a photo of me, she agreed to take a couple. She was very nice and allowed a few other people to take some shots.
thinking... thinking...
(thinking: the concrete slopes down behind me making
it very hard to not fall backward off my heels!)

The day was warm, hitting 60 degrees for the first time this year. I biked home, winding through the quieter streets, enjoying our eclectic city, noticing the buds on trees just starting to open. At an intersection in Fairview, I ran into someone I used to work with and we biked through the neighborhoods together. Nearer to home, I rang my bell at intersections and people could hear it because their car windows were open. One guy driving a pickup waved and told me to have a great day. This is the Anchorage I love. This is my habitat.
Changed to a different handlebar this
spring... love that big brass bell!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

thousands of miles away

What's been on my mind...

Despite the snow we got last week, it is spring. Normally the time when my mind turns to one thing: mountain biking. Okay, it also turns to hiking and camping. But this spring, family issues weigh heavily as I try to decide what to do. My mom has Alzheimer’s and I’m not there to help out.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, because it’s been the topic of emails among the siblings for the last couple weeks, but also because we’ve been talking among ourselves about this since earlier this winter. I’ll admit to a bit of denial, but I saw the signs myself last time Jon and I visited. I saw them again this fall.

In February of ‘09, Jon and I visited my parents in Wisconsin and helped celebrate Mom’s 85th birthday. Jon made dinner each evening (except the night my brother Mike cooked) because he loves to cook and she doesn’t. (I wonder if not wanting to cook can be genetic, just like the Alzheimer’s.) After dinner each night, we would sit down to play Scrabble, a favorite game since we were growing up. Dad would sit in his chair in the living room, his walker parked next to his chair, reading or watching TV with his headphones on, looking over with a smile on his face whenever we strayed from playing the game and into the storytelling and laughter.

But, while we kids battled it out on the board, Mom was struggling to make three- and four-letter words. Each play was an achievement. This is the woman who, when we were young, would look at our letter trays and show us what words we could make to get a good score. She was also the fastest speller I know, reciting letters so quickly that I remember asking her to slow down or spell a word again because I didn’t have time to catch all the letters. No need to wonder why four out of 10 kids became English majors. We were fed words.

Dad & Mom at Dave (my brother) & Kara's wedding,
November 2004. Thanks, Dave for sending this.

Mom had some tests last year and the doctors said she had Alzheimer’s. Despite the evidence, I tried to not believe it. Then when my birthday rolled around and there was no card in the mail, I became sad that she had forgotten me. (Though as part of a large family, it wasn’t unusual to feel that I was sometimes forgotten.) A card arrived almost two weeks late and I felt a little better. Then Christmas rolled around. We got a card signed from “Mom and Dad.” Things were back on track. On Christmas Eve, another card came in the mail. She’d written that it would probably be late. Then signed it with her and my dad’s first names. Like they’d mailed it to a friend instead of to a child.

I laughed because to me it was funny, but of course, it was mostly very sad. If I’d told her about it, she probably would have laughed, too, because she raised us with her sense of humor.

I never said anything to her about the cards. I try to only have upbeat conversations on the phone. Most calls begin with an apology from her: “You know I have Alzheimer’s.” It’s not a question; it’s more of a statement warning me to forgive every lapse that will happen in the conversation. I give her some slack: “Mom, I don’t remember what I had for lunch two days ago!”

Three of my siblings live within a dozen miles of my parents. They do a lot. Taking them to doctor appointments; helping out when Mom and Dad allow it. My sister who lives here in Anchorage just flew out for a visit. I’ve been looking at airfares, wondering how long to put it off; not wanting to wait too long. Knowing that a commitment at work should mean nothing compared to this. But sometimes I don’t even know what I can do to help. I give advice and make suggestions from here. I try to offer my moral support. I call & joke with her.

We all agree that at this stage, Mom and Dad shouldn’t be living on their own. But Dad refuses to budge - just as he refuses to leave the house with his walker. And Mom, in her more rational moments knows they should live in an assisted facility but in the less rational moments gets upset that people think she needs help. She's beginning to sense conspiracies. How do we steer this?

I suggested to my brother that we need to convince Dad that he must do the best thing for Mom. Because for so many years, she's been taking care of him (he’s been diabetic for 50 years). She’s done a great job, but now he needs to know that it’s about her welfare. Though we also know it’s about his.

So, here we are, a bunch of adults in our 40s & 50s trying to tell our parents what’s best. They insist they don’t need help. But, like a child putting her shoes on the wrong feet, they need help. I told my brother that I'll fly down and help with packing and moving when they find a more suitable place to live. Fortunately they downsized to an apartment a few years ago.

Sometimes I think about what will happen to us forty years down the road. Since Jon and I don’t have kids, I told him we need to remain close with my nieces and nephews, because when the time comes, they’ll be the ones we’re arguing with. Okay, actually, they’ll be the ones who will be in possession of documents we write up that tell them how to tell us that it’s time to not live on our own. Maybe now is the time for us to start a multi-generational commune.

Just a note. I've been trying to say what's on my mind for a few weeks and admit to running away from some of these family responsibilities. So, there it is. I'll let you know what happens. Meanwhile, we'll return to our regularly-scheduled programming. Promise.

Monday, April 26, 2010

another snowstorm, another ski

Making tracks.
Headed toward Hidden Lake.

Sure it's the end of April and most people had put away their skis for the season, pulled their road bikes off the shelf, aired the tires and turned their handlebars toward the Seward Highway. But last Friday, riding the coastal highway south of Anchorage was among the last things I wanted to do. With the Thursday snow storm, a fresh coat of snow in the mountains drew Jon and me once again to Glen Alps.

Jon follows some earlier tracks.
The snow was a bit sticky.

Jon makes the climb...

Tele-turns his way down on his classic skis.
Short sleeves & skiing!

Prevailing winds.

Snow started falling as we made our way through a maze of trees back to the main trail as more people were heading out on skis or on foot. Our timing was perfect. We'd gotten just far enough out there that we felt we had the entire area to ourselves.

I imagine the valley was filled with skiers on Saturday when Jon and I were working. Lucky us to have had it to ourselves. Next time I'll remember the sunblock.

Monday, April 19, 2010

selling bikes

Yesterday at work, I spent a good 20 minutes (it seemed) explaining to a guy why buying a $419 mountain bike from a local bike shop was far better than buying from a guy who was selling and shipping bikes from the Lower-48 (apparently from the back of a truck) or buying a bike from Costco.

New bikes of good quality, with a warranty, adjusted correctly by experienced mechanics. The correct size (he was about 6 ft), follow-up adjustments. Now, what's wrong with buying a bike at Costco and saving a hundred or so? Pretty much that a bike purchased from Costco is the opposite of what I just listed here. What about buying the Costco bike and having our shop do the adjustments? *Sigh* Spend at least $50 making it work right and it's still not the right size.

He asked about buying used bikes and I said that unless you know what to look for or have a friend who is very knowledgeable, you can end up making a mistake by buying the wrong used bike (wrong size; worn out parts, etc). He was a nice guy and I can appreciate trying to save a little money, but he was trying to be too cheap. If you can save a few bucks by buying your cereal at Costco, by all means, do it. But your bike? No way.

As it happens, this morning I made a run to the local Costco. There, between the produce and the frozen foods were a couple rows of bikes. I glanced at them, without really noticing anything right away. Hardtail mountain bikes, hybrid comfort bikes, bmx. All under $400. Then I walked down the row. One comfort bike had the fork installed backward (note to self: bring camera next time) so that the brake was mounted facing the back. No, dear readers, it was not a Manitou fork! I grabbed the handlebar and placed one leg against the front wheel while I turned the bar. It was so loose that I was able to turn the bar easily so it no longer lined up with the wheel.

Vandalism? No. Just maybe a customer will notice that something's not quite right with that bike. Even better, an employee will notice that this bike isn't assembled correctly and would be a danger to a rider. I walked away to finish my shopping but returned to the bikes to check more stems for tightness, noticing that another handlebar was already turned askew. I easily turned a few more bars. I noticed at least one threaded stem (yes, you can still get those) that was more than an inch above the minimum insertion point. I noticed that they still, indeed, only stock one frame size for each bike model.

I don't want you to think I'm only harshing on Costco here, because they aren't the only mass merchant that doesn't hire qualified staff to assemble their bicycles. But I do think that it's unconscionable (if not foolish from a legal standpoint) to assemble something so poorly that it could lead to someone being hurt. I believe it's called negligence. If stores are going to sell something that looks like a bike and is said to perform like a bike, it damn well better be built by someone who knows what they're doing.

ps: dear Costco, please don't yank my membership; I'm doing you a favor here.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

last taste of winter?

Corinne shows the way.

Last Friday, a few days after a couple inches of fresh snow landed on Anchorage, my friend Corinne & I did a little ski in the front range. I knew from Jon that the conditions were perfect since he had done a ski from Glen Alps to Indian with a few friends just the day before. He'd returned home with the afterglow of a great ski so I knew I'd better get up there before it was gone. I'm glad Corinne could join me (I love when my friends have the same day off) because it's always more fun to get out when in the company of an adventurous friend.

We left the trailhead in the early afternoon, skiing up the Powerline Trail under bluebird skies. Other skiers and snowshoers were out, but few ventured off the main trail. We cut across the valley, following a couple sets of tracks as we headed for Ship Pass and Hidden Lake. In the warm sunshine, I skied in a short-sleeved shirt as we climbed up-valley.

Three ptarmigan near Hidden Creek,
still wearing their winter white.

We forged our own route for a while, investigating small mammal tracks that sometimes disappeared under wings that had left their own imprints in the fresh snow. We wondered at how short journeys to collect cached seeds and berries ended so abruptly as the little creatures were lifted into the sky. A simple trip to the market, then, gone!

Soon we joined a trail where we came across one, then eventually six ptarmigan. They didn't seem to mind as we played paparazzi for a few minutes while they ran across the trail, then in a series of loops between the brush and a large boulder. Some of them displayed a few brown feathers in anticipation of the upcoming season. We continued climbing farther up the valley before deciding to rest and have a snack while perched on a rock and lichen-covered outcropping. Sunny and windless, we were in no hurry.

We made our return trip, switch-backing down a steep slope filled with low trees and shrubs. A ski I suggested might take a "couple hours" turned into a full afternoon in a sunny valley. I'll never regret trading an afternoon at the keyboard for an afternoon of perfect conditions and good company.
Corinne & I soak up the sun.

Today, after four days of cloudy skies and blustery wind, we woke this morning to falling snow and at least five inches of the white stuff already piled in the driveway. I know that in mid-April this isn't unusual, but I was ready to park the skis for the season. Now, maybe I'll consider one more outing. Maybe I'll pull out the snow bike. Maybe I'll go for a walk in the slush. Or maybe I'll do my chores and occasionally glance out the window and laugh.

Monday, April 12, 2010

changes afoot

(I've been busy; you'll see why...)

What I didn't tell you a few days ago is that I went back to work at the shop. Yep. Selling bicycles and bicycling goodies to the good people of Anchorage and points beyond. I wasn't going to, but then I did.

It wasn't an easy decision to make, and I'll admit that after telling Jon I would return to the shop, I woke in the middle of the night and started thinking about bikes and what I had just told him. I had to get up and read for awhile before going back to bed at about 5:30 a.m. I had violated one of my decision-making rules: I made a decision at the end of the day instead of first sleeping on it. Okay, I had been sleeping on it for a few weeks as the shop started getting busier with each warm day. And I watched as Jon worked more hours and got more stressed.

Lately, I've been working on a little fiction, but I'm pretty challenged by it. I'm also easily distracted and was not getting as much done as I should have. So, in an effort to redirect, re-energize and help out a bit in the process, I told him I'd go back for two months. Three days a week. That should give me a few commutes a week and enough days of work to help me appreciate the days I'm not at the shop. My first day back was April 3rd.

But this is about more than just what's happening at work. There's lots to do on the house in the next year and a half. The clock is ticking on completing some energy upgrades that have rebates. There's the floor, the kitchen, the siding and walls. The landing and stairway. The deck. Jon enjoys working on the house projects; he only wishes he had more time for them. Seriously, he should be the one with the sabbatical. If only it was easy for him to take enough time away from work! And here I am, wanting it all: bike tour, completed house, sane husband. That's why I went back. Nothing will progress if Jon's too stressed in April and May.

Sometimes, I feel like this. It's good to feel needed.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

tailwinds, revisited

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a young Australian cyclist I'd helped out in the shop during the summer of 2008. Mike and his friends had planned an epic adventure in the Americas. Two of them would pedal from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. The third one would ride as far as he could before he had to return to his job in Australia. When they arrived in Anchorage for the start of the trip, their bikes were waiting for them. After a few hours working on final details, they rode away in the rainy afternoon to begin their trip.

Remember these guys?
Rob, Andrew & Mike with new Long Haul
Truckers before their adventure began.

The message I received from Mike was that he and Andrew had arrived at their destination two weeks earlier and he was now back home. That must feel strange after living on a bike for a year and a half. Andrew was still in South America. Through Facebook, I could see some of the photos of their journey. One bike had a different wheel than they started with; one, a different handlebar. One pair of shoes was taped together after the long journey. One photo showed mud halfway up to the hubs of the Long Haul Trucker. Strangely, that's the kind of photo that inspires me almost as much as the scenic shots.

By coincidence, the night before I received the message, Jon had just finished building my new touring bike. A Salsa Fargo. It's a mountain touring bike, so it can go anywhere. I took some parts off my 29er (wheels, brake rotors) and added some new parts, then waited for the right conditions so I could try it out. Tuesday we had the right conditions. A sunny day, snow melting, a report of dry pavement near the airport. It was time to take it out.

The Fargo, designed to go far.

After scavenging a few more parts, like pedals from one bike and a saddle and seatpost from another, plus a fender just in case, I was ready to go. I met my friend Lynn near Lake Hood. It was still snow-covered but with only a few planes still parked on it. From there, we headed off.

The first ride on a new bike is always about the dialing in things like the seat fore-and-aft, the angle and the handlebar reach. We rode around the lake, then west on Northern Lights Boulevard beyond the airport, and I made small adjustments along the way.

The thing about this touring bike is that it can have so many applications, from riding around in town, to mountain biking, to long, self-supported trips. That last one is the reason to have the bike. To load it up and just go. I've even thought I should just start out by taking it down to a campground along Turnagain Arm - after it warms up, of course. Doing a little Alaska touring. One has to start somewhere, right?

I have a short list of places I'd like to tour, including the Continental Divide and some overseas locations. For now, I'll enjoy riding it around town like I did today when I needed to visit the library. Riding through puddles and thinking about where Jon and I will go. All those miles in our future.