THE Famletmonthly

​​Vol. 22, No. 9

29 September 2019



This month's photos.

(Click any photo on the page to see all of it and view captions.)

Dear Family:

Some say adversity builds character. Others say it reveals whether one has it. Whichever is true, the way I respond to a flat tire on my bike (or any of a million other annoyances) doesn’t say much good about me.

I know how to fix flats, but I’m not good at it. Because I inevitably screw things up at least twice before getting it right, I generally carry far more spare CO2 cartridges than a competent person would think necessary—possibly enough to increase mean global temperature all by myself if I were to discharge them all at once.[1] Equipment-wise I’m almost always suitably prepared. But my weak hands, whose smooth and tender suppleness I owe largely to a George Costanza-like avoidance of manual labor my whole life, are not well suited to the surprisingly strenuous task of wrestling a tight road tire back onto its rim. This month’s ordeal drew blood and reduced me to swearing and smashing things. And possibly a little crying.

One of the many, many, many, many benefits of bicycle commuting, which I do virtually every day, is the predictability of it. I can generally count on it taking 45 minutes to cover the 20 km to the office, regardless of the level of congestion, traffic accidents, climate protests,[2] or other realities of urban life that make driving so maddening to me. The downside of bike commuting’s predictability is that I tend to fail to take into account the “tail risk” of low-probability/high-impact outcomes like flats/other “mechanicals,” getting hit by a car, or any number of other things that can derail my commute altogether. Because these events are so rare, I don’t adequately prepare for them emotionally and I react to them poorly (see previous paragraph), even when their ultimate cost—this month’s flat resulted only in my missing an 8:30 a.m. work meeting that I didn’t want to go to anyway—is trivial.

Mechanicals that make me late for work are one thing. Mechanicals that disrupt races tend to upset me even more. Fortunately I made it through all three of this month’s cycling events without incident. The same, unfortunately, could not be said for two of my brothers and my nephew.

The month’s cycling events began with the Civil War Century. As you undoubtedly recall from last September’s letter, this is an annual 100-mile (or so—it was 106 miles this year) mountainous bicycle ride[3] through Civil War sites in northern Maryland and southern Pennsylvania, namely Antietam, South Mountain, and Gettysburg. Grant, Andrew and I rode it last year in the rain and were joined on this year’s ride, which had splendid weather, by Grant’s son Alex and Andrew’s brother-in-law Joe.

Grant’s mechanical happened first and was the most catastrophic—a broken spoke around mile 25. The on-site mechanic did not have a suitable replacement, the bike was not rideable, and Grant’s day ended early. The next mechanical befell Alex at the summit of South Mountain. His chain became so badly wedged between his cassette and rear wheel that it took an electrical engineering Ph.D. in Alex/Grant/Andrew’s ward 20 minutes to dig it out.[4] But he eventually got it out and Alex completed the ride. The final mechanical was Andrew’s flat near the end of the descent of South Mountain. Fortunately, Andrew has manlier hands than I and had no trouble getting his tire back on the rim after replacing the inner tube. He re-inflated using one of the six CO2 cartridges I was carrying.[5]

So five relatives started and four of us finished—everyone except Grant who handled his broken-wheel misfortune much more maturely than I would have. But his boy finished strong, which I expect brought Grant more satisfaction than finishing himself would have. Also, as of last week, Grant now owns the family’s nicest bike, so don’t feel badly for Grant.

If I were inclined to obsess over climate change, I might be tempted to think of my bike commute as an “offset” to Sophie’s decidedly more carbon-intensive typical weekday, which consists of driving to early-morning seminary, then driving from seminary to Northwood High School where she is taking two classes, then driving to the Rockville campus of Montgomery College where she is taking four classes, then driving back to Northwood for after-school play practice, and then driving 1 km home.

But I don’t think of my commute in those terms. I don’t bike for moral reasons[6]—it just makes me happy. And even if it didn’t, I don’t have as many options as I did before Sophie totaled the minivan a month ago. No one was hurt (the accident was initially described to me as a “fender bender”) and the other car (one of those giant, detestable, Earth-killing Lexus SUVs) was barely scratched. But it turns out that just a few thousand dollars of damage is sufficient to “total” a 15-year-old vehicle.

And so we’re back down to being a two-car, three-driver family. I’ve thought about buying a third car to replace the van but just can’t bring myself to do it. Not yet, anyway. I might feel differently when the weather starts to turn, but I’ve bike-commuted through the last two winters—why should this one be different? What I really want is a motorcycle. I actually came within one mouse click of enrolling in a riding class this month at Montgomery College (the main requirement for obtaining a motorcycle license) before ultimately concluding (with a little help from Crystal) that that might not be the most practical decision. Besides, my bicycling habits already have Mom concerned that she’ll outlive me. The thought of her son on a motorcycle might be one thing too many for her.

Rehearsals for the fall musical are predictably monopolizing Sophie’s and Grace’s lives (especially Sophie’s). As I reported in last month’s letter, the show is Into the Woods, a confusing and sordid mashup of several fairy tales. New since last month is Sophie’s selection to play Cinderella and Grace’s selection to play some sort of talking tree that dies twice. It's a dumb show, but you should definitely come see it. It runs from November 13th thru 16th. Book your flights now!

Sophie and I both were asked to sing solos during a choir number at church a couple of weeks ago. Sophie sang beautifully, and I did not, mostly because I don’t actually know how to sing. Crystal points out that I sing principally for comedic effect, and anyone who sits anywhere near us at church (i.e., in the same room) knows exactly what she means. One of the ways you can tell your solo didn’t go particularly well is when a grand total of two people come up to you afterward and both of them say something like, “Well, I bet you’re glad that’s over!” That’s really what happened. I don’t think I’ll be asked to sing again anytime soon.

In the 58 triathlons, marathons and other races the internet knows me to have completed I had never seriously flirted with a top-three finish before last Saturday’s Giant Acorn triathlon at Lake Anna, Virginia. This Olympic-distance event was dominated by 83 collegiate athletes competing in USA Triathlon’s Mid-Atlantic Collegiate Triathlon Conference. Most of those guys destroyed me, but I was only really competing against the 15 other guys in the Male 45-49 age group. Among this subset of racers, I finished the 1,500-meter swim in third place and moved up to second on the 40-km bike ride, only to get passed by two guys on the 10-km run and fall to fourth. The 48-year-old who ultimately knocked me off the podium passed me with about 4 km to go. I stayed on his heels for maybe 500 meters but eventually could only watch as he drifted further and further ahead of me. I pointed at him, acknowledging his superiority as we crossed paths for the last time near the final turnaround with 3 km to go. He nodded and smiled back, acknowledging my acknowledgment of his superiority, and proceeded to bury me by 83 seconds, thus ending my short-lived dream of proudly accepting a small, cheap trophy while standing atop a spray-painted wooden box with a makeshift “3” on it.

I was a little deflated, but my time of 2:33:59 was 15 minutes faster than my previous best time in that particular race and nearly 9 minutes faster than I’d ever run any Olympic-distance triathlon. And so I was happy with it. It turns out I was exactly the wrong age last weekend. If I’d been 3 years older I would have finished 2nd in the 50-54 age group, and if I were 3 years younger I would have won the 40-44 age group by nearly 8 minutes. Go figure that one out.

I had another crack at triathlon glory at yesterday’s Waterman’s Half[7] in the tiny Eastern Shore town of Rock Hall, Md. (We swam loops around the harbor.) Like last weekend, I put myself in position to succeed by pairing an okay swim with a strong bike, only to implode on the half-marathon[8] and finish 4th in the age group again (out of 20 guys this time). Even with the lousy run I still managed an 8-minute personal record of 5:30:25, which means in 2019 I’ve set PRs in the 5K, marathon, and two different triathlon distances. It makes me happy to think that I might still be getting faster at age 47.

And I didn’t get any flats. Here’s to little victories!

Tim, et al

[1] Not really. Each canister I carry on my bike contains a mere 16 grams of carbon dioxide, which is a relatively weak greenhouse gas as GHGs go (#science). But I’ve started trying to exhale less often to compensate, just to be on the safe side. #savethepolarbears

[2] Protesters have an uncanny ability to make me sympathetic to positions I would normally be inclined to oppose if it weren’t for all the annoying protesters. I think I might be in favor of climate change now.

[3] Not to be confused with a “mountain bike ride.” We were on roads and road bikes.

[4] The engineer’s name is Chris Morris and it’s fortunate he was there. If it had been me (and my temperament) “helping,” I’d have hurled the whole damn bike off the top of the mountain.

[5] I was also carrying a small pump in my jersey pocket in case I burned through all six of them.

[6] The fact that I bike for other than moral reasons in no way prevents me from making moral judgments about people who get around in less eco-friendly ways, including (coal-powered) Tesla drivers.

[7] A half-iron triathlon (113 km in total) is a little more than twice the length of an Olympic-distance triathlon (51.5 km)

[8] Oppressive humidity (dew point 73 degrees (F)!) caused a lot of people to implode on the run, but my run time ended up being 7 minutes slower than what I considered my very worst-case scenario and ultimately kept me off the podium.