In the World But Not Of It

Over Columbus Day weekend, I went camping in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. That might not sound Earth-shattering, but I had a truly transformative experience. So, just what transpired?

When I lived in Eastern Connecticut, which was most of my post-college, early-adult years, I would camp in New Hampshire several times a year. One friend showed me a national forest tent site in Lincoln, and another got me interested in skiing Tuckerman’s Ravine on Mount Washington. I would go whenever I needed to get away from the daily grind, and the season made no difference. I have gone during the height of the summer’s heat and humidity, when no over-the-counter mosquito repellent would deter the parasitic creatures, and only standing in the smoke of a wood fire could preserve my circulatory system’s contents. I have gone during the depths of winter when I made the mistake of removing my snowshoes to pitch a tent and found myself submerged to the waist in white powder. I have heard howling winds outside my tent driving the chill factor into the double-digits below zero. I have seen the rinse water freeze on my newly-washed dishes in a matter of seconds. Friends and family who knew of my obsession never struggled to come up with birthday and Christmas presents of camping gadgets.

Then I got my current job and moved to the southwestern part of the state. Suddenly, my beloved White Mountains were an additional two hours’ drive away. My vacations now corresponded with school breaks, so I could only go camping when the sites were at their most crowded with families. My wife is a good sport, and she has gone with me on a few occasions, but (reasonably) she would rather have a real bed and a hot shower than a foam pad and an icy river. So, in the last decade or so, I have camped less and less often, instead focusing on closer and more comfortable recreation that we can enjoy together. The last time I determined to re-visit my old haunts, which was three years ago, a steady rain began just as I started my three-mile hike in, and when I reached the tent sites it showed no sign of letting up. I don’t mind being cold, but I hate being wet. I turned around, hiked back out, and drove the five hours home the same day.

Out of fear that I was getting soft and losing my edge, I determined this year would be different. I checked and re-checked the weather forecast for Lincoln, and it remained, “Cool but dry.” I dug out my old gear, re-stocked my food supply, and drove to New Hampshire. Even though it rained for most of the drive, I somehow knew it would be dry when I arrived. It was! The fee for the camping permit had not changed since the Clinton administration! And how can I describe the foliage? Absolute vivid peak, as if someone had electrified a Van Gogh painting. Wonderful, variegated colors covering every bit of mountain side and valley floor. Like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

Or had I? remember that episode of Family Guy when the residents of Rhode Island cower in fear of the influx of leaf peepers from the cities? It turns out this was not even slightly exaggerated. I think everyone in the greater Boston metro area had converged on this bit of the world.There were distracted drivers, oblivious pedestrians, and more people taking pictures with telephones on sticks than at the Rio Olympics. I experienced a few minutes of trepidation when I had to circle a multi-acre parking lot, in which I have never seen more than a handful of cars, to park and start the hike. But I eventually found a space, and after a mile walking into the woods, I had left the crowds and craziness completely behind.

After that, the experience was exactly the one I had been craving. I hauled water from the Pemigewasset River to supply my camp’s needs. I foraged for dry firewood to keep me warm. I ground coffee to make high-quality espresso over the camp stove (some things are non-negotiable). I had to drape my rain shell over my sleeping bag because the nighttime low temperatures were lower than predicted. I felt alive. I felt virile. I felt competent.

That was not the transformative experience.

It turns out there is a down side to such a trip: coming back from it.

Imagine: for three days, you go to sleep because it got too dark to read the words in your (printed) (on paper) book. For three days, the only lights you see during the night are the star Vega shining through a small gap in the trees and the Moon casting silvery shadows among the foliage. For three days, you get up and dress because there is enough light to cook the breakfast you just retrieved from a steel bear-proof box (because bears will rip you and your camp apart if they smell food). For three days, the only sounds you hear are the wind rustling through pines, the river gurgling over rocks, and owls plaintively calling to each other in the inky darkness.

Back in the “real” world, you go to sleep because you need to be somewhere looking presentable first thing in the morning so a client can insult you. You need to close the blinds to block out street lights from your tired eyes.  You awake because an electronic device makes a hideous noise until you turn it off. You eat your breakfast because that’s what was on sale at Trader Joe’s, and it’s what you can reach in the cabinet. The only sounds you hear are presidential candidates calling each other names and holier-than-thou partisan pundits repeating the insults.

I wish I had stayed in the woods.

Lost In Translation

In my job, people are forever telling me that my approach to the English language is all wrong. I believe that grammar, spelling, and punctuation carry equal importance with the ideas that a writer expresses. They claim that my insistence on correctness is, at best, backward, and, at worst, hateful and possibly racist. They say spelling is obsolete “since we have spell check,” and that grammar and punctuation are unimportant “because there is just so much information out there.”

I maintain that, in the era of BIG DATA, grammar, spelling, and punctuation have become more important than ever before. When only professionals wrote for public consumption, we could feel safe that they possessed the organizational skills and precision of presentation to tell us exactly what they meant. Now, anyone can transmit anything to an audience of indeterminate size. If they do it sloppily, our entire informational existence will become “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” There is no electronic shortcut that can tell us what a person is really thinking. That Shakespeare guy really knew a thing or two, didn’t he?

On one end of the spectrum lie the small, careless, ignorant errors: Hot Dog’s $1. I never understood that one. It’s actually more trouble to do it wrong. Or the graffiti on my grammar school walls: Class of “83.” As if it really were some other year. In a recent article from Sky & Telescope on line, Bob King and/or the editorial staff wrote it’s as a possessive. You don’t put an apostrophe in his or hers, do you?

“So what,” you’re asking. “It doesn’t matter as long as everyone knows what you mean.” Well, that’s where the lack of discipline required to produce correct grammar has greater consequences. Consider, if you will, the recent controversy between the Pope and Donald Trump. When asked about Trump’s proposed wall to keep Mexican immigrants from crossing into the United States illegally, Pope Francis made a statement which was translated into English by the Vatican Press Office. It said:

And then, a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the gospel. As far as what you said about whether I would advise to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he says things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.

That’s interesting, and not only because Trump call himself Presbyterian, not Catholic.

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“All I want is a wall. Is that too much to ask?”

If the translation represents the Pope’s words accurately, then the Holy Father has blundered. His job consists of guiding believers in the areas of faith and morals. This means he acts as Christ’s representative on Earth, telling the world proper beliefs and how to  act on those beliefs. He could certainly say that a person’s actions or words were not Christian. He could recommend someone seek forgiveness for a transgression against another person. But he, as a human being, cannot judge another person. If actions could permanently disqualify a person from God’s grace, the Catholic sacrament of Reconciliation would not exist. In addition, many people misunderstand this sacrament itself. The priest in the confessional does not forgive the sin; only God can do that.

So, what if the pundits are correct, and the Pope’s words were mistranslated? John Leo believes that the English version of Latin and Italian thoughts might be inaccurate.

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“That’s not what I said!”

He seems to be offering a typical modern excuse for an important theological misstatement. But that’s also quite dangerous. Catholics who do not speak Italian or Latin depend on this translation service to deliver the Pope’s guidance to them. Hiding behind poor translation is sloppy and irresponsible. Some might argue that certain words do not translate exactly from one language to another. Exact translation produces different nuances of meaning. If this is such a case, the Vatican Press Office has a responsibility to tell us what the Pope meant by his words. I have a hard time, though, believing that they could not differentiate between criticism of an statement and judgement of a person.

So let’s all focus and get these things right, shall we?

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Recently, I heard a couple of colleagues at work talking about a proposal to make the Monday after the Super Bowl a national holiday. I don’t know if they simply wished for this to avoid having to leave parties early or if elected officials were/are actually considering such a plan. Remember, there was once debate in the House of Representatives about mandating the format of college football playoffs. Isn’t it also strange that many of us would hide our heads in embarrassment if the United States government created a national football holiday, but would think nothing amiss if the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies officially closed all businesses during soccer’s World Cup?

I, for one, am never in favor of more government intervention in my day-to-day existence. I also have never understood why so many people consider the ultimate tribute to a great national figure like a civil right leader to be a paid day off for state employees.

Call me crazy, but wouldn’t it be better for children to go to school and have a full day of lessons about what Dr. King did? I’m such a curmudgeon.

If we ever did get time off for sports, I would propose the opening Thursday and Friday of the NCAA basketball tournament. Talk about a time when nobody does anything related to work! Ever since streaming service began, the NCAA has included a “Boss Button,” which instantly switches the viewer’s screen to something seemingly-work-related if a supervisor strolls in. People push the button between 2.5 and 3 million times in an average year. Think about how many views go undiscovered. Consider too that only the opening Thursday and Friday games of a three-weekend-long tournament happen during normal business hours. It seems that we as Americans just must watch.

But I would never propose shutting down the country just because so many people are slacking off instead of working. I’ll bet shopping and the viewing of pornography constitute a much bigger portion of wasted office hours, and those continue year-round. No, the celebration properly called March Madness speaks to so much of what makes us Americans that it deserves to have universal observation. So, what do we all love so much?

  1. We all feel a real kinship with the institutions represented by college athletes. It always drives me nuts when I hear people talking about a professional sports team and calling them “we.” “We would have won last night if Bird had only hit that jumpah.”

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[“I always hated that accent.”]

These people don’t work for the Celtics, or any team they talk about, for that matter. On the other hand, if I attended the University of Arizona, I actually have something in common with the players. I have every right to say, “We lost in the first round again.”

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[“Just shut up, all right?”]

2. Lots of our greatest memories in sports come from the NCAA Tournament. For me, let’s start with 1979. Larry Bird’s Indiana State team met Magic Johnson’s Michigan State team in the national championship game. Their rivalry would pretty much define NBA basketball for the next decade. In 1982, I watched freshman Patrick Ewing and Georgetown attempt to defeat a North Carolina team sporting Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Sam Perkins, and Matt Doherty, and come darn close to doing so. In 1983, against a Houston team that was one of the most talented of all time (Akeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, etc.), North Carolina State’s Dereck Wittenburg threw up one of the worst air balls in basketball history, only to have Lorenzo Charles bail him out and dunk the ball for a national championship win. That game was so exciting that my father just couldn’t bring himself to make me go to sleep, although it was more than two hours past my bedtime. In 1984, Georgetown finally got its championship, only to be stunned by Villanova the next year in probably the most surprising upset ever. I’ll never forget the look on my best friend’s face when his Connecticut Huskies won it all in 1999. It’s the only time I ever drank champagne over a sporting event. By far the sweetest moment, though, came in 1997, when Arizona finally emerged victorious. After having lost in the first round to East Tennessee State in 1992, Santa Clara in 1993, and Miami of Ohio in 1995. [Don’t forget Wichita State in 2016.] Yes, my alma mater has to be the worst good college basketball team of all time. But we keep watching and hoping.

3. College basketball is so much better than the professional game. Lots of people criticize the way the system of college sports handles athletes. They point out that most are just performing to make money in television appearances for the school, and hardly ever engage in serious academic pursuits. Their athletic scholarships seem to be the equivalent of a salary, since they are worth tens of thousands of dollars every year. I think these criticisms are off base. If the point of college is career training, what better job could a person get after he is finished with college than that of a professional athlete? Nobody with a degree in electrical engineering earns even a small fraction of the signing bonus a star receives. But the truth is most of the players in the NCAA tournament will not play professionally. Some see their college days as a long-shot attempt to receive consideration from pro teams; some know that they will earn a living as coaches, athletic trainers, commentators, or some other sports-related job that does not involve playing; and some just play for the experience and comradery that come from being a part of a team. In each case, the fans see a player playing his heart out, leaving it all on the floor, and reacting with genuine emotion. This may be the last time he is on such a stage. On the other hand, as soon as someone gets a lucrative guaranteed contract, I believe all of the passion goes out of him. A professional sport is a job like any other. If someone can put out less effort and prolong a career, he will certainly do so. He will follow the money and leave a team to play for a rival, regardless of the love the hometown fans have for him. Not so in college.

4. Everyone loves an underdog. As long as they’re not sending your team home early, everyone roots for an underdog to take down one of the perennial powers. Think the colonies vs. Great Britain, the 1980 U. S. Olympic hockey team vs. the Soviets, or Butler making it all the way to the NCAA championship game in 2010 and 2011. Consider Northern Iowa’s 2016 tournament experience. First Round:

But they could not bask too long in that glow. They had to play another higher-seeded team two days later. Still, they led by twelve points with 44 seconds to go in the game. Sure thing right? Not exactly.

5. It’s better than soccer. I know Europeans and South Americans go crazy for “the beautiful game,” especially the World Cup. But the players are all professionals, and national teams are essentially short-lived all-star teams. In college basketball, the squads have forged brotherhood through the long winter season, and that is apparent when you watch them play. In the World Cup, or any other soccer competition, there is a great deal of strategic advantage in playing for a tie. It can keep you alive to move to the next round. Just ask Texas and Northern Iowa about playing for a tie.

Yeah, I’m convinced. Bring on the national holiday.

Under the Weather

The last twelve months have been really strange ones for me in terms of general health. Most years, I have one severe bout of allergies in March or April when plants start to bloom and pollen fills the air. But, when I say severe, I mean feels-like-the-flu-with-bodyaches-and-chills severe. There is usually a period of two or three days when I simply do not leave the couch. I’ll put on an entire series such as Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and sleep through most of the episodes.

The following week, I generally sound awful because I lose my voice, but I feel so much better overall that getting up and facing the day actually becomes a pleasure.This provides my answer to the age-old philosophical question of whether a thing can exist in the absence of its opposite. For example, can we really appreciate capitalism if communism has died a lingering death throughout the world? In this case, I would argue in the negative, because since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union, U.S. voters have lurched decidedly to the left, expecting the national government to take care of more and more of what they need.

But back to illness. I know that I tend to take my academic and athletic abilities for granted, and this carries over into my expectations for the state of my health. [Notice I didn’t say “wellness?” That word irks me almost as much as “blog.”] I am extremely fortunate in that I have no long-term health concerns of any kind. Because of that, I have come to believe it’s important to feel lousy once in a while so that you appreciate how good it feels not to be sick.

This past fall, you’ll remember, I had a lingering multi-week sinus infection that made it painful to turn my eyes to the side or be in any kind of bright light. It was unpleasant, but I figured I was done being sick for a good, long time. Then, two weeks ago, my wife came down with a draining, plugging, sniffling, coughing head cold. Because it happened in the week between leaving her old job and starting her new one, we both figured it came from a long-needed relaxation and drop in the adrenaline on which she had operated constantly. It took her almost exactly a week to start feeling better. By that time, guess who was feeling sick.

Correct. Twice in nine months is just too much. I refused to be stopped by a tiny little virus. And by this time, I had additional motivation to carry on. The weather was beautiful. (See how that makes the title a double entendre?) It was the second week of March at a temperate latitude, and the daily high temperatures reached the 70s. I put away the cyclocross bike and went out for daily road rides!

To my surprise, I felt almost as if I had attained mid-season form. My average speeds were surprisingly high. My pedaling felt smooth. My shoulders and neck did not complain about spending multiple hours in a riding position. Best of all, I could breathe. My nasal passages and lungs felt better than any over-the -counter decongestant could have made them.

So, what was going on? It occurred to me that I may have unwittingly experienced performance-enhancing drugs. Decongestants are on the banned stimulant list for UCI bicycle races. But I think that if I experienced congestion, then the ephedrine would just have put me back to normal. My fitness level would have been just whatever it already was, right? If that were the case, something had made me stronger than is normal in March. For the first time since the Carter administration, I did not go cross-country skiing a single time over the winter. It just never snowed enough here. That would mean cyclocross got me strong and fit in just a handful of rides. I’d call that plausible, since a cyclocross rider has to work hard just to maintain any speed at all in snow, mud, and grass. Plus, jumping off and running up hills while carrying a heavy steel bike can’t hurt.

I prefer, though, to believe that I was embodying what Nietzsche believed his Super Man would do: put himself through physical challenges in order to prove his strength and superiority to others. Why climb Mount Everest? Because it’s there. Why go out and put yourself into oxygen debt when you’re feeling sick? To show those germs who’s boss. I do know that when I relaxed in the evenings after my rides, the pressure, congestion, and post-nasal drip returned.

I think from now on, I’ll just ride the microorganisms off my wheel.

If I Seem Self-Confident, It’s Because I Am

In its March issue, The Atlantic published a story about how the Green family, owners of the now-infamous Hobby Lobby retail chain, are currently in the process of creating a new Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. The article raises some specific, detailed questions regarding the legality and ethics of the methods by which the Greens acquired their artifacts. It ends up questioning the very basis of the museum’s creation, accusing the Greens of engaging in pedagogy rather than stimulating open and honest discussion. The ways in which Joel Bader and Candida Moss characterize the Museum of the Bible enterprise reveal the subtle ways in which pundits influence the public. In the end, “Can Hobby Lobby Buy the Bible?” ends up doing exactly what it accuses the Greens of doing, making me wonder if the authors simply wish to smear the undertaking because of the Supreme Court’s ruling on Hobby Lobby’s birth control policies.

I feel that I must, in the interest of full disclosure, say that I think the Greens are completely off base in their views of the immutability of scripture. By showcasing the earliest available written fragments of the Bible, they wish to demonstrate the truth of Biblical teachings, showing how little they have changed over the years of retelling. They cite the Authorized Version (the “King James” Bible) as the ultimate expression of what a religious text should be. The article’s authors are correct that, “The main story that [this exhibit] tells about the Bible, in short, is a Protestant one.” The Greens either do not know, or are ignoring, that the King James I, who came from Scotland, ordered the compilation of his authorized version to create religious unity throughout Great Britain. He wished to sort out the many translations that existed in his kingdom by having experts from all parts of the country meet to decide the single best way to express the passages that conflicted. Often, they made their decision based on what sounded most poetic in early 17th century English. As Adam Nicolson points out in God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, it is “the greatest book ever written by a committee.” This hardly makes the case for the unchanging nature of the work.

Baden and Moss do not base their criticisms on history, though. They seem to think that people should question the Museum of the Bible because the Greens are out-of-step with modern American culture. Take a seemingly-innocuous passage about the authors’ interview with Steve Green, the president of Hobby Lobby. They state:

Not once during our time together did he check his phone or watch.

When I read that, I thought, “Wow, here’s someone who respects the time of those who are interviewing him. He wants them to know they have his full attention, so he is behaving politely.”

Baden and Moss do not agree. The next sentence reads:

He had the air of a man who knew that people would wait for him.

They have managed to turn manners into a form of narcissistic tyranny. How dare he not look at a cellular device from time to time! Doesn’t he know that someone might need to send him a joke, show him a picture of a meal, give him a coupon, make fun of Donald Trump talk to him? He does not bow to the machine the way we all do! He does not share our addiction! He just does not get it! There is something wrong with him! Burn the witch!

Worse, The Atlantic’s correspondents hint that the Green family may be in league with terrorists as they attempt to create their museum. They point out that archaeologists have been shocked by the amount of artifacts that have come into the family’s collection. Since many of these objects were previously unknown to scholars, questions arose as to their provenance. It turns out that the Greens have been less than meticulous in their record keeping and their investigation of the legality of some of their purchases. These actions certainly warrant scrutiny. It would be appalling to break laws in order to bring your view of religion to the world. But while they don’t come right out and say it, Baden and Moss hint that there might be something more nefarious at work:

The rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS, has brought heightened attention to the antiquities trade. That’s because the group considers the looting and trafficking of antiquities a valuable source of revenue. “Such funding,” the UN Security Council recently declared, “is being used to support recruitment efforts and to strengthen operational capability to organize and carry out terrorist attacks.” In May, when U.S. forces assassinated Abu Sayyaf, a senior ISIS officer, and then raided his compound in Syria, they found it stuffed with hundreds of ancient Iraqi artifacts.

 

What image could possibly come to mind other than one of Steve Green not checking his phone while buying papyrus fragments out of a windowless van filled with automatic rifles and rocket launchers in a back alley? The authors back off a little:

For these reasons, the issue of provenance—the record of how an artifact was discovered, and who has owned it since—has become crucial in the study of antiquities, especially for newly announced artifacts. In 1970, UNESCO drafted a landmark convention calling on member nations to delegitimize the sale of cultural artifacts. If an item can be shown to have been removed from its country of origin before 1970, collectors can generally be secure that its purchase is legal. Records of sale, however, are not always well maintained (if they are maintained at all)—and, of course, they can be forged.

But the damage is done. They certainly don’t say Hobby Lobby is not knowingly funding terrorism.

The article’s final strategy works in a most subtle way, but that makes it the most insidious and dangerous ploy. The authors present their overall concerns about the Museum of the Bible as questions of open-mindedness and intellectual dialogue:

The thousands of artifacts they have so rapidly acquired could become merely the pictures that accompany this story, which, put simply, is this: The text of the Bible has essentially never changed, and its authority is timeless.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this message. From a faith perspective, it’s no better or worse than any other. What’s striking, though, is that the Greens have potentially figured out a way to make one story of the Bible seem like the story of the Bible.

Think back to the last time you watched a documentary on evolution or visited a museum detailing the incredible age of the Earth. Did the producers feel obligated to say, “This is simply one theory. Many people believe that God created the world in a week and species never change”? Of course not. Science feels sure it has the story of the Earth, and wants to educate you so that you know the truth as well. Even though new research constantly changes the currently-accepted picture of cosmology or geology, scientists always speak to the public of their current models as certain. Only they themselves are allowed to question them.

I remember another example from the time when I lived in Washington, D.C. The issue involved how to address the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in the display of the B-29 Enola Gay. As originally designed, the exhibit questioned President Truman’s decision to drop the bomb and blamed that action for ushering in the age of the nuclear arms race. Protests by veterans’ groups resulted in a redesign of the exhibit, and this triggered outrage on the part of historians. In essence, they were demanding the right to teach their beliefs to others via museum displays. This doesn’t sound all that different from what the Museum of the Bible will try to do. But how many of those historians would stand up in support of the Greens now? You can’t have it both ways.

It seems as though Baden and Moss also wish to have their ideas accepted as the story. [Should we listen to closed-minded supporters of terrorism who don’t even check their phones during interviews? Only an ignoramus would do that!] And remember, all of this criticism is taking place before the museum actually opens. The editors of The Atlantic clearly do not want visitors to the nation’s capital influenced by the Museum of the Bible. I believe they unintentionally show why:

Hobby Lobby, [Green] explained, is not just a business. It’s a business that enables a ministry, and at the center of that ministry is the Bible.

I guess that’s too dangerous an idea for some people to allow.

Cyclocross Chronicles

It’s been a couple of weeks since I decided to play around with my beater bike and try cyclocross. Here’s the scoop.

What I did:

When my knobby 32 mm tires came, I glued them onto the wheels I built last summer.

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Aren’t those gorgeous? Plus, for traction, cyclocross tires use much lower pressures than road tires. Low pressure = comfort. These have 40 psi in them, and that feels perfect for all kinds of terrain.

I removed the water bottle cages.

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The cages would get in the way when you have to put your arm through the frame to carry the bike on steep or unrideably-muddy stretches. Since the longest cyclocross competition lasts about an hour, there is no need for hydration en route.

I switched to a shorter stem and raised the bars a bit from where they were before.

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Because the speeds are so slow compared to road rides, there is no need to maintain a streamlined aerodynamic position. Also, the shorter reach helps to maintain control over rough sections.

Because I had to remove the old handlebar tape to change stems, I replaced it with cotton twill cloth tape.

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Where has this been all my life? Granted, after a half dozen rides it is starting to look dirty, but this is not about style. This tape gives me incredible grip without feeling tacky or spongy like others do. I like the feeling of firmness and control.

I changed the saddle.

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I took this one from an old mountain bike. It’s not leather, but in cyclocross the tires constantly throw mud and water up onto and under the saddle. The synthetic composition of this one will withstand the elements much better. Also, this saddle has a narrower profile than the ones I use for road cycling. This makes things easier when I need to dismount to run or remount after running.

I swapped for the double-sided pedals that had been on my mountain bike.

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Because cyclocross necessitates transition from riding to running and back so often, I thought it was much more important to have these on this bike than on my mountain bike.

I left my gearing alone.

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Combined with a 39-tooth small chainring, this 14-28 five-speed freewheel gives me all the range I need.

I kept the moustache bars.

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These are much wider than those I would use on a road racing bike. but the wide stance gives me lots of control and stability on downhill and technical sections. Also, these bars put your hands in a great position for climbing, much better than drop bars.

So there she is:

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(Gratuitous shot of bike and new-to-me workstand.)

I’m so proud of her. So now that I have a dozen rides under my belt, what are my thoughts on cyclocross so far?

Things I like:

I stay warm. For one thing, he speeds are much slower than those of road rides. There is no easy riding on a cyclocross trail. You’re either riding through grass, thick mud, or snow, and when you can’t ride any more you pick up the bike and run. Also, the trails are generally narrow openings in woods, protected from most of the wind. In all the years I’ve been cycling, I have never found a way to keep my hands and feet warm while riding on the road in cold weather. You name a glove or boot or overshoe that is guaranteed to keep you warm, and I’ve tried it, unsuccessfully. On the other hand, this past weekend I finished a ride having worked up a lather sweating, while wearing normal wool socks and thin running gloves. When I checked the temperature, I was shocked to discover it was 34 Fahrenheit. I never could have lasted if I had been on an open road at 17 or 18 mph.

The rides are shorter. Bicycles are such efficient machines that it normally takes three or four hours to get a worthwhile workout. That’s fine in the summer, but winter evening comes much earlier, and I like to pack in as much activity as I can in a day. Because you work so much harder just to maintain your forward momentum in cyclocross, you can get a decent workout in an hour.  For me, that means being able to go home, clean the bike, shower, read for a while, and still go out with my wife for sushi before it gets too late.

There aren’t the usual road hazards. Whether it’s traffic, glass and other detritus, or red lights and stop signs, there are lots of things that can break up road rides. I’d much rather avoid a tree root that nature put in my way, or stop for a family of ducks to cross my path, than deal with anything man-made.

 

Things I don’t like:

People walking unleashed dogs. In the state where I live, dogs must be on leashes when they are in public. But no matter where I go, there seems to be someone who can’t be bothered to leash his pet. So here I am, trying to maintain control of a skinny, light bike on a technical trail, and along comes Fluffy, running into my path and jumping up on me when I stop so I don’t hit him. Invariably, the owner lollygags around the bend and says, “It’s all right. He’s friendly.” Well, you might be friendly too, but if you jumped on me, that would be assault, pal. I love dogs, but you don’t know that. It takes a really selfish, entitled person to assume someone else doesn’t mind being jumped on by a dog.

That’s it. My dislikes constitute a really short list. Notice, also, that the dislike list has nothing to do with cyclocross itself. Unleashed dogs can ruin any activity I want to keep to myself.

There really is no satisfactory way to avoid the presence of others.

Ad Astra Per Aspera- Chapter 2

In Which I Get a Whiff of Something That Will Become an Obsession

 

As thrilled as I was to see the images sent back from Jupiter by the two Voyager spacecraft on the evening news throughout 1979, it was nothing compared to the indulgence I felt sitting with National Geographic‘s January 1980 issue. The cover sported a false-color image of a volcano’s eruption on the moon Io. The story recounted the approach to and fly-by of the gas giant by the robotic probes, and detailed the struggles of mission scientists to make sense of the treasure trove of data returning to the Earth every day. I re-read the article so many times that this particular issue of my father’s National Geographic archive was the only one that ever appeared used.

National Geographic

As I read, I would picture myself soaring above Jupiter’s cloud belts as if I were a passenger on Voyager or a resident on one of the moons constantly stretched by gravitational tides and bombarded by cosmic rays from the main planet. The idea never failed to terrify me as I learned about the incredibly low temperatures and the giant storm systems that could easily swallow the entire Earth. It reminded me, in a way, of looking at the pictures of spiders’ faces in elementary school picture books. The images gave me nightmares, but there was something about their strange beauty that made me keep looking.

One Saturday later that year, as we piled into the family car for the weekly visit to my grandparents’ house, I remember my father wondering if “it” would fit into the hatchback of a Pinto. I asked him what he was going to put in our car, and he replied, “I’m getting my telescope,” as if it were something I should have known all along. I thought I had misunderstood; A Ford Pinto’s hatchback could hold quite a bit of cargo, and it seemed all the more cavernous in relation to my ten-year-old frame. That must be one heck of a telescope, I thought.

During our visit, probably while most of us watched Dance Fever with Deney Terrio (my grandmother’s favorite), my father disappeared into the car port for a while. When we got into the car to drive home, the end of a wide, white tube, covered by something that looked like a shower cap, extended from the trunk over the rear passenger seat. When we rounded curves in the road, heavy, metallic clanks issued from behind the seat. This all seemed wonderfully mysterious and exciting.

When we set up the telescope the next day, I realized that I did not understand much about telescopes at all. It was hard to get my head around the idea that this one used mirrors, not lenses, to produce an image. The observer actually looked into the scope at right angles to the tube, and from the front, not the back. In fact, when the telescope was fitted onto its massive metal pier base, I had to stand on a step stool to look into the eyepiece. Stranger still, when my father pointed the scope at the chimney on our house to test focus and optical alignment, the chimney appeared upside down and backwards. Here was a new frontier of knowledge for me to conquer.

I later learned that this telescope was the iconic RV-6 Dynascope, made by the Criterion Manufacturing Company of Hartford, Connecticut. Its 6″ diameter f/8 optical system was a classic setup for everyone from beginners to advanced amateurs since the time of Isaac Newton, and gave images that astonished me. The inverted image was correct for an astronomical telescope because a telescope needs additional optical components to produce a correctly-oriented image, and they rob brightness and clarity. The $194.95 price tag for an observing package including three eyepieces and a quality sidereal drive motor to track celestial objects automatically represented great value.

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I just could not understand why, now that my father had brought this treasure into my life, he was so hesitant to use it.

With hindsight, I realize that we lived in a place that made astronomy inconvenient. Our house was located in an area of dense woods, so the only visible sky was directly above the cleared part of our yard. Complicating matters, there was hardly a level square foot on our entire acre, meaning the mount could not be set up to follow objects easily as the Earth rotated over the course of a night. There was no possibility of staying up late enough to use his telescope on work/school nights, and often on weekends we were faced with the options of staying inside by a cozy fire or freezing out in the yard while trying to track down astronomical targets. The fire usually won.

But I was ten! Like all ten-year-olds, I was made of rubber and magic, and never ran out of energy. I wanted to set up the scope! I wanted to move it around the yard each time we looked for a different celestial object! My father was not quite as enthusiastic about these endeavors as I was, but over the next couple of years, there were enough clear weekend nights when I was able to persuade him to go stargazing that I was hooked for life.

I can only clearly remember seeing four objects from my early days in astronomy: Jupiter (of course; after Voyager, how could we not check it out for ourselves?), the Moon (the one object other than the Sun that everyone can find and identify), the Great Nebula in Orion (which, in retrospect, I have a hard time believing ever rose above our tree line; it may be a false memory), and the Andromeda Galaxy, which passes nearly overhead at our latitude.

Thinking back on this, I realize that these may have been the only objects my father knew how to find. His reluctance to go observing with me more often may have stemmed from a fear of seeming inadequate to a young son. I know he did not have any star charts detailed enough to match his scope’s capability. I struggle with this fear of inadequacy myself, and that may explain why it took me so long to find Millbrook’s observatory or to believe that anyone there would care about my interest.

It may seem odd, but I will never forget the smell of that telescope. The fact that it was stored in my poorly-insulated attic bedroom certainly made it more prominent. To this day, every time I get a whiff of Bakelite (the Dynascope was actually made of phenolic resin) I am right back there in my parents’ yard, teetering on a ladder and focusing critically on Jupiter’s Galilean satellites. I recently learned that other astronomers had distinct and fond memories of the Dynascope’s aroma. Various on-line astronomy discussion board posts likened it to the nose of a fine wine, or even an astronomical aphrodesiac!

Spurred on by Voyager and by the premier of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series on PBS, I began to devour every astronomy-related book I could find in our small local library. Our librarian, Mrs. Card (you can’t make this stuff up), must have wondered just how many times a person could read, re-read, and re-borrow the same books. I treasure one of these above all others: Starlight Nights by Leslie C. Peltier.

Peltier

The author tells the story of his life in astronomy in a way that expresses simply but poetically how much a love affair with the night sky can mean to a person. I have since shared the book with people I care about, many of whom have little interest in astronomy, and even they become captivated by the storytelling. From his first glimpses of the Pleiades and Halley’s Comet when a young boy to his national recognition for variable star observations and comet discoveries, Peltier was someone in whose footsteps I wanted to follow.

Soon, my father bought for our home library a copy of James Muirden’s The Amateur Astronomer’s Handbook.

Muirden

Little did I know that a seemingly-minor passage in the book would be so intertwined with my adult research. For star charts, Muirden recommended The Telescope Handbook and Star Atlas by Neale Howard.

Like many of the other books I read, The Amateur Astronomer’s Handbook contained illustrated sections on the workings of telescopes, and it looked incredibly simple to make one. All I needed were a couple of lenses and a tube. I even thought of a source. The next time I had an appointment with our optometrist, Dr. Tischler, I asked him if he had any lenses lying around that he wasn’t using, and if so, might I have them? Everything makes sense in your head when you’re ten. He explained to me patiently that his were not the type of lenses I needed. I could not understand why he did not understand my project, and left that day somewhat miffed. I had made an impression, though, for Dr. Tischler kept a close eye on my interest in telescope building. It was many years, however, until I could show him something I had made myself.

At about the same time, I began my forays into binocular astronomy because of an opportunity that may have seemed like drudgery to some. A high school in a nearby town hosted a Gifted and Talented program for students of middle school age on Saturdays. I cannot now recall how my parents found out about this, but it may have been through my mother’s job as a first grade teacher in a local Catholic School. The program was run by Dr. Sally Reis from the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education, and for several weeks, eager, nerdy children indulged their interests in music, debate, photography, archaeology, rudimentary computer programming, and in my case astronomy. My class met in UCONN’s planetarium, and it was taught by physics professor Dr. Cynthia Peterson. She provided exactly the primer I needed, a thorough but non-threatening introduction to the constellations and the fixed and wandering objects to which they served as signposts.

The course provided each of its attendees with a planisphere, a rotating miniature star map that shows what objects are visible in the sky at any date and time. One of its interchangeable wheels showed deep-sky objects visible in binoculars, and so I finally had a way to tour the sky on my own. I’m glad I began my explorations with binoculars rather than a telescope, because it taught me much more about the sky than I otherwise would have learned. First of all, binoculars orient the image to appear the same way it does to the unaided eye. I could point my binoculars at a visible pattern of stars and see it somewhat magnified, but I could also see many fainter stars in and around it. This demonstrated the advantage of increased light-gathering power, since the lenses had more surface area than those in my eyes. Also, because binoculars offer a wider field of view than a telescope, they made navigation among the stars to locate the brighter objects much easier. Still, when you’re bitten by the bug, you’re never satisfied. I wanted a telescope of my own.

When I got my first summer job in high school, I had access to significant sums of money for the first time. I confess that, like a good American consumer, I caved. I had been looking at a red Tasco 2″ refractor telescope in the window of our local camera shop. It was new. It was shiny. It was red! So one day, I went to the bank, withdrew money from my savings account, and took home my very own telescope.

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I believe that department store telescopes have done more to discourage generations of budding astronomers than all of the cloudy nights in history. They usually have useless finder scopes and unmanageably-small eyepieces that produce way too much magnification. That way, the manufacturer can sell them as “500-Power” telescopes to appeal to power-hungry Americans who don’t know any better. Worst of all, they invariably have flimsy mountings that cannot hold the optics still enough for the user to get a good view of anything. This one was no exception. On the other hand, I remembered that my astronomical hero Leslie Peltier had worked a summer job to save the money for his very first telescope: a 2″ refractor!

Fortunately, I still had a desire to build something, and that made me willing to tinker with this scope until it worked better. Based on other models I had seen in magazine ads, I had my uncle help me drill the tube and tap in a mechanism to hold the scope solidly in one position. I hung weights from the accessory tray on the tripod to minimize vibrations from wind and my contact with the telescope. I fashioned a long dew shield out of cardboard and black construction paper to keep the objective lens from frosting over. All of these improvements made the scope’s performance acceptable, and though planets were my favorite targets, I was able to see examples of every class of object beyond the solar system: double stars, open and globular star clusters, galaxies, and planetary and diffuse nebulae. I used my binocular star wheel supplemented a rudimentary atlas purchased at a local book store.

Star Atlas Detail

And, like Leslie Peltier, I carefully smoked a glass disk with oil lamp soot to make a filter which, when placed in front of the telescope’s objective, allowed me to view the sun and its spots. I wasn’t always successful in my hunts, but I was leaving the nest for the first time.