Monthly Archives: July 2006

Heat, a Re-examination

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The last day of July, the first of August, it’s supposed to be hot. Today, it’s an unremarkable 90 or so here in Brooklyn. I’m sitting in my brother and sister-in-law’s unairconditioned kitchen about a mile south and east of the Brooklyn Bridge. Not suffering. But tomorrow we’ll be getting what folks to the west have been dealing with for the last couple of days (112 in Bismarck?!). The National Weather Service is warning it will get up to about 100 Tuesday and Wednesday, that it will be plenty humid, and that we’ll have high ozone levels as the air in the region stagnates. (Add rum and guns, then stir for a swell party!)

The last few days, Kate and I have been staying in a friend’s house  near the northern New Jersey shore. It’s got central air conditioning, and the system has been running ever since we arrived there last Thursday. It struck me this morning as I walked outside for the first time and shut the sliding glass door behind me that around here, the ability to cool the air in homes and cars and public places of all kinds is just as vital as the ability to heat it in the winter. In the suburbs, anyway, you don’t see homes open to the elements on a hot day any more than you’d see a place with its windows flung open when it’s zero outside. Yet, the weather’s the weather. It may be incrementally hotter on average than it was a generation or two or three ago, but everyone here endured long, stifling stretches of heat then without refrigerating every living space, just as most of the world’s people do today. (We went to France in August 2003 at the tail end of the country’s extended heat wave; I knew air conditioning was uncommon there, but I hoped against hope that somehow our little hotel would be an exception; instead, when we got to our room, we found that the windows hadn’t been opened for days and the place was like an oven — and what was worse was that for several days afterward, there wasn’t enough of a breeze to cool anything off.)

I’m not arguing for some kind of sweaty, hair-shirt virtue in living without air conditioning. Just makes me wonder sometimes what would happen if we all suddenly had to do without (which ties into my fear for the next couple of days; I’m concerned that the power demand here will cause a blackout and shut down the air-traffic-control system and keep us from flying back Wednesday to our effete little climate back in Berkeley). I do remember that before we had our first air conditioners, in 1966, the remedy for hot nights was staying up late watching movies with our mom and taking cool showers before we headed off to bed. Somehow, we slept.

(Picture: Hamilton Avenue and West 9th Street, Brooklyn. It wasn’t really 99 degrees.)

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Saturday Night, Sunday Morning

After a day spent near the Delaware River, then with Kate’s cousin’s family north of Philadelphia, we decided to take an impromptu sidetrip to Gettysburg (how impromptu? We didn’t bring a change of clothes). So tonight, we’re camped out in a motel just outside Harrisburg and about 30 miles (an exhausting day’s march or a half-hour air-conditioned drive) from Gettysburg. I haven’t been here since 1971; Kate’s visiting the battlefield for the first time. Oh, and our rental car has South Carolina license plates.

More tomorrow.

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Denial

First, is there a more unfortunate name in the entire world of sports than Dick Pound? He’s the head of the Orwellian-sounding World Anti-Doping Agency (known also by its goofier acronym, WADA). I only mention him because he’s always come across as a supercop-type zealot, and his comments on the current unpleasantness involving the formerly unbesmirched Tour de France champ Floyd Landis remind you of a narc who’s just caught a kid swigging Robitussin. Pound calls the Landis’s situation — it doesn’t really merit the label, yet, of "charges" or "accusations" — "a stunning indictment" of professional cycling. But the sport is in denial, he says:

“They have a huge problem, a
really serious problem, but first they have to recognize it. It’s like
an alcoholic. Unless you acknowledge you have a problem, it’s very hard
to move toward a solution.”

Huh. This is the sport that banned a whole team from the Tour a few years back because doping paraphernalia was found in a team car. It stopped two stars from riding in this year’s Tour because of allegations they were connected with a doping doctor. Many lesser but still prominent riders have been suspended from competition for years for violating doping rules. Now, the Tour winner’s team has outed its champion on the basis of a test result that looks like it’s open to interpretation. You wonder what sort of solution Pound thinks might be needed to correct this sort of denial. Capital punishment?

But back to Landis. Maybe it’s a mistake to apply plain, everyday, civilian logic, but the idea of anyone in his position deciding to shoot up (or whatever) at that stage in the race simply defies belief. The upside from doping would be uncertain at best. The downside would be clear: Disgrace and infamy — exactly what’s raining down on him now, denials and protests notwithstanding. Who would take that chance? Especially after having played by the rules up to that point?

Does it matter, really? Certainly not in the way that it matters when a nation’s leaders decide to gamble with the lives of others.  But even in the sports context, does it matter whether these guys are taking drugs or not? A friend and fellow cyclist in Berkeley, Steve, points to a pretty good essay by a former marathoner, triathlete and sports-doping enforcer who says maybe the most beneficial thing for athletes is to do away with all the drug rules and let the chips fall where they may. He argues that fair enforcement is impossible and that sports at the elite level require such extreme levels of physical punishment that they’re intrinsically unhealthy and that some banned substances could help competitors limit the damage. I’m not buying that — the example he uses aren’t convincing to me — but he challenges the gospel assumption that all sports doping is bad and that all attempts to stop it are good.

We’ll see about Floyd. If I were the betting sort, I’d put my money on him being exonerated. There will be a reasonable explanation for an anomalous test result. But the folks who say the damage is done are right. A few days ago, his story was about a heroic comeback. Now it’s about a desperate attempt to convince the world the heroism wasn’t fake. There’s no way you can make people put that aside and embrace the old story line. More’s the pity.

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Summer, EDT

We landed in New York, JFK, on Wednesday evening. Remind me to relate sometime the story of the large model airplane that someone flew by remote control up to our jet’s altitude as we landed. We got our rental car and drove slowly to my bro’s place in Brooklyn and had a nice cookout with him and his wife and daughter on their rooftop patio. A true NYC experience.

Yesterday — Thursday — we drove across the ungainly mass of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, past Staten Island’s artificial mountains, and over the Outerbridge Crossing to New Jersey. It’s summer — Bahama high summer — here. The air so humid that it looks thick; even the sunlight is muddy. We visited with Kate’s mom and sister — indoors, where one can do more than just sweat — then drove out to Atlantic Highlands for a beer at an outdoor place next to the bridge that goes over to Sandy Hook. During dinner later, at a garish, bare little Italian place whose owner wanted to know all about the wine we brought to have with our pizza, a big thunderstorm came in from the west. As I said to Kate later, "That didn’t resolve anything." The night was muggy, hot and still after the rain passed.

Today: The same. Driving on one of the jughandled New Jersey four lanes with the windows open, I asked Kate if she was too hot. She said no. "I was just thinking of what Andre Gregory said in ‘My Dinner with Andre.’ ‘If you’re cold, don’t get under an electric blanket to feel an artificial blanket. What’s wrong with really feeling cold and having that experience of being really cold?’ So now I’m just having the experience of being hot and humid."

Me, too. Summer, Eastern Daylight Time. Not bad. Different from what I’ve gotten used to.

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Hell on Wheels

It’s late, and we’re getting up early to fly to New York to visit Kate’s family (and see my brother John). So the telling of this tale might be a little truncated. But:

One of my cycling goals this year was to ride three double centuries — 200 miles in a day — because there’s a sort of prize for that feat called the California Triple Crown. I rode my three doubles in April and May — two very tough rides (the Devil Mountain Double and the Central Coast Double, both featuring lots and lots of steepish uphill riding) and one that the cognoscenti have come to sniff at as "easy" (the Davis Double Century, one of the oldest doubles anywhere). I don’t subscribe to the notion that riding 200 miles in a day, no matter what the course, is easy.

A couple weeks ago, I was kicking around riding plans with a friend, Bruce. He suggested doing a local double called Bay in a Day, first run last year. Its unique feature: It circles the whole of San Francisco Bay, which is a neat idea in itself; though it’s a challenge, too, because to keep the ride close to 200 miles and make it all the way around means spending a lot of time in heavily populated areas on heavily traveled roads. Despite the fact the ride’s not yet recognized for Triple Crown credit, Bruce and I signed up — though it developed after we’d paid our non-refundable fees that Bruce had a social engagement he couldn’t break and could only do half the ride.

Then the heat came. By last Friday, the Bay Area and most of California was in the same red zone as the East and Midwest had been earlier in the week. Friday night, the National Weather Service put out a Heat Advisory warning of triple-digit temperatures on Saturday. Among other things, the weather service and local TV weather forecasters warned against outdoor exercise on Saturday. I heard the warning and thought about calling Bruce and bailing on the ride. Then I thought about The Terrible Two, an epic double that starts up in Santa Rosa, in Sonoma County, and is famous for two things: the combination of brutal climbs (present every year) and brutal heat (present most years, including this one). I know plenty of people, including Bruce, who rode The Terrible Two a few weeks ago, or tried to, and I told myself if they could do it, I could, too.

Saturday morning: We rolled out of Novato, in Marin County, at 5:35 a.m. It was beautiful, clear, and too warm, even for a midsummer morning. The water in San Pablo Bay — the northeasternmost extension of San Francisco Bay — was glassy in the calm. We sped along for the first couple of hours and covered a lot of ground; it wasn’t until about 10 that it started to feel hot; within another hour, the air felt overheated and oppressive. Bruce left the route about 11:30 to catch BART back to Berkeley, and I and a couple of other riders I know kept on to Palo Alto, the lunch stop, at mile 108. By then, the temperature was close to 100 and the heat on the road was more like 105 to 110.

So far, I wasn’t feeling too taxed. I stopped for about 45 minutes at lunch and drank lots — several V8s and a couple of Cokes and plenty of water. I knew things were going to get worse. They did: Heading back into the hills east of the Stanford campus and away from the Bay was like going into an oven. I was carrying two one-liter water bottles and a Camelbak that carries another two liters; the water in the bottles quickly became hot and unpleasant to drink; the water from the Camelbak was better, though water in the tube coming out of the reservoir was also very warm. On downhill stretches, the wind was just a solid, unrefreshing blast of heat.

It was 25 miles from lunch to the next rest stop. Luckily, it never entered my mind to have a timetable for that stretch. Whenever the heat started to feel overwhelming, I stopped — at a store in Woodside, where it was 105 in the shade, at a parking lot alongside a big reservoir, once more at an impromptu water stop set up by the ride organizers. It probably took me a good two and a half hours to cover the 25 miles, but the heat wasn’t quite over. Riding up the Peninsula toward San Francisco, I started to plot where I’d quit. Finally, though, about 5:30 in the afternoon, I felt the first trace of a breeze off the Pacific. The temperature dropped into the low 90s, the high 80s, the mid 70s. I imagined I’d feel better if I could cool off, but I was surprised at how much better I felt. Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, I recorded the low temperature for the day — 63. On the north end of the bridge, the temperature rose 25 degrees, but I was through the worst of it and managed to get back to Novato, the starting point, after 10 o’clock. It was a lot later than I figured on finishing, but I’d made it.

(I wrote a little report for the ride organizers, which I’ll post as a continuation if you’re curious).

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Genius

A couple years ago I needed a new computer. I tried to avoid past mistakes and get the smallest, simplest machine I could. I wound up with a 12-inch Apple iBook; the operating system and user interface seemed more straightforward than the latest version of Windows, and I was pretty tired of computer crashes as a daily fact of life. I’ve liked the iBook and have never regretted paying the premium that goes along with buying an Apple product (working on a Windows XP laptop now, which is so damned helpful you just want to slap it, reinforces the feeling). I don’t do anything complicated on it — glorified word processing and a ton of Web research mostly, along with some photo processing. Until the past few weeks, it worked flawlessly.

Then it started hiccupping a little, at one point simply not responding to any keyboard commands any more. It came back to life, went weird again once or twice, and then late last week really stopped working. No big deal; we’re not talking about a person here. But the computer is just two years old, and if I’d paid an equal amount for a bicycle or a used car — not necessarily less complicated machines — I’d have been disappointed to have them go dead after so short a time. In a rare example of foresight, though, I bought a three-year product guarantee when I got the iBook. That meant I could call Apple’s customer support phone line and bend their ear as long about the problem for as long as I wanted and maybe even get it fixed for free.

I phoned and got a very patient and helpful guy somewhere in Canada who walked me through the problem and all the troubleshooting stuff he could, most of which I had tried already. After about an hour, he said he’d done what he could and that I ought to bring the computer into an Apple Store. We’ve got one of the outlets just a few miles away, so that wasn’t a problem. On Monday morning, I went online — on Kate’s Windows PC — and booked a 10:50 a.m. appointment at the Emeryville store.

If you’ve experienced an Apple Store, you know the deal: You’re not going into a retail store, you’re entering a boutique. And instead of dealing with a customer service desk or repair department, you’re dealing with a Genius Bar. Fine. I suppose I don’t care what they call it as long as I can get my problem taken care of — and I did, sort of. When I walked into the store at 10:48, my name was first up on the Genius Bar monitor. At 10:56, the harried Genius working the bar, a guy named Carlos, called my name, then asked what my problem was. Within about 15 minutes, he’d determined my hard drive was failing. Since I had the three-year "AppleCare" plan, I won’t have to pay for it. Of course, since I resolutely ignored common sense and hardly ever backed up the machine, I may lose everything on the drive; some writing, but worse, two years’ worth of pictures.

So: No backup — that’s my bad. The hard drive dying after two years — well, that’s digital life, I guess. It’s just a little hard to swallow from a company that insists on telling me how much smarter they are than everyone else.

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Where I’ve Been

What with one thing and the other — one thing being the near-death of my two-year-old Apple iBook (the hard drive crapped out), the other a voluntarily embarked upon near-death experience on my bicycle over the weekend (the Bay in a Day double century, held during a triple-digit heat spell)  — I haven’t done much in the way of sitting down to post in the last few days. But I’ll make amends, as early as later this evening.

Until that time …

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Heart

Floyd072006

Today, Floyd Landis had to face the Tour de France cameras again. Yesterday, he ran out of gas on the stage’s last climb, hit the wall hard, and lost the Tour’s yellow jersey. Then he gathered himself, told reporters that even though he didn’t expect to win the Tour anymore he’d still give it a shot, and went to bed.

Today? Well, I may have disappeared so far into cycling-race geekdom (along with immediate family members and close friends, some neighbors, and assorted bicycling compatriots) that I underestimate the difficulty in conveying how amazing today was. Landis came out and attacked the field on the last big mountain-climbing stage of the Tour, and this time, he broke everyone else. Talk about heart.

He did not capture the overall race lead, but because of the nature of the last three stages — a relatively flat one tomorrow with limited apparent tactical opportunity for big moves by the race leaders, a time trial on Saturday in which Landis will be a favorite to win, and the short, flat finish on Sunday in Paris — he’s got a real chance to win the Tour. Of course, the thing about this Tour, unlike nearly every Tour for the past 25 years, is that you never know what tomorrow will bring.

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WWGWBD?

“Remember, this started, this crisis started when Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers. They were unprovoked — Hezbollah were unprovoked, and they then took hostages. Imagine how the United States would react if somebody provoked us with that kind of action. And secondly, started firing rockets. And it’s this provocation of Hezbollah that has created this crisis, and that’s the root cause of the problem.”

That was our president yesterday, with his pithy and morally certain summary of how Lebanon blew up. His third sentence got me: “Imagine how the United States would react if somebody provoked us with that kind of action.” The kind of action he’s talking about is the Hezbollah attack during which seven Israeli soldiers were killed and two taken captive.

We all know about Israel’s response: In a different time — maybe before Iraq, maybe before 9/11 — it’s hard to imagine that Israel’s orgy of destruction and killing would have been anything but shocking. Now the president is telling us not only that unrestrained violence is the way of the world, he is, in effect, endorsing it.

I’m not cayrring any water for Hezbollah or others who appear so willing to murder for their causes. The point is we’re supposed to represent the alternative.

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Ready for Your Closeup?

If you’re watching the Tour de France every day on OLN — a bad habit in our household driven by the fact it’s the only place to see the race here in America — you’re well acquainted with the astounding caravan that moves along with the race. Motorcycles carrying TV, video and still photographers and course marshalls and timekeepers. Cars carrying race officials. Team cars — at least one for every starting squad of nine riders — carrying the team directors (the overall race strategists) and sundry VIPs and journalists. Neutral cars to support riders up and down the course regardless of which team they’re on. Overhead, at least one helicopter shadowing the progress of the daily race leaders. One of the more demanding and stressful factors for Tour riders must be the constant din of honking cars, revving engines and churning helicopter rotors.

For fans, though, the presence of cameras rolling along with the riders means that you’re right in the middle of the action. For riders, it means there’s no place to hide when something goes wrong. That’s what happened today for Floyd Landis, the former Lance Armstrong lieutenant who had managed to take the race leader’s yellow jersey this year. After a strong finish yesterday on one of the Tour’s classic tough mountain stages, lots of people had started to feel Landis would go on to win the race. But today — today was another brutally hard day, and on the stage’s last climb, Landis blew up. When one of his rivals accelerated sharply and the group around him chased, Landis simply couldn’t make his legs go any faster or harder. It was stunning to see — at least for Tour geeks who are used to seeing a single rider impose his will on the race.

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Of course, Landis had one faithful companion as he found himself wallowing up the climb, his closest rivals vanishing up the road ahead of him: as usual, a Tour cameraman was there to capture every moment of suffering. All Landis could do was keep turning over the pedals until he got to the top, no matter how long it took.

[Later: Landis avoided the media at the finish, but later gave what Velonews termed an “impromptu press conference” during which he showed a lot of class. One exchange:

Q: Did you know when you were dropped that the yellow jersey was gone?

FL: I knew I felt very, very bad. I didn’t expect to stay close to the leaders. I did what I could. I kept fighting, but I didn’t have much left. I did everything in my power to stay close, but you saw what happened. ]

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