Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"All the ways in which my bike has been misbehaving" or "Why my Grandpa can be proud of me"

The bicycle in question, Guinevere. Isn't she lovely? We've been together since 2005.

It all started about a month ago. I was coasting down the gentle slope of Erb St on my way to the grocery store. I was all proud of myself because it would be the first shopping trip with my newly-installed milk crate* on the back of my bike. The light turned red, and I grumbled with frustration at losing my precious momentum and squeezed the brakes. And squeezed them harder. And panicked because nothing was happening. I did a very elegant emergency slowdown that consisted of dragging my feet on the ground and half falling onto the sidewalk. And then decided that continuing on with my shopping trip (down the much longer hill on Bridgeport Ave.) was probably not the best choice under the circumstances. So I returned home, and got my first crash course in bike repair and maintenance.I asked my roommate Matt, a mechanical engineer at UW, if he knew anything about bike brakes. I figured he would, or at least should. He knew enough to tell me where to tighten them and with somewhat restored braking power, I continued on my merry way.

I rode my bike this way for a few days, but figured that I should probably check it out more fully, especially since I was riding it long distances to the garden (18 k round trip). This was during the period when I didn't have any money**, but I was also curious about how my bike was put together. These two factors made the UW Bike Centre my ideal destination. The Centre is in a basement on campus. Staffed by volunteers and equipped with tools that can solve "99% of what's wrong with the average bike" (according to the website http://www.bike.uwaterloo.ca/bikecentre.html), it's a space for people to work on their own bikes. The volunteers will help you figure out what exactly you need to do, and you pay $1 to use the tools and $1 if you use any of the liquids (oil, lube etc.) I think it's absolutely genius. The learning curve is pretty steep though, especially if you've never done anything with your bike before.

So, I have a confession to make. The relevance of the first part of the title to this blog post should already be clear. Now is the time for the explanation of the second part of the title, and my confession. My Grandpa and Grandma Hollinger used to own a bike shop, aptly called Hollinger Bicycles. As such, I have grown up in a biking family. I remember my first bike, a pink Giant with training wheels and handlebar streamers, flown over to Benin in a big cardboard box. My family has gone on many family bike rides, a great many of them ending up at the Chief, a little shack in Goshen that serves the best homemade ice cream I've ever had. And I ALWAYS wear a helmet, because my Grandma was the best helmet fitter in Elkhart County and drilled into my head the importance of protecting itself. But, for all this biking-ness, I have never actually had to do anything with my bike myself. Anytime my bike misbehaved, I would call Grandpa, or ask my mom to come look at it (she learned from a good teacher). But now they're both 7 hours away, which is pretty far if you don't have a car (or a bike!) Thus my bicycular fending for myself had to begin sometime. And my bike decided it was to be this summer.

So, my first time at the Bike Centre I learned a great deal of things: how to put my bike up on the stand, what an Allen key is, how to tighten and loosen my brakes properly (Matt had just given me the quick fix), and how fun it is to play with your bike. I had a wave of insight that allowed me to understand why people enjoy messing around with mechanical things like engines and bikes so much. It's fun! A bike is like a big toy, just more complicated and actually useful. I must have pedaled it by hand for 10 minutes straight, just admiring how smoothly it changed gears. The way the chain jumps from one gear to another is nothing short of an acrobatic feat - why doesn't it get lost along the way? How does it know where to go?

My second time at the Bike Centre was not as simple and carefree. But first, the story of how I ended up there once again. I was biking out to the garden with my friend Emma. We were taking the Iron Horse Trail, a lovely paved path that connects Kitchener and Waterloo along an old railroad bed. At Victoria Park in Kitchener, it intersects with railroad tracks at a strange angle. Because of this, the good people responsible for maintaining the path have erected gates with signs that say "Please dismount before crossing" or something to that effect. Unfortunately for me (and my bike), I heedlessly circumnavigated the gates, while talking to Emma over my shoulder. As you can probably guess, this did not have good results. My bike tire wedged itself in the gap between the asphalt and the track, stopping me abruptly and flinging me sideways. I recovered myself without falling over completely, but my pedal left a gorgeous bruise on the back of my knee (which my friend Tricia referred to as "sexy". The bruise, not the knee). We continued on our way, but as we biked back later in the day, I noticed that my bike was acting strangely. It was as if there was a rather large child sitting behind me in the milk crate, and this child was having immense difficulty staying still. The bike swayed back and forth dangerously, especially when I coasted down hills. I was a bit perplexed, and took a closer look when I got home. Every single spoke on the back wheel was very, very loose. I still don't understand how a fall loosened all the spokes, but then again, I'm no bike expert. Obviously. So, back in the Bike Centre, I explained my predicament to the volunteer, who told me that my wheel needed to be trued. I found this amusing (at first).

As a life-long bibliophile and student of English, I find the expression "truing a wheel" to be very interesting. This is obviously not true in the sense of "in accordance with fact or reality," but rather "correctly positioned or aligned; upright or level."^ As I began tightening the spokes with the cute little spoke wrenches, I berated the wheel. "You were lying to me," I told it. "You weren't being true to me. Now you're going to have to shape up." It's interesting how morality and ideas of right and wrong came to be associated with something as morally ambiguous as a bike wheel. Also conveyed by the word true is an implicit anthropomorphization of the wheel - as if it had a will of its own and decided to be true or untrue. (Well, I do talk to my bike. And I've named it. Guinevere. So I guess one of Guinevere's wheels deciding to be true or untrue kind of fits with my worldview. Can you tell I'm in Anthropology as well?) But enough etymology.

Truing a wheel is a little bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle. If you look at a bike wheel, you'll notice that there are spokes that come down on the right and left. They actually pull the rim of the wheel into shape. So the goal is to have equal tension on each side so that the rim is circular. This will eliminate any side to side wobbling. So you have to tighten spokes on one side, and loosen the corresponding spokes on the other side. And then spin the wheel and see where it rubs against the calipers of the wheel truing stand. So if it rubs to the right, you have to loosen the spokes on the right and tighten on the left. And vice versa. And then maybe you did it too much or not enough and you have to do that section again. And then you move on to the next section where it rubs. If you tighten a spoke too much, it breaks. (Guess how I learned that? Hint: The Centre volunteer didn't tell me.) Adding to the complication is the counter-intuitive fact that to tighten a spoke, you unscrew it, and to loosen a spoke, you screw it in. If you look at the way the wheel is designed, it makes sense, but I'm pretty sure that at least a few times I was doing the opposite of what I intended to do. So after an hour and a half of this, I had to go to work. My wheel still wasn't entirely true, but it was much better than before. There's going to have to be a wheel truing part 2.

The third episode in the Summer 2009 Bicycle Saga started last Friday. I rode my bike to work in the morning. And when I came out to ride it home, the tire was flat. So I walked it home. I debated leaving it locked up outside the Davis Centre, but the University of Waterloo is not the safest place to leave your bike. As you can tell by all the bicycle carcasses still locked up to the racks, some missing front or back wheels or seats or all of the above. I realized how dependent I am on my bike as I realized that I had to leave extra time to walk places, take the bus, or mooch rides off of friends with cars. Yesterday, the Bike Centre was open (oh happy day!) and I had an hour and a half before I had to be at work. So I took my bike in, and learned how to patch an inner tube. I popped the tire part off (well, popped is misleading, it took a little more work than that word implies) and inflated the inner tube, squeezing it to find the hole. I found it, put the inner tube down to get a patch, and then of course couldn't find the hole again, so I had to go through the process all over again. I sanded down the area, applied the self-vulcanizing adhesive (doesn't that kind of sound like it will spontaneously erupt?), waited for it to dry, and put on the patch. I kind of felt motherly to my bike, finding the scratch and patching it up. Good as new! I found the offending piece of glass stuck in my tire. Dear drunken students who wander down Erb St at 3 am talking loudly and breaking beer bottles on the sidewalk: You'll be glad to know that you've helped me along in my bicycular education.

So there you have it, my friends: a crash course in bicycle repair and maintenance and some etymology on the side. Don't you feel edified? Ha ha, that rhymed. Okay, time to stop now, before I move on to teaching Lao.

PS. Happy Canada Day!

Footnotes: I don't know why I decided to do footnotes. Maybe because I'm a research assistant for one of my anthropology profs this summer, so I'm in academic mode? Or maybe it's just because I'm in a weird mood. It's okay if you don't read them. The whole point of footnotes is to give extraneous information that isn't really important, unless you're super interested in the topic at hand.

*The milk crate is the new, hip bike accessory for students in Waterloo this summer. Well, maybe it's not new or hip, but I've seen an awful lot of them around, especially on campus. Emma Dines was my milk crate inspiration, because I was envious of how handy hers is. So I asked her how she did it (hose clamps) and marched down to Home Hardware and bought myself some, borrowed the tools needed from my roommate Matt, and installed a milk crate on my bike. Voila! Instant relief from the feeling we all know of biking up hills with a backpack seemingly full of rocks weighing you down. Also an excellent way to bring home heavy groceries (milk, flour and canned goods are the worst) or transport seedlings out to the garden (although some may tip over or suffer from overexposure to wind). It was the first of many bike improvement sessions, as you will see if you return to the main manuscript.

**I am out of this period as of last Friday, when I got paid, and found out that research assistants get paid considerably more than minimum wage. Yay!

^Thanks to my Concise Oxford English Dictionary, a Christmas present from my parents. I put it to good use. And sometimes I just sit around and read it, just for fun. Words are interesting, okay?

Monday, June 1, 2009

Swing Dancing!

I've never really thought of myself as a dancer. And well, I haven't really danced much. Other than having African women laugh at me because I don't know how to shake my hips properly. But two of my ex-roomies (don't worry, we're still on good terms) are really into this ceilidh (Irish dancing) thing. So I went once, and was hooked. It's like square dancing, only way better and more fun. The only problem is that the ceilidhs stop during the summer months. So how to get through until September? Swing dancing.

I'm part of the UW Swing Dance club, which means I go to lessons once a week, and then there's a swing night every Monday at a local bar/restaurant. So tonight was my third time going out to the social dance, and I've had two lessons. So I've done swing a grand total of five times in my entire life. Tonight I achieved the pinnacle of my swing dancing career - I got through an entire song and only made two mistakes (yes, of course we were doing the easiest step, which is pretty much the only one I know how to do). But I was soooo excited. I totally have a crush on this guy that I danced it with - he makes me look so good! Unfortunately (for me), he's married to a lovely woman who he danced with most of the time. But he still made room for a few dances with me! I have another swing crush (meaning someone that I'm attracted to because they're so fun to dance with), but he has a girlfriend. BUT she left early. Which equaled more dancing time for me.

I've decided that it's best to dance when I've had a beer. This is not enough alcohol to make me uncoordinated or silly, but it is enough to make me loosen up. This means that I will ask people to dance and I also end up being a better follow. I tend to do this thing where I try to anticipate what the lead is going to do, which more often than not doesn't work out so well. So it's better if I'm a little relaxed so that I can just be content to do what I'm being told to do in the moment. Which is quite difficult. It's not easy to just give up control to someone else! I'm sure leading is hard too, but it's not the same exercise in trust. Although I suppose that they have to trust their follow to do what they tell them to do.

Dancing is so beautiful. I love to dance, but I also just love sitting there and watching people move so beautifully. It makes me want to cry sometimes. And sometimes the music just makes me want to keep moving, do anything but stand still.

It's funny because I've been impatient with myself for not learning swing as fast as I would like to. I think it was because the first two times I went out to a social dance night I was pretty much the only beginner, so everyone was better than me and I felt totally lost. But tonight there were more people who were just beginning, like me, and so I was able to enjoy where I'm at in the process of learning. Because you're only a beginner once. Why skip ahead? You can demand the six count Lindy Hop because that's the only thing you know, and your lead will have to comply. Well, if he's kind. Certain people who shall remain nameless would cruelly change it up on me with no warning. And then laugh. They know who they are.

Where I'm at with dancing kind of feels like where I am with life right now. We're a month into the summer term but I still feel like it's beginning. A lot of things are still up in the air, undecided, and it's not the most comfortable position to be in. I had two job interviews today, so I'm really hoping something comes through. I feel like I keep trying to arrange my life the way I want it, but things keep getting delayed or the plan changes entirely and although I keep trying, things don't really turn out the way that I foresee them turning out. Which is kind of like me trying to anticipate a lead's move and then making an awkward mess when we could have been dancing smoothly. So life is not bad at all right now, I just need to try to relax and go with the flow a little more. Because that's when it really gets good.

And honestly, working nine hours a week has its benefits. As in, I can go swing dancing every Monday night and stay up late, because there is absolutely nothing on Tuesday that I need to get up for. And I can read Anna Karenina, and cook, and watch movies, and work in the garden... the delightful list goes on. The only catch is: rent. And groceries. And money for beer (although sometimes I get lucky and find $10 in toonies in the bottom of my purse!). Okay, so yeah, that's why it's good to have one of those job things. I'm working on it. But in the meantime, I'm really enjoying dancing the night away.