Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Hilly Hundred

If I may be allowed a conceit, I would like to pat myself on the back. I am pretty darn proud of myself. This past weekend, I biked the Hilly Hundred.

For those of you outside the fair state of Indiana, the Hilly Hundred is a bike tour of south central Indiana that covers 100 miles of hilly terrain over 2 days. It is a gorgeous ride, a wonderful way to meet new friends, and an incredibly grueling event.

Allow me to put this into perspective for you. I am 41.2 years old, and I make my living by sitting at a desk and typing. Before 2 years ago, the farthest I had ever ridden in a single day was 10 miles. Before 4 days ago, the farthest I had ever ridden in a single day was 40 miles. And to top it off, I own a Schwinn Criss Cross hybrid bike. Think of it as the Subaru Outback of bikes (sturdy, reliable, poor gas mileage, and definitely not a Ferrari). At best, I am an Aspiring Cyclist. By that, I mean that I am definitely a step above the general cyclists who only bike occasionally or for fun around their neighborhood, but I am not yet a Pserious Psychlist. I am sure you all recognize the Pserious Psychlists. They have the equipment, the uniform, and above all, the attitude. They zip by you on the Monon Trail at 200 miles an hour on their Trek bikes with pencil-thin tires and seven bottles of water clipped to the undercarriage. They wear skin tight biking pants, and they sport biking jerseys advertising their favorite sponsored biking team including (I'm not making this up, I really saw it) TIAA-CREF.

With mid-life staring me in the face, I needed a new physical challenge in my life. The Hilly Hundred was just beckoning. I thought, "What the heck?"

When I arrived at Ellettsville High School Friday night to register, I fully expected to be surrounded by 25 year old hardbodies with bad attitudes. Instead, I found myself surrounded by thousands of friendly people, ranging in size from skinny to portly, ranging in age from 8 to 85. Maybe, the Hilly Hundred isn't so tough, I thought to myself. Sure, it's 100 miles, but look at all these "normal" people. Heck, if they can do it, I can do it. I even rented a spot in the gym to throw my sleeping bag to show everyone that I was a normal person just like them. Just a bunch of normal Aspiring Cyclists out to have fun.

The next morning, as I was pulling on my eclectic biking gear gathered over two years of sporadic spending (bike helmet, $80 biking shorts, $10 sweat pants, $2 gloves covered by what I think were old gardening gloves, two sweatshirts, a fleece jacket, and three pairs of socks), I noticed that everyone around me...and I mean EVERYONE...was putting on quite a different uniform. Everyone had biking tights, nearly everyone had windbreakers, and most had biking jerseys. I felt like an outsider at a superhero convention. I started to feel just a weeee bit out of my depth. And this was before we started biking.

The first couple of miles were uneventful, although they were misty and cold. I got used to people zipping by me with a friendly, "On your left." What they were really saying was, "On your left, but aren't you cute for trying!" At about 7 miles in, I decided that I needed someone to bike with, someone to help me keep my pacing. I saw a gentleman in front of me who seemed to be going my speed. I sped up a bit to introduce myself and see if he minded some company. Just as I got close enough to see his face, I realized that man was about 80 years old. There is nothing more demoralizing than realizing that the one person you can keep pace with is an old guy of 80. "On your left," I said and forced myself to pass him.

Luckily, I did eventually meet a lady who was there with her family. Her family members, who had all zoomed ahead of her, met up with her at the first rest stop. "This is Zev," she told them. "He's by himself." Thankfully, she didn't add, "And isn't he cute for trying." The group immediately adopted me as one of their own and became my cheering section. I would like to give a shout out to Mary Therese, Bill, Kevin, Andrew, and Joe. Thank you. You kept me going.

Saturday, the first day of the tour, was all about survival. My goal was to get through the tour without requiring the assistance of an oxygen tank or rescue from a pick-up truck. I made it up as many hills as I could but walked part way up some of the steeper ones. Mary Therese naturally rode up every hill at 4 miles an hour. "That's OK," she said. "Many people walk up the hills at their first Hilly. I don't anymore, of course. My family would give a hard time if I did."

In other words, she was saying, "Don't you worry your pretty little head about those big hills. When you grow up, you'll be man enough to ride them all the way." Grrr. So, naturally, Sunday I had to ride up every stinking hill. And the hardest hills...they were all on Sunday. When I hit Mount Tabor (0.2 miles but a 20% grade), I found myself ascending at a glacial speed, repeating my new mantra, "I paid for this...I paid for this..."

The important thing is that I signed up, I showed up, I rode it, and I loved it. The Hilly Hundred is not just a bike tour. It is truly an event unto itself. They feed you, they entertain you, and they thrill you. You meet Aspiring Cyclists, Pserious Touring Psychlists, and yes, occasionally some Psuper Pserious Psports Psychlists. The guy who slept next to me in the gym rode 100 miles on Saturday...and THEN rode the 50 miles on Sunday. Why? Because he could. And good for him.

The funny thing is that I thought the Hilly would be an endpoint, a single tally on my bucket list. I thought I would finish the ride, flip the bird to the universe, and get back to my office and computer. But even as I sit here nursing my hobbled legs, I am planning for next year's Hilly. I am hooked, and there is no turning back.

Of course, I hope to meet up with Mary Therese and her family again. We'll ride together, eat lunch together, and laugh about the wimps carrying their bikes up the hill. And of course, there's an old guy I need to burn past. Hopefully he'll be back. He is so cute for trying.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Healing Power of Denial

My mother tells a wonderful story about a friend of hers back in graduate school who once explained how he dealt with a cold. He explained that he crawled into bed with a bottle of tequila.
"Does that help?" my mother asked.
"Oh, Sandra," he answered, "who the hell cares?"

A stroll through the self-help section of any major bookstore leaves us with an unescapable conclusion: we have not given nearly enough recognition to the healing power of denial. In fact, denial is passed over as a psychological modality. Personally, I think that positive thinking is an outdated schema. Have we not yet learned that thinking good thoughts day in and day out is taxing to our psyche, whereas denial and negative thinking is simple and cathartic? When someone tells you to, "Have a nice day," do you actually start to think about how you can have a nice day, or do you think about how you can do bodily harm to the well-wisher?

I am going to write a book titled Who the Hell Cares?: The Healing Power of Denial and Negative Thinking. It will have its own place of honor in the self-help section of the bookstore. It will have a place of honor because none of the other self-help books will talk to it. This, of course, won't bother my book, because it will spend every evening coming up with new ways to deface Wayne Dyer's cover jacket photo.

See, I'm feeling more relaxed already.

Speaking of denial therapy, my wife had a dance performance last Saturday night. She did a bang up job (of course), but she was concerned about feeling congested the morning before the performance. "It's just allergies," she told me. And it was just allergies, all the way through the performance Saturday night, after which, on Sunday morning, it turned into a whopping case of the flu.

This coming Saturday, I am biking the Hilly Hundred. I am doing everything possible to shield myself from my wife's flu (getting a flu shot, sleeping in another bed, spraying my surroundings with disinfectant, dosing on vitamin C and elderberry extract, chewing whole cloves of garlic...). I even have been drinking my new favorite vitamin C drink, which is kind of like a poor man's Tequila Sunrise. I call it a Tequila C.

Tequila C

1 highball glass
3 ice cubes
1 jigger tequila
juice of one lime
3 oz orange juice (or enough to fill up the remaining space in the glass)

Mix all ingredients. Drink.

Every now and then, I started to feel a little tickle in my throat or a touch of congestion, but I know that because of all my preventative measures, anything I am feeling is simply allergies. And it will stay allergies through the end of the Hilly Hundred.

Of course, I fully expect to get one whopping case of the flu on Monday morning. But that's okay, because I can simply crawl into bed and cuddle with the remainder of the bottle of tequila. And will it help me recover? Who the hell cares.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

There's a Sukkah Born Every Minute

You will not find it in the Hebrew Bible, you will not find it in any tractate of the Talmud, and you will probably not find it in any rabbinical responsa, but I am convinced...firmly convinced...that for a sukkah to be kosher, it needs to be kashered with the blood of the builder. A sukkah is not complete until you have picked up a splinter, cut your finger on a jagged edge, whacked your thumb with the hammer, dropped a 2x4 on your head, or - as was the case with me two years ago - broken your pinky while trying to readjust a sagging wall.

I am a little concerned that this year, I have yet to kasher the sukkah. In fact, unlike nearly every year in the past, the sukkah building went swimmingly well. IN FACT, I would go so far as to say that this year's sukkah is the most structurally stable, best decorated, and least injurious sukkah we have built to date. I am terribly worried that on the last night of Sukkot, a sudden wind storm is going to lift up my Ford Taurus, smash it into the sukkah, and spray the house with wood shards, the largest of which will embed itself into my forefinger when I leave the house the next morning and kiss the mezuzah.

So, maybe I had better enjoy the sukkah while I can.

I think I should write a book titled How Not to Build a Sukkah. Although I am in no way an expert on sukkah building, I am quite accomplished at finding ways to do it wrong. For example:

  • Never store the wooden beams upright. Make sure they are flat. Otherwise, the boards will warp something terrible and make a "Sukkah with a Bad Attitude."

  • Never use steel fence posts for your sukkah unless you have a post hole digger to sink the posts into the ground. Otherwise, the posts won't stand up by themselves and you will be forced to reinforce the structure with duct tape. You will have the only redneck sukkah in the neighborhood.

  • Never build your sukkah so that one-quarter of it rests on the patch of lawn that suddenly slopes downward. Enough said.

This year, I decided to start over with a new design and new materials. I could go into details, but suffice it to say that the simple design took into account many of the "Don't Dos" that I described above. The final sukkah was just large enough for us to drag in three sling chairs so we could sit back and eat our pizza under the stars.

I say three chairs because Shirah made it perfectly clear that she was not going to sit out in the cold. Me, on the other hand, after everything I did to erect the stupid thing, I want to get my money's worth, even if it means brushing my teeth and getting in my pajamas in the sukkah. Now there's an image you didn't need.

Changing subjects quickly...I came across a wonderful activity to do with kids during Sukkot. I tried this out with my kindergarten religious school class, and it was a big hit.

I used graham crackers, cake icing (Duncan Hines or Betty Crocker), pretzels, and any vibrantly colored kids cereal (eg, Trix) and made sukkahs like the one in the picture. There are various tricks one can use to facilitate the building, but the basic idea is that you use the icing to stick everything together (wall to wall, pretzels to roof, cereal to walls, etc.). The construction requires a light touch (which may be challenging for young children), but the icing sticks everything together incredibly well.

Maybe I should start using cake icing on my real sukkah. I could have the only epicurean sukkah on the block. Well, maybe the only redneck epicurean sukkah.