Saturday, September 29, 2018

This amazing, discerning, monsoon of a woman...

At 2pm today in Hudson, Quebec, my longest surviving grandparent was laid to rest beside my grandfather, whom she survived by decades.

I'm so sad that we were unable to attend, but in lieu of being there, my mother asked me if I could prepare some words that she could read during Grandma's service. These are those words, and hopefully they convey what a loving force this amazing woman was, and always will be in our family and her community.

If you look up the term "matriarch" in the encyclopedia of my brain, there is simply a larger than life image of Kirsteen Berth-Jones - And I'm pretty sure there are others here who would say the same.

Whatever you called her - Mum, Grandma, GG, Kirsteen - there is no doubt that the lady everyone has gathered here to celebrate would outwardly be shying away, almost shunning the spotlight being thrust upon her, while secretly reveling in the love and attention.

I used to jokingly tell friends that Grandma reminded me of Hyacinth Bucket - the well-intentioned lead character on Keeping Up Appearances. Age, experience, and distance, however, have helped me realize that Hyacinth's biggest flaw was that she desperately aspired to be who Grandma actually was - A self-assured, proud woman with a well-seasoned sense of class and dignity - to which she unflinchingly held others.

When you move far away from where you grew up, everyday aspects of home, relationships that you generally take granted, seem that much more distant…that much more special.

Benign things like hockey - which used to just live in the background - are conspicuously absent. The music you grew up with, the local history you just know - become touchstones to your past and aspects your Self that you and your re-located life need to adapt to existing without day-to-day.

Significant people who you grew up relying on, who you just know are always there, take on near-mythic status. You quickly realize, through the lens of adulthood and distance, what a true force of nature the people in your life actually are.

Now, I will never, EVER dare to rank my Grandparents - each one has been special in their own rite - but there is no denying, from geographical proximity, time spent together, and sheer force of nature perspectives, Grandma undoubtedly has had a more profound impact on my life than any family member who didn't live on Belton Road.

At some point after moving out west, I started speaking to Grandma on the phone periodically - more often than I did at home, but most would still say not often enough We'd engage in real, adult conversations, sometimes for upwards of 2 hours. She'd tell me stories I'd never heard before, of actual experiences during times that someone never really considers of their grandmother’s past life.

She told me once about a time during the war when she went for a walk to a store in Wembley Park outside London with a baby Donna in a pram passing by the same church she always did. While at the store, that church was leveled by German bombs...just moments before she walked past it on her return home. Not a typical image one has of his grandmother - but brings into sharp focus the reality a new mother making do while her husband was off at war.

How do you even begin to wish you had more time to hear those stories? To understand the depth of that history? How do you not regret the times you chose to go for a bike ride instead of picking up the phone and talking and listening even more to someone that important?

You don’t. You can’t. You just take solace in the fact that the number 458-4372 rolls off the top of your brain because it was just one the most important ones to know.

Klay, Emmett and I have spent the past few years together wishing we could travel and visit family more often - and this year we were fortunate enough to get opportunity to head out east - so we made sure we made time to visit Montreal on our way through to the Maritimes - to make sure we got a chance to see Grandma and for Emmett to meet GG at a time in his life that he'd remember her. For me, it was the singular focus of the 2-week trip.

We'd heard her health was not great, and she'd been asking about us - so I wanted to be sure she felt like our top priority.

Little did I know that it was her, in fact, wanting us to feel like we were the top priority - like our visit was something she needed to do before deciding she was done. When we visited, she was tired, but up-beat. To anyone who didn’t know better, it would have just seemed like she’d just had a bad night’s sleep – but Mum later told me that she hadn’t seen her that chipper in a long time.

After our all-too-short visit, we continued on our way to PEI. Mum later let us know that Grandma’s health took a turn shortly after we left, and mere hours later we all lost this force of nature – this amazing, discerning, monsoon of a woman who means so much to us all.

Who else other than Grandma could have that kind of power – to be able to literally say “No – I’m not done yet. Now isn’t a good time. Come back later, please.”

It breaks my heart that I can't be with you all today – but I sincerely hope the memories you have are as near and dear as mine, and that you all appreciate how fortunate we’ve all been to have had this Matriarch, this beautiful, wonderful, natural force of a woman showing us the way.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Riding No-Hands

As a life-long cyclist, and dedicated rain-or-shine bike commuter in Portland, I’ve noticed a pretty baffling trend emerging along Going Street over the past few months.

For those who don’t know, Portland is a city crisscrossed by dedicated bike lanes, as well as shared greenway streets where cycling is expected, if not prioritized in order to facilitate getting around the city safely and quickly on two wheels. It’s a big part of why we live here.

Each of these greenway streets, including Going Street, sees hundreds, if not thousands of riders every day – riding bikes to and from work and school, which, as a cyclist and a fan of sustainable transit, makes me incredibly happy.

Lately, though, I’ve been seeing more and more riders sitting straight upright, unable to ride a straight line because they’ve decided that using both hands for texting, putting them in their jacket pockets, or just thinking they look cool riding no-hands is a completely reasonable way to get around.

Having logged thousands and thousands of hours and miles over the years - racing at a national level, riding with my family, commuting to work, and just being in the woods for fun - there is one thing I have learned, no matter what kind of bike you’re on: stuff happens, and you need to be prepared for all of it.

Your bike needs to be safe, you need to have brakes that work, and your hands ALWAYS need to be on the handlebars to maneuver and be able to grab the brakes and steer in case you’re surprised by something.

Riding to work this morning, I passed a couple of these no-hands aficionados, and it got me thinking about our new political reality in America – not where it’ll take us; I’m not ready for that yet – but how we got here, and how we didn’t see it coming. ESPECIALLY those of us who exist in Liberal, Progressive-leaning areas of the country – places like Portland.

Has our desire to surround ourselves with like-minded people, in like-minded communities, building like-minded infrastructures enabled us to exist exclusively in a Facebook-like segmented existence, where we only see and hear what we want to every day? Only speaking with specific people about ideas and subjects that we’re comfortable talking about? Arriving at like-minded conclusions, convinced that there is no other reasonable opinion or perspective because we’ve created a protected space around ourselves that supports the life we want to live?

Have we created greenways for our daily existence? Are we riding no-hands through our Left-Leaning, Progressive lives in the safe infrastructure that we’ve surrounded, and inadvertently blinded ourselves with?

It’s been easy to navigate in our greenway for nearly a decade behind a President who supports our way of thinking – almost dream-like in its comfort – so comfortable that we took our hands of the bars.

Tuesday night, though, with hands firmly in our pockets – a president-elect and his supporters who exist in opposition to our like-minded space drove into the road and threw us off balance, leaving us shaking a fist, swearing at the side of the road.

But, when you think about it maybe, just maybe the fact that we took our hands of the bars in the first place is the reason we never saw him coming; The reason had no way to react.

So, I say we need to get back on the bike, and get those hands firmly back on the bars.

Somehow, having witnessed thousands of blocks of city streets ridden by no-hands cyclists over the past 18 months or so, I’ve yet to see any of them fall, or even have a close-call – which is surprising – astonishing, even.

Astonishing because, long ago, we all learned that keeping both hands firmly on the bars is the only way to be ready and react if something unexpected happens. It’s time to get our hands back on the bars, Portland - no matter how safe we feel our space is! The road ahead could be bumpy – and we need to see everything coming our way, and be prepared for it.

And for you dummies actually riding your bikes through the city with no-hands – stop it. You’re freaking me out!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Branding “Survival”

There’s not much to say about Lance Armstrong that hasn’t already been said – When he was great, he exerted a dominance over the peloton that may never be equaled, and he re-defined how Grand Tours are raced – for better or worse.

Following the release of the 200+ page “reasoned decision” document compiled by Travis Tygart and the US Anti Doping Agency, it appears as though Lance’s most significant life achievement to this day remains conquering cancer.

There are people out there - mainly devout Armstrong fans and libertarians - who accuse Tygart of wasting tax dollars on a witch-hunt, dragging up ghosts of cycling’s past instead of concentrating on keeping today’s athlete clean and honest.

To the Libertarians, well, I say the money’s been spent by an agency adhering to its government-issued mandate – until your beliefs become the majority in this country, there’s not much anyone can do to change that.

As for the devout Lance fans who buy into his PR machine/legal team, there’s a whole lot to say.

Many claim the investigation has done nothing positive for cycling today, and simply drags up the past for no reason. In fact, I believe the complete opposite has occurred. While Armstrong and his devotees may not like that he’s become the poster boy for cycling’s darkest era, the fact remains that he’s the one who put himself there.

Tygart’s report didn’t just expose Armstrong and the power he held over his US Postal Service team. It managed to crack a long-present code of silence that existed between riders and everyone who lived and worked in pro cycling – a code that consistently put riders’ lives at risk, held their careers hostage, and shattered the dreams of those who adhered to their moral compass by racing clean in spite of the underground system’s stronghold on pro cycling.

Now, I’m not saying Armstrong and the US Postal team were unique – they weren’t. The peloton that Lance and the boys cheated their way to the front of was rife with high profile winners who leveraged the code of silence in their quest for greatness. What I’m saying is that he is the one significant rider who has built an international brand based on his success during that era, and is the last of the big champions of the day who continues to deny his dark deeds.

When confronted with doping allegations, he typically gets angry – annoyed by the insinuation that he didn’t work for the victories. Nobody’s denying that he worked hard – and not just at engineering and maintaining one of finest cheating conspiracies to ever have taken place in professional sports.

The fact of the matter is, he trained his ass off – as did his teammates – to cross those finish lines first. He was focused, regimented, obsessed – and nobody can ever say that he didn’t train harder, or want it more than anyone else in that peloton – but it was all heightened by the use of illegal substances and practices.

If you, I, or even someone physiologically predisposed to cycling greatness put ourselves through the same doping regimen that Tygart’s report spells out, we still couldn’t be as fast as Lance was. To achieve the things he did, it takes more than just The Juice and good genes. You need the will to give everything you have to win – hard work, dedication, your marriage, your soul – and I just don’t have that. I love riding, and I love bikes, and I even love winning, but I’m not willing to work that hard or sacrifice that much to make it happen. – and Lance was.

But the fact remains – he cheated. He lied. He used his power in the peloton not just to win races, but to build his global brand – A brand that, when threatened with things like doping allegations and facts, talks about the great work that Lance and his Livestrong Foundation do.

Over the past couple of years, there have been many things written calling into question Livestrong and how the donations they receive are allocated. Some claim that it’s focus on the nebulously-defined “cancer awareness” campaigns do more to promote the Brand of Lance than actually working to eradicate cancer.

To an ever-growing collective critical eye, the Brand of Lance’s cancer survival, and Livestrong provide the disgraced former champion with a sort of moral umbrella when the storm of doping charges get too close - Like we’re all supposed to feel guilty calling his integrity into question because he survived cancer.

I’ll concede the value of the hope Lance has brought to those with little reason to have any - But that doesn’t excuse the fact that his entire brand – the whole “I survived cancer and won the world’s hardest sporting event 7 times!!!” is built on a lie, and is perpetuated by leveraging our collective fear of getting sick and dying.

That’s the sad part of all of this - when it comes down to it, he’s a guy who beat life’s most formidable opponent and, when given a second chance at living, he chose to cheat his way through loopholes in cycling’s rulebook simply to grow his brand and become the deity he's always felt entitled to be.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Impetus for Something Constructive

I started playing the Saxophone in high school thanks to the peer pressure I received between fits of gut-wrenching nausea caused by a double-chocolate pudding-cake gone awry at a 7th grade winter camping trip.

I chose the Saxophone because it was the ‘80’s, and thanks to Sting, INXS and countless other 80’s bands, I was duped into believing that you could get girls if you played Saxophone. Sadly, while the decision remained awesome, its rationale was tragically flawed – but that’s another story for another day.

I joined the class mid-year and immediately started carrying an old, battered horn home every weekend so I could pretend I was practicing. What I was actually doing during that time was riding my bike – because I was 14, and that Raleigh wasn’t going to ride itself!

Not long after starting down the musical path, traditionally the exclusive domain of my musically gifted elder sibling, I distinctly remember getting ready to head out for school one morning in 1987, and my mother told my brother and me to wait a watch what was coming up on Good Morning America. We sighed impatiently, but I’m glad we waited, because the segment literally changed my life.

It was a Joel Siegel spotlight on Michael Brecker and Chick Corea – two monster jazz musicians who had each just released new projects – Brecker, his first solo effort, an eponymous LP that has since gone into jazz infamy as one of the best albums of a generation, and the debut of Chick Corea's Electric Band. The Corea album was good – but my brother was the synth guy than I was

I went out and bought that Michael Brecker cassette as soon as I could scrape together the money – and since tha day, I've simply heard music differently.

When Guns n’ Roses were really hitting their stride, I was listening in awe to Original Rays, and haunting dusty record shops for old Steps Ahead albums - completely missing the pop-music wave that high school was supposed to be. Likewise, when all my friends were worrying about who they were dating or not dating, I was out riding my bike and reading Mountain Bike Action magazines folded up inside my Economics textbook. Not great socially, but I didn’t care.

As the years went on, I made sure to be at the store the day every new Brecker album arrived, and listened to it non-stop for days. While I have yet to be able to actually play any of it, I can still anticipate every note of his monster solo in Itsbynne Reel, and every successive album further altered how I listened music.

So, if my life story ever mistakenly gets picked up by someone looking to tell a mundane tale of an average white male, the sad moments should be backdropped by one of Brecker’s emotive ballads; my triumphs by the hard-charging tsunami of sound that typify his best solos, above all, the “against all odds” moments told through every last perfect note on the Pilgrimage album – his last, and undeniably best performance ever recorded.

See, following a two-year struggle with MDS, Michael died on January 13, 2007, just 5 months after a brief period of remission allowed him to record the 9 best pieces of he ever wrote – from a sequestered hospital bed, for fear his immune system might not be able to handle any infections potentially introduced through a kiss from one of his children, or his wife’s touch.

As Herbie Hancock said in the short video created to document the album's recording: "He's taken something destructive, and made it become the impetus for something extremely constuctive." (watch the video - it's inspiring in itself.)

His death weighed heavily on me – like I’d lost a member of my family, and the album was released four months later. It blew me away, as well as other fans and critics alike – though Michael never got to hear the tunes himself in their final form.

It came out at a time was a time when I had started riding road a little more – finding longer, hillier routes to get to work in hopes of getting stronger and placing well at Spokane’s Tuesday night races. It was also at a time when tiny MP3 players made long rides on low-traffic roads a little more tolerable.

Without fail, Michael would accompany me on every one of those rides. On the good days, he’d light a fire in me – get me turning the pedals faster, like sonic EPO. But it was on the miserable days – when my legs felt like wet cement, or when the hills felt near-vertical and twice as long as they usually did – that he urged me on.

“If he could summon the energy through leukemia, partial-match stem cell transplants, and the poison that bought him the time and energy to be able to play like that, you can get up this fucking hill.” I’d shout at myself – sometimes out loud. And it worked every time.

I went on to have a reasonably good year at Tuesday Night Worlds that year, highlighted by a couple B-Class wins and a some key dig-deep moments inspired by a musical genius I never met, tragically never saw play live, but defined how I hear music, and made me re-think the word “difficult”.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

It's Take a Kid Mountain Biking Day!!!

We're heading down to Toro Park in Salinas today for the Monterey Off Road Cycling Association's Take a Kid Mountain Biking Day event.

It's one of hundreds held around the country once a year as part of IMBA's annual initiative to give thousands of kids an opportunity to ride bikes off road in a safe, supportive family environment.

Emmett and I did it last year, and it led - to his delight - to two North Shore ramp structures mysteriously appearing in our back yard, and his unbridled enthusiasm for riding his bike! Without a doubt, it's one of the best times you can have with your kids, and will help get them on a happy, healthy lifestyle!

If you can, get out to an event in your area and watch your kids' faces light up!!! Smiles, pics, and videos to come!

Friday, October 5, 2012

Fear the Exceptional

It’s no mystery to anyone who knows us – we’ve been dealing with a bit of adversity in our lives lately. Nothing crippling, or earth shattering compared to a lot of people, but in our little Morgan Hill bubble, things have been pretty tough.

Since the day I was shown the door by my former employer, my one escape from the stress of looking for work and watching an ever-dwindling bank account, ironically, has been my bikes. So, imagine my surprise early one Sunday morning a few weeks back when this happened:

I got lectured today by some sour, portly, gray-haired man about the evils of riding my trials bike on rocks in a public place … Again!

It’s a lecture I’ve been getting for the past 25 years, which generally spews from the raging lips of a guy meeting that exact description – or some prickly, middle-aged woman with a tiny dog - but today’s bothered me more than usual, and I’m sitting here trying to figure out why.

Before I continue, it deserves mentioning that I turned 40 this year – old by trials standards – REALLY old. But with a little more time on my hands than usual, I’m actually riding as well, if not better than I did 10 or 12 years ago, so it’s one of my big sources of real joy lately – and he managed to grind it to a screeching halt.

How is it, especially on the heels of collectively applauding the greatness of the world’s Olympic athletes in some of the most obscure sports imaginable, that I am still getting chased out of most benign riding spots, where I’m most at peace with the world, by some random old fool?

I figure there are two reasons –

First, as much as the trials community wishes for it, our little sport will never become mainstream enough to be recognized, or accepted by normal folks - despite Danny MacAskill’s best efforts – and I’m OK with that.

The second, and I suspect could be this guy’s motivation, is because we seem to live in a society where actually being good at something makes you a target for ridicule. It happens in school, sports, the arts – just about everywhere - As though committing yourself to being great at something is a threat to someone else’s life decisions.

Ever since the first day I rode a mountain bike, and later a trials bike, I have been misunderstood, laughed at, and generally made fun of by an endless stream of people who can’t seem to wrap their heads around the fact that I do something different than they do.

When my friends skated around Pointe Claire on their Powell & Peralta and Lucero skateboards, I was hitting the trails on my Raleigh. Over time, as their skateboards gave way to girls and cars, I kept riding, and actually got pretty good at a style of riding that even the most dedicated of cyclists find odd– not because I have some god-given gift, but because it was important to me, and I worked my ass off at it.

So, what is this societal response driven by? Ignorance? Envy? Or do some people just vilify anyone who is actually good at something because they’ve decided to live life as a C-level student, angry that someone has the audacity to go for an A+ in something?

What ever his motivation, all Mr. Amish Beard’s tightly-wired brain could think of doing was shaking a fist out the window of his minivan and put a stop to something he didn’t understand.

As he was screaming his way into the adjacent gas station’s parking lot – apparently to give me a good talking-to – as I calmly waited for the two light to change so I could take the opportunity to better understand his rage. As I calmly approached him, I actually saw the raging red fall from his face as he realized that I wasn’t some kid, and could tell he was changing his tactics while retreating to his Chrysler.

He threatened to call the cops about my riding antics – pointing to his silver flip phone – so I politely suggested he do it, and that I’d happily wait with him for them to arrive so I could find out exactly which laws I was breaking.

That was when he pulled out the classic “you’re being a bad role model” argument while telling me that the rocks were “decorations” and I was going to “damage them” – I actually laughed – I couldn’t help it.

He left our conversation still convinced that practicing, and being good at something out of the ordinary, then doing it in public, is a bad influence on the youth of today. Pretty much the opposite of what we’re trying to teach Emmett.

It seems that, as a society, we reward mediocre and sub-par role models far too often; (think Kim Kardashian and most pop music stars). So, isn’t it time that we start celebrating the exceptional and espousing the belief that working hard to become great at something, no matter how obscure, builds character and individuality?

How much better a place would this be if more people had the gumption to go against the grain and be truly great at something? How much better would the music we listen to be? How much more could we, as a society, accomplish if we de-valued the currency of cool, and just lived passionately?

So fly your freak flag high, dare to be exceptional – and don’t let anyone kick you off of the rocks.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Life Lessons and a Shiny Blue Bike

For some reason, ever since I first laid eyes on a 1983 Stumpjumper at Paul's Cycle, I’ve felt an odd connection to mountain bikes - which is funny, because to a pre-teen boy just recovering from the release of Return of the Jedi, they were weren’t supposed to be cool.

See, all the kids in the neighborhood I grew up in rode our cobbed together bikes every day because they were the best way to get from place to place or face off in an impromptu race. We never really thought about it as a sport. It’s just what kids did in the early 80's.

I grew up in an English-speaking suburb of Montreal, in a two bedroom house insulated with balled-up newspaper when my parents bought it in 1969. It was a fairly typical home for the area – nobody was rich, but everyone managed to get by. Over the years though, my parents updated the place with an ambitious extension, two extra bedrooms, and a garage, while somehow providing for four kids on just one salary.

Through all of it, though, they never let us feel like money was tight. Since having a family of my own, I can't help but admire them for what they were able to accomplish with what they had. In fact, I’m in complete awe with how they confronted their financial reality and all the crazy curveballs the family threw at them, while seamlessly maintaining a loving, supportive atmosphere for children to grow up in, and know nothing but happiness.

But somehow, despite their best efforts, I just knew that shiny blue $1100 Stumpjumper at the shop in the village was simply beyond my reach.

It’s not like we were poor, though. There were just some luxuries that we had to do without – Millenum Falcon playsets, Tuuk blade Micron skates, downhill skis – but through it all, my parents managed to use our financial reality to leach us a massive life lesson.

From an early age, we were taught that if there was something we really wanted, like a shiny new mountain bike for instance, nobody was going to just give it to us. We had to figure out a way to earn it – shoveling snowy driveways, mowing lawns, bagpiping at weddings, whatever – if it was important to us, we had to work hard to make it happen.

So, half-way through the summer my brother got his first summer job - firing black-powder muskets for tourists at age 15, (I’d have to wait an additional year to get the gig, as they determined 14 was too young to handle gunpowder and flintlock muskets…) I finally did it. After weeks of working my ass off doing any chore for anyone in the neighborhood, I finally raised the $225 plus tax that it took to become the proud owner of a shiny new 12-speed Raleigh Portage – It was no Stumpjumper, but to a 14-year-old kid enjoying true freedom for the first time, it didn’t matter.

I finally had my mountain bike after three long years of dreaming and wishing, and it took me on the first real rides of my life – rides that would ultimately allow me to race and perform all over Canada and the US, and meet so many great friends along the way. Bikes even led me to the girl of my dreams and our little boy who loves to ride.

So yay bikes and amazing parents! Thanks for teaching me the value of hard work!

And, just for the record, I’m sure no therapist in the world would ever look at my collection of 30+ vintage mountain bikes, including one shiny-new looking early Stumpjumper, as any kind of attempt to compensate for any residual childhood feelings – it’s just a fun, healthy hobby … really …