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Friday, April 18, 2014

The Future? The Past?

So I'm riding through the West Bottoms on the way home from work and I spot this truck. Well, it used to be a truck. I sometimes thing this is what petroleum based transportation will all look like soon enough, other times I'm not so sure.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Riding to My First Seder

About a week before Passover, Corinna sent me an email at work that we were going to a Seder for dinner the following Tuesday. One of our Jewish friends had encouraged her in this, saying it was a thing not to be missed. I pictured a seder in someone's home, but of course I could tell from the email it was a confirmation to a community Seder at a temple.

The only resistance I offered was it sounded like something that would cause me to miss a bike ride. On a week when I'd have my kids twice, so only two round trips to work were practically in the bike commuting plan anyway. She said, ride your bike to it, I'll drive down and meet you, we'll put your bike on the car and we can drive home together.

It didn't sound quite as good as what we did Tuesday evenings for a while last year, where I rode to work, then out to Heartland for a Bible study, then home, making my Tuesdays into 50-mile rides, but I'm still getting my legs back from the months off after my surgeries, and a 30 mile day feels nearly epic. And Corinna has trouble driving at night and doesn't have the range to ride that far herself yet coming off that bicycle crash and the brain injury it resulted in.

I Google Mapped the bike route to the temple from my work. It prescribed riding Holmes to the Indian Creek Trail, which would be a silly way to go. Holmes isn't exactly bike friendly in rush hour, plus it's hilly as all get out. Much better to take Somerset to Lee Boulevard, at the end of which there is a logical trail to pick up, the Tomahawk Creek trail. There are other routes I could take through southern Johnson County to get there, but the trail cuts a convenient diagonal, plus you don't have to stop. Unlike the Trolley Trail, which is really just a gravel sidewalk that crosses streets constantly, this is a paved trail that goes under streets. Following a stream bed means it's sheltered from the wind, too, so I barely felt what would have been a considerable headwind. Johnson County residents haven't caught on much, but they really do have some pretty kick-ass bike infrastructure, the urban core where lots of people ride bikes for transportation doesn't have anything remotely like it. We have an occasional bike lane, which is mainly used to store broken glass and bent nails, but except for the (very short) Berkeley Riverfront Heritage Trail, there isn't anything as nice as the Streamway trails out in JoCo going through the city.

The trail only got me to 127th & Nall, and my target was more like 142nd and Lamar. Google Maps offered me the choice of taking Nall down a ways and cutting over (which would pretty much mean sidewalk riding given the nature of the road and the traffic that time of day—I could try taking the lane to make a point but sometimes that's a losing battle, and this was in my judgment one of those times), or I could go over on 127th (there's a bike/ped trail along it) to Metcalf and pick up another leg of the Tomahawk trail, though that trail truly is a sidewalk, just a slightly wider than average one.

But right off Nall, I spotted a familiar subdivision, I think it's called Turnberry. It's one of those labyrinthine neighborhoods I would normally never try to cut through when I need to be somewhere. Suburban planners believe in a dubious theory that crime is reduced and home values enhanced by designing streets to thwart transportation, at least transportation to anything but a home in that subdivision. As opposed to a grid designed to maximize flow, it's more of a filter design. It makes for fine cycling as far as nobody is tearing down these streets at fifty miles per hour, but there's often only one or two ways in or out of a large area.

As it happened, I used to go on a group ride a few years back that went through this particular neighborhood. I knew the one way through it. I don't know all the street names but you stay to the right, then wander left and make a right, then another right after it winds around down a hill, and eventually you clime a curving hill and find yourself on Lamar heading to a roundabout and then to 135th and beyond.

Between leaving work early out of paranoia that I'd get held up by something (a trail under construction, requiring a lengthy detour, for instance), and my little shortcut, I arrived at Congregation Beth Shalom a full hour early. I went on a little exploration of the area, finding a long trail going along 143rd, and that one Google Maps had wanted to send me to. I didn't want to be late, especially being an outsider, so I went ahead and headed back to the temple. I stopped at the sign to take a picture of my bike in front of it, then rode up to the parking area where I spotted another trail and rode briefly down it to see where it lead. When I got back to the circle drive, a cop who was working the door started chatting with me to see who the hell I thought I was and what I wanted.

I explained I was there for the service, meeting my wife who was coming by more conventional transit. "Your helmet had some people worried," he said. At the time this sounded utterly ridiculous to me. I know, evil had visited the Jewish community just a couple of days before this—if you have been under a rock and didn't hear about it, a cranky old Klansman committed a cowardly act of terrorism resulting in three deaths at two Jewish facilities on Sunday. The sort of guy who not only spent his life promoting idiotic hatreds, but as soon as it got hot for him he turned snitch on all his fellow idiots, and maybe I'm wrong to think that makes him even worse. How could you be worse than a Klansman or Nazi who shoots innocent people? I think it's the lack of courage in your convictions, as compared to a bearded idiot who will take his own life as eagerly as someone else's before he compromises his beliefs.

Anyway, I can't imagine who would mistake a pink helmet mohawk for a sign of Klan affiliation or Nazi sympathies. I'm reasonably certain just reading the stickers on my bike would get me a ticket to be dragged by one of those guys' pickups if they had an open shot at me. So I was truly baffled—weird is so threatening? But the trauma was fresh, so who am I to judge?

I put on a non-Hawaiian shirt and a suit coat my wife had thoughtfully brought, locked my bike onto the rack of my car and went in to what amounted to a long Jewish church service coupled with a catered meal. It was good. It was interesting. We drank sweet wine, we ate bitter herbs dipped in salt water (both of which it the spot after 30 miles in the saddle, even if you're not Jewish or a fan of sweet wines).

We had gefilte fish, something I'd never been brave enough to buy and try on my own (I can't say I'm a fan—the taste is okay but the texture is kind of like tofu, another food I have trouble with). I'm glad I tried it, though. It's better with some matzah cracker, and some of that purple horseradish stuff. But then there was matzo ball soup, and an enormous portion of grilled chicken breast. They had talked about the sacrificial lamb (or sacrificial yam for the vegetarians), but I guess it's okay if your lamb had feathers. The chicken was excellent, as was the soup (which is exactly like chicken noodle if you wad all the noodles up into a ball). The theme was not just how the Jews escaped slavery, but the importance of freeing all the slaves who still live in bondage. It was asserted, and it sounds true to me, that if you adjust for inflation, slaves are cheaper today than they were in pre-Civil War America.

There was lots of socializing, too, with neat people. About half my table where gentiles, spiritual and cultural tourists. The other half helped us follow along and figure out what to do and when. It was a lovely evening, even with the shadow cast by the aforementioned Klan type guy.

As we were leaving, I saw the cop who had originally been concerned with my presence and got a better feel for what had gone wrong. It wasn't the pink helmet mohawk, it was all my bags that could potentially hold weapons (they hold cold/wet weather cycling gear and a DSLR camera with accessories), plus that shot I was taking of my bike at the sign. Someone driving in saw that and thought, I guess, that I was vandalizing the sign. That's a narrative that is perfectly understandable, but that does make me look a lot more ominous light of recent events.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Shooting Star

I've been accused by my eldest daughter of being a paparazzo. I felt like one, when after arriving at her Shooting Stars Gala in my suit (first time I've worn it in seven years) and spotting her walking by with a bunch of other overdressed high school seniors. I clicked away like I could sell the shot.

Corinna and I had been out to Suburban to get a couple yards of compost in a borrowed pickup, said truck was parked outside the venue resting on its overload springs.

We availed ourselves of the art gallery at the Nerman Museum, then of the snack buffet that was provided.

The Shooting Stars thing was a scholarship deal. Em was a finalist in vocal music, with the potential to win a $700 or $1,400 scholarship. I was in my suit because she'd asked me very nicely not to be myself and show up in a Hawaiian shirt. I didn't do the tie thing, and the shirt I wore with the suit was a paisley print affair, but I was more dressed up than a lot of the parents, or come to that, the teacher who nominated her, so I think I did okay.

I did feel slightly like a hobo who'd been told by his public defender to wear a borrowed suit for a court appearance.

It was cool to see how much the kids' own personalities showed in their choice of dress. One of the finalists in the stringed instrument category had on a suit with a snazzy purple shirt and pink bow tie. Some of the girls dressed very conservatively, some wore loud, splashy things you could only wear to something called a 'gala.'

For the main event, we sat in a huge auditorium and the kids were introduced one by one. Each finalist had to walk down a red carpet to the front/center of the stage while a video played overhead of their performance (or a slide show of their art for the visual art kids, or a clip of them reading their writing samples, etc.) Em gets pretty bad stage fright, so I wasn't surprised when it looked like all she could do to stand there for this part, but I was surprised at how many other kids seemed to have the same problem. If you're there for drama or music, I would expect you had enough of a case of the look-at-me's to revel in this moment, but I think about half the kids struggled with it.

Bryan Busbee emceed, spotted a pro photographer and me in the front row and made the kids stand with him as they received their awards and look at us. I was really only there to photograph one kid, but when he was holding them there and smiling right at my lens like the pro he is, I had to snap away even if I couldn't care less about that particular kiddo.

And unfortunately, I didn't get to shoot my own kiddo shaking his hand and holding one of the scholarships. I think it was still a good experience for her all the way around, though she sure could have used the scholarship.

Afterward, they had a star-shaped cookie and sparkling grape juice reception for all, but by then the tension was gone, so after we'd had our snack and taken a few more pictures of Em and whatnot, we headed out to shovel compost out of the borrowed truck.

A few more pictures of JCCC's features, too. The place has changed a lot since I attended classes there, but until the last semester or so I was there, you could smoke. In the building.

Back then, the Nerman Gallery was a little alcove, not even its own building. And the school had about one parking space for every three students trying to park and make it to class—if only I'd been hip to the bike commuter thing back in 1989.

Anyway, win or lose, I was super proud of my grown up daughter. All that Daddy's Little Girl thing kind of gets knocked down a peg when you realize if this person wandered in to an Army recruiter's office and said, 'Yeah, I wanna be a soldier,' the guy wouldn't just laugh and tell her to come back in a few years.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

NHC First Round

I love judging beer. I enjoy the process, the people, even most of the beers I evaluate.

This last part wasn't always the case. When I started judging (in 1996 or 1997), the overall quality of entries in any given competition seemed very uneven. The people running competitions would stress in pre-flight talks about how if you get a bad example, you need to really provide constructive feedback, help the brewer get better. That's still what we try to do, but I think I hear the speech less often these days and I think it's because the speech is less necessary. Some of that may be because there are more judges who are well trained to evaluate a sample as it relates to the style guidelines more than how it relates to their personal tastes, but I think it's more that brewers who enter competitions are increasingly sophisticated.

Like with competitive barbecue, it's about the defined target and whether an entry hits it.

Friday night I judged IPAs, a huge category. Homebrewers almost all love IPAs. It's a style that exhibits a lot of hop flavor, aroma and bitterness along with ample malt. If you love beer, the things that make beer taste like beer are there in spades in an IPA. To keep the flights manageable these larger flights are broken into subsets, with a pair of judges evaluating upwards of ten beers, then advancing their strongest entries to a mini-best-of-show. The mini-BOS is where the ultimate first, second and third come in—which determines what entries advance to the finals at the National Homebrewer's Conference in June.

Mini-BOS is interesting in part because while fresh bottles are opened for each of the entries, those bottles have been out of the cooler for as much as an hour longer than when the first beers of the flight were judged. That can make quite a difference in how a beer shows, since some flavor defects are harder to detect at cold temperatures, and others really express well at slightly warmer temperatures. Case in point, an American IPA I judged, one that reminded me of Three Floyd's Alpha King, which I scored a 47. I think my judging mate gave it more like a 44 and we assigned it a 45, advanced it to the mini-BOS. Once there, a couple of hours later, it got kicked for having excessive diacetyl (the stuff they stink up microwave popcorn with). Diacetyl is a natural fermentation byproduct, and I actually kind of like some beers that tend to have it, but it's a flaw in an American IPA, so some poor brewer got a score sheet back with a 47 and didn't advance to finals. I can just see him crying out, 'What do I have to do?' I guess the answer would be don't enter a category with 50+ entries—a spot on Düsseldorf Altbier that gets a 47 is probably not going to get knocked out in a mini-BOS by three examples that don't have that one minor flaw. If that sample had been a little warmer, I might have picked up on the diacetyl and only scored it a 43 (or something like that), but there are plenty of categories where a 43 gets you on the podium.

Saturday morning was Belgian & French Ale, another behemoth category that had 49 entries. It's big for a lot of the same reasons as IPA, these are beer lovers' beers. I didn't have any 47s, but I also didn't have any sub-30s. This is almost impossible to believe when I think back to the flights of ten or fifteen years ago—this is a 50 point scale, and to get 30 points a beer has to be pretty good and pretty close to the style it was entered in. It has to be pretty awful to get down to 20, I always think a bottle of club soda with some yellow food coloring entered as a Lite American Lager would score a 23 or so. It would look about right and have no off-aromas, and the mouthfeel would be appropriate.

But to judge ten beers in a row without anything being below 30 points, that's a streak. A streak, I think, that says a lot about how good these brewers have gotten. I guess it must be the internet effect, information, equipment, ingredients that were elusive in 1995 depending on where you lived and who you knew, well, all that is available to everyone now.

Category 21 was Saturday afternoon. What a category it is, too. Spice, herb and vegetable beers, generally someone making a classic style with the twist of a special spice or adjunct. The kind of thing that can be really awesome or really awful and it can be a fine line between. I judged this very interesting Saison with beets. It advanced to the mini-BOS, the brewer nailed the Saison part, and the beets were evident in the aroma and flavor (not to mention the purple color—you don't get to judge a lot of purple beers). I can't say I'm an enthusiastic fan, but it was a strong entry both in terms of quality and originality. Win or lose, at least you didn't bore the judges.

The final flight for Saturday was smoke and wood aged beers, category 22. A small category as far as entries go, but one of my favorites. I personally brew a peat smoked Scotch Ale from time to time that's one of my favorites. I tend to sign up to judge the category in part because I know there are a lot of judges who think there's no such thing as a good smoked beer. Judging isn't about what you like, but I think if you really think even an excellent example of a style stinks you maybe shouldn't judge that. I'll stipulate that a bad smoked beer is worse than most bad beers, but the good ones are delightful.

And we had a damn near perfect Rauchbier, one I couldn't prove wasn't a ringer imported from Bamberg. And several fine bourbon barrel aged Russian Imperial Stouts. This is a homebrewer's specialty, one that has become so popular I won't be a bit surprised if it becomes its own subcategory in the Stouts. One of the most interesting smoke beer entries, and one of the advancing ones, was a Grodziskie—a small Polish smoked wheat beer. I know, that description sounds like a mistake on many levels, but it's a real beer and the entry really nailed it.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Instant Bike Lane

If not for the times it's advantageous to slip in between gridlocked cars, this would be a pretty good tool for enforcing the bike lane.

What is a bike lane? It's any lane with a bike in it. And if this key is touching your car, you've violated it because there's actually a law that requires you to pass a cyclist with no less than three feet of clearance. It's not much to ask, trust me on this: three feet is darn near intimate when the car is going 45 mph and the bike being passed is going 10. If you're going to get closer than that, we better be on a date.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Senior Pic

Emily asked me if I'd shoot her 'senior portrait.' I have friends who are real photographers, as in they get paid for it and do it for a living.

But here was an opportunity for me to shoot pictures of my lovely daughter without her accusing me of being a paparazzo and intentionally spoiling the shot, something she's been likelier than not to do the past couple years.

Plus, 'senior portraits' share a lot in common with prom dresses in that it's easy to spend way, way too much money on something that's not even really necessary. I take pictures of my kids every chance I get, it's not like her senior year would go undocumented but for this one portrait. I'd say it's slightly more valid to spend a few hundred on a real photographer to take a portrait than on a dress you'll only wear once, but that assumes you have a few hundred bucks that don't need to go somewhere else.

She said her friends were mostly having their senior portraits done at a couple of locations in Gardner, but my house is only a mile and a half from the West Bottoms, which everyone knows is the chonosynclastic infindibulum of the photographic world. I bike-commute through it and if I'm riding through there in the 'magic hour' light at the end of the day, it would be remarkable to not spot any photography sessions. Photographers and their models/clients outnumber hobos in the hour leading up to twilight unless it's raining blue cats, and even then you might find them on the middle deck of the 12th Street Bridge, some girl freezing to death in a cocktail dress but managing to look radiant for the camera.

So the West Bottoms it was. We hit Jerry's Woodsweather Cafe, of course. Saw a wedding going on at the Hobbs Building across the street, some mighty uncomfortable people there because it was freakin' cold. The high had gotten to something like 50º, but the wind was stiff and the temperature was falling fast by the time we got down there, on its way to 27º and a dusting of snow overnight.

Em had originally balked at bringing a jacket, but it wasn't long before she was wearing it except when I was pointing a camera at her. We went over by All Packaging's wall after another girl getting her senior portrait cleared out, then to a courtyard I knew because I'd shot Corinna in it one time, and figured it was sheltered from the wind more or less.

While we were in the courtyard, which is about as urban-decay as it gets, I'm warning Em to watch out for nails sticking up out of boards, there are bricks and mortar strewn in the weeds, not to mention quite a bit of broken glass, I screwed up.

Some birds took off, and not realizing what the sound was, I turned around to look. No big deal, but Em asked me what I was looking for, it was just birds and I was like, 'Okay, but you don't let sounds go unexplained in a place like this.' I didn't mean this to be a scary thing, it's just common sense, you're in the ruins of a building complex where homeless folks might have staked out a home, adjacent to railroad property that is patrolled by railroad bulls, it's not exactly a dangerous situation but you don't want to be snuck up on.

We were suddenly done with shooting in the courtyard. She wasn't having it, any more than she was having the train with the 'SCUM' tag on it as a backdrop. I thought it was perfect, a contrasty thing where you're playing with opposites but no, Dad.

So we went out to Kaw Point where it was even colder and even windier. Then we went downtown, where I tried to shoot her with the Kauffman Center in the background from the Summit bridge by the FBI building. When we were going through the Crossroads, she asked, 'Do a lot of hipsters live around here?' Well, maybe, but mostly they come here to eat. If they're real hipsters, they probably can't afford Crossroads rents these days.

The only real disappointment I had on this whole trip, there's a building with cool green doors that just beg to be used as a photo backdrop, but they're posted 'no photography' and that there's video surveillance. I tried unsuccessfully to convince Em that the green door with 'no photography' posted was the perfect background for a senior picture. I mean, what are they going to do, breathe on me? Disapprove of my taking a picture of their building from the street? Wet their pants in front of me?

Anyway, we had fun. And stopped at Foo's for frozen custard on the way back to her mother's house, which was the place to be since she had to be on shift slinging hash at 7:00 the following morning.