Wednesday, October 31, 2012

BC2012: The Secret Race by Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle

I am so glad that I read this book. All the things I once loved about Hamilton are evident: his sincerity, his modesty, his dedication, and his honesty. Wait -- honesty? Well, at least I used to think he was being honest, and as he explains it, doping was taken for granted in cycling to the point where they didn't even think of themselves as cheaters. I have no reason to doubt his honesty now -- The Secret Race is the most detailed account of doping tactics in cycling that I've ever read. I can't imagine how or why anyone would make this stuff up.

I could write a book-length review of this book, but I'll just note a few things:
  • Hamilton gives a great description of bike racing that I've never heard before: "Each race is really a bunch of smaller races, contests that always have one of two results: you either keep up, or you don't."
  • Most cyclists' wives and girlfriends knew about doping. It made me wonder how Lance Armstrong handled his divorce from Kristin. Did he pay her extra to shut up, or did she shut up to keep the money flowing to her and the kids?
  • For years I've felt that Greg LeMond was just an old-timer who was jealous of Armstrong's success. Clearly I need to reevaluate that opinion.
  • As various cyclists got caught, I'd think Well, at least _____ is still clean. After reading this book I doubt that any of them were clean, certainly not any of the notable three-week grand tour riders.
  • I don't think Hamilton would call Armstrong an asshole -- he expresses a lot of admiration for him -- but after reading this book I know that's what I'd call him.
This wouldn't be a good book for someone who doesn't know much about cycling. Hamilton doesn't deliver the blow-by-blow excitement of the Tours he rode, choosing to focus on a few critical moments in his career and a few races that relate to the doping he describes. The ideal reader is someone already familiar with pro cycling during the 1996-2004 era. As one of those people, I got a lot of closure from The Secret Race. It answers a lot of questions that I had as well as many that I never would have thought to ask.

One thing I wondered about was how so many formal Postal riders got caught after they left the team. Hamilton lets former teammate Jonathan Vaughters explain that one:
The thing to realize about Fuentes and all these guys is that they're doping doctors for a reason. They're the ones who didn't make it on the conventional path, so they're not the most organized people. So when they leave a bag of blood out in the sun because they're having another glass of wine at the cafe, it's predictable. The deadly mistake that Tyler, Floyd, Roberto [Heras], and the rest of them made when they left Postal was to assume that they'd find other doctors who were as professional. But when they got out there, they found -- whoops! -- there weren't any others.
That makes sense, but for some reason it hadn't occurred to me before. Speaking of blood bags left in the sun, Tyler describes an instance during the 2004 Tour when he got a transfusion of bad blood, probably the most wince-inducing episode in the book.

The Secret Race is a lively account that is hard to put down. Coyle, author of Lance Armstrong's War*, does an excellent job shaping Hamilton's narrative and inserting notes from other sources. It's too bad the book couldn't have waited to include some info from the USADA report as well. I would recommend it to any pro cycling fan who wants to know what really happened in the sport during the Armstrong years.

* That is the most balanced book I've read about Armstrong, neither attacking nor glorifying him (he is treated fairly in this book as well). Introducing The Secret Race, Coyle says Armstrong was "okay" with Lance Armstrong's War, which IMO is probably the nicest thing he would say about any book not originating from within his camp. Coyle says people often asked him whether Armstrong was doping, and he said he was 50-50 with the likelihood rising as time passed. He considered doping to be too depressing and didn't plan to write about it again until Hamilton approached him.


BC2012: Be CentsAble: How to Cut Your Household Budget in Half by Chrissy Pate and Kristin McKee

Now that I'm accepting my role as homemaker, I figured I may as well try to get better at it. This book is a quick and easy read, and it's probably quite useful to some people. I picked up a few tips, but seriously, I bought this book new for 90 cents* -- I'm pretty good at getting deals already.

In general, Be CentsAble is filled with reasonable advice. It isn't one of those frugal-freak books that has "ten ways to reuse TV dinner trays" or "how to make a toothbrush last for 15 years." It is about how to shop, where to shop, and how to save money at those stores. The chapter about saving on utilities is good, but I've already done the things they suggest. The chapter on budgeting sounds decent, but I could never get my wife to do it.

One of their travel suggestions horrified me: "head to the book store with a notebook and spend a couple of hours getting ideas from a current travel guidebook." I'm sorry, but that crosses the line from saving money to thievery, especially as a suggestion from a book author. That is so wrong that I couldn't imagine having the nerve to do it. Leaf through a guidebook, sure, but take notes? If you really don't want to pay for anything you should use the Internet or the library. Besides, a current travel guidebook can be quite handy on a vacation if your plans change and you have to improvise. If you're going to use the information, just pay the fifteen bucks!

The authors are moms so there is a lot about saving money on stuff for kids. Of course, I nailed that one already -- the best way to save money is not to have kids in the first place. Just the other night somebody on TV was talking about the costs of raising children, and my wife said, "Boy, we dodged a bullet there!"

The authors have a very useful website that they rightfully plug numerous times in their book. Check it out for lots of great money-saving resources.


* I miss Borders so much! And that purchase came before the bankruptcy sale.

Call me John M. Smyth

One of the goals I set for this year was to determine my professional future. I have joked about my lack thereof, but deep inside I knew there was more than a little truth in that.

Frankly, copywriting was always something I could do, not something I yearned to do. I was decent at it (my very first client loved my work) and I found satisfaction in doing my job well, but I never had the drive or determination required to succeed in a freelance environment. Self-promotion is the key to freelance success, and I've never been good at that. As for writing in general (beyond the advertising world), I lack the creativity. Freelance writers are expected to generate story ideas, and I just don't have any (or at least not enough). Copyediting or proofreading would probably be my ideal job, but those jobs are disappearing as victims of budget cuts and offshoring. I read enough to know there isn't much proofreading being performed these days, not even by major newspapers and publishers.

To some extent, I'd like to blame the Internet for my diminished value and prospects. Twenty years ago being a writer or a photographer was a real skill; nowadays everybody with a blog thinks he's a writer* and everyone with a flickr account thinks she's a photographer.** That's way too much competition for someone with the aforementioned lack of drive and determination. The Internet also features dozens of people who make copywriting sound like the greatest frigging job in the universe. After a while one realizes that the reason the job sounds so great is because -- duh! -- these people are professional copywriters and selling is their life. Of course they are convincing.

There are other, not particularly viable options. My wife thinks I should get a job working with animals, but I don't even like working with our animals. There's always my college degree "to fall back on", but that's practically worthless now. Even if I wanted to get back into computer programming, I've been adrift for far too long to get hired. With neither marketable skills nor driving ambition, I suppose I could just take some random McJob. But the economy is still shit, so even McJobs are hard to come by.

For much of the past few years, I have been hoping for an epiphany, an instant of clarity that would tell me what to do. As I've explained in numerous conversations, I don't need a job that pays a lot; I just want something fulfilling. In theory I could be doing something great, but I'd even settle for useful. As I've also said many times, in the capitalist economy I'm just a drag on the whole system, just sucking up oxygen.

For 130 years (until 2005), there was a chain of Chicagoland furniture stores called John M. Smyth's Homemakers. And now that's what I am, a homemaker. I'm not going to delude myself that earning $1-2,000 a year makes me "employed" in any credible sense. Is this what I'm "meant" to do in life? Doubtful, I think, but it's where I am now.

I've been answering surveys and focus groups that way for a few months***, and I think it suits me. I'm the organized one and the savvy shopper. I manage our money and pay the bills. We don't eat at home together often, but I cook 90% of the time when we do. In general, things seem to be running smoother as I've increased my role in taking care of the household. This has been evolving for many years, of course; this post isn't so much about becoming a homemaker as it is about accepting it.

So that puts to rest one of my more vexing 2012 goals. This doesn't preclude taking the odd job for extra cash, but at least for now, it is an acknowledgment that I have no professional career objectives or prospects. And I think I'm finally okay with that.

* I may appear to fit that description, but I'll argue that my experience editing college and high school newspapers 20 years ago puts me in another category. At least I have some journalistic training.

** Photography is another career path I've considered from time to time. Before digital, I knew my way around a fully manual 35mm SLR, and I get enough compliments that I consider myself a photographer rather than a snapshot taker. Over the past decade I've lost interest in photography mostly because I realized that without having kids, no one will give a shit about any of my photos when I'm gone. In that regard, photography became too much of a metaphor for my life in general.

*** It beats "unemployed loser." But seriously, that brings up one of my pet peeves: some surveys only offer the choice of "staying home with children" instead of "homemaker." Who says you have to have kids for a spouse to stay at home? I could write a whole book about the subtle and not-so-subtle prejudices against childless couples, but that's already been done.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Lyrics of the Day

You may have noticed a new title for the blog today. I don't know whether I'll stick with it yet, but it's the best I've come up with so far.* I borrowed it from the title track of Warren Zevon's excellent but forgotten album Transverse City. The song, like most of the album, presents a dehumanized, dystopian future of technology run amok and environmental decay including this litany:

Here's the hum of desperation 
Here's the test tube mating call 
Here's the latest carbon cycle 
Here's the clergy of the mall 
Here's the song of shear and torsion 
Here's the bloodbath magazine 
Here's the harvest of contusions 
Here's the narcoleptic dream

I saw Zevon on the Transverse City Tour in early 1990 with a band composed of himself and a Macintosh computer. The synthesizer program played on the computer while he sang. The tour T-shirt was awesome.

I love the album, possibly due to the tour halo effect but mostly because it is so lyrically dark and musically eclectic. Alas Zevon pretty much abandoned it after the tour. Maybe somebody stole his Mac. I think the acoustic "Splendid Isolation" is the only song that survived in future setlists.

* Way back in 2004 when I started this blog, I almost called it "Shades of Gray" because I tend to see things that way as opposed to black & white (BTW the blog was much more political back then). IIRC I found another blog with that name so I didn't use it. Thank goodness I didn't! (I love how The Onion A.V. Club describes Fifty Shades of Grey as "a parody of erotica and coherent writing.")

Quote of the Day

They say he's sexist, but if you knew the broads he's known, you would be, too.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

BC2012: Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton by Jeff Pearlman

When Sweetness came out about a year ago, Chicago Bears fans and former Bears players attacked it. Everybody loved Payton, and when people heard about the less-than-hagiographic revelations in this book, they categorically denied that any of it could be true.

But no man is perfect, and although Payton was one of the greatest football players of all time as well as one of the kindest -- the author acknowledges that he could have written 700 pages just about Payton's generous encounters with fans -- he had the flaws of any human. He wasn't the great husband or father his myth implied*, and he was prone to mood swings, becoming suicidally depressed at times after his retirement. He also popped painkillers like candy, which should come as no surprise to anyone who witnessed the abuse his body took for 13 years in the NFL.

Sweetness, however, is not "about" any of those things; it is about Walter Payton's life from his youth in segregated Mississippi to his premature death from liver cancer. Pearlman never intended to tear Payton down, but rather attempted to discover exactly who he was. I believe he succeeded at that, and I see no reason to take the Walter Payton poster down from my office wall.** As Pearlman affirmed in the Acknowledgments (not that the reader should have had any doubt), "...I love him. I love what he overcame, I love what he accomplished, I love what he symbolized, and I love the nooks and crannies and complexities."

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, as should anyone willing to accept that Payton was an imperfect human being. My problem now is what to do with two other Payton books I haven't read yet since Pearlman points out their flaws in the Prologue. Payton by his wife and children has a number of inaccuracies, though to be honest I bought it more for the DVD of Payton in action than anything else. Payton's second memoir, Never Die Easy, is up to 40% fiction according to his closest friends. Knowing that, is it still worth reading? I'm afraid that if I read those other books my mind might overwrite what I learned from Sweetness. So to anyone reading this review who hasn't seen the other books, just stick with this one. It's the most thorough biography of Payton, and probably the most accurate as well.

* He and wife Connie lived apart for many years and he bedded a lot of women. One of them had a child in 1985 that he refused to meet though he did provide for him. Regardless (because he kept it secret), he was named Chicago's Father of the Year by the Illinois Fatherhood Initiative in 1986. In the 1990s he had a long-term girlfriend. And after he retired from football, he took on other activities in lieu of spending more time with his kids.

** Ironically, that poster from my grandparents' basement hangs where I once had a poster of Lance Armstrong. As I mentioned yesterday, although I had admired Armstrong for his achievements (despite nagging suspicions which recent revelations seem to confirm), I never really liked him. He always seemed like kind of a jerk. Anyway, after reading Sweetness, I still find Walter admirable and likable in spite of his flaws.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Now It's Official -- Bye Bye L.A.

Today the International Cycling Union officially stripped Lance Armstrong of his seven Tour de France victories, thus rendering the era of my pro cycling fandom to be a lie built on transfusions and blood products.

I'll warn you in advance that this will be a long, rambling post. I've had a lot of thoughts over the years that I'm gathering together here...

Unlike many Americans, I can't say that Lance made me a cyclist or a pro cycling fan. I didn't even know who he was when I started riding again in 2000, such was pro cycling's limited U.S. appeal at the time (plus I didn't follow sports in general for most of the 1990s). Not long after I got really into riding, I became a full-on obsessive pro racing fan. I would check in at several times a day year-round, and during the Tour I would augment their coverage with several other websites. I subscribed to Cycle Sport and anxiously awaited its arrival in my mailbox. I bought the 8-hour and 10-hour editions of Tour coverage to watch as I cycled on the trainer in the basement.* Even then I considered myself more of a cycling fan in general than an Armstrong fan. But I have to admit it felt good to see an American rider smack down those Europeans time and again on the roads of France. I was one of the millions who bought, read, and found inspiration in his memoir It's Not About the Bike.

Once Armstrong began winning Tours, other American racers rose in prominence, especially from his U.S. Postal Service team. Tyler Hamilton showed so much promise guiding Armstrong through the mountains and providing target data in the time trials that he signed to lead another team and take his own shot at glory (Floyd Landis and Levi Leipheimer were others).

Hamilton was a guy I could identify with better than the brash Texan. Even when I rooted for Armstrong, I thought he was kind of an arrogant jerk. But Hamilton seemed more humble. While Armstrong was somewhat of a freak of nature with off-the-charts performance, Hamilton presented himself as a guy who just worked hard (not to say that Armstrong didn't). And he was tough, legendarily so. He broke his shoulder in the 2002 Giro d'Italia and still managed to finish second. The next year he broke a collarbone at the start of the Tour and still finished the race. Can you imagine racing almost every day for three weeks with a broken collarbone? And he finished fourth! Hamilton also wrote online about his experiences with humility and humanity. We sent the Hamiltons a card after he wrote about the death of his golden retriever, Tugboat.

Hamilton won a gold medal in the 2004 Olympics, and his fall from grace came shortly after. That was the beginning of the end for me. By the time his two-year suspension was finished, I was finished with pro cycling. I couldn't even tell you who won the Tour after 2007 (well, at least until I Googled it this morning).

Although Armstrong never tested positive in the gazillion times he was tested (pro cyclists' blood is tested ridiculously frequently due to a long history of doping scandals), there was one thing that didn't make sense to me. I could understand Armstrong working hard and being the best rider in the Tour. But if almost everyone else was cheating, how was he so much better that he could beat them handily while riding clean? We were led to believe that it was all hard work and focused training methods. Now we know it was all bullshit. Armstrong deserves credit not as the world's greatest cyclist but as the world's greatest lying bastard.** Can you imagine what it takes to live that lie, to embrace that lie so fully for over a decade? I wonder whether at some point he even began to believe that he earned those seven Tour victories honestly. No doubt he felt he deserved them.

I found it odd that a cyclist who supposedly rode clean showed so much animosity toward cyclists who exposed the widespread doping in the sport. Armstrong claimed such allegations weren't good for cycling, but wouldn't a clean rider support efforts to root out the dopers and their unfair advantage?

I also found it odd that Armstrong's former teammates seemed to get caught once they left his team. I can't remember all the names now, but Roberto Heras was another prominent one in addition to Hamilton and Landis. Now we know that those riders' new teams merely lacked the savvy of Armstrong's team.

A lot of Europeans made accusations over the years, but it was hard to tell whether they were against Armstrong or America in general. I sensed an insular "this is our sport, stay out of it" vibe, plus this was during the George W. Bush years when Europeans -- particularly the French -- disagreed with our foreign policy. The latest revelations seem to show that the U.S. Postal Service team, and by extension the United States, merely had the best doctors or scientists who could dance around the rules. Perhaps one day someone will write a book about how arrogant Texans Bush and Armstrong sullied the reputation of the United States abroad in the early 21st century.***

To me, it became somewhat irrelevant whether Armstrong doped once his teammates began to confess. Cycling is a team sport, and being supported by dopers tainted his victories nearly as much as if he personally had doped.

Part of me wonders if Armstrong's Tour career was all just a charade. At times he charged hard, but at times he held back. Was Armstrong merely trying to present some semblance of abiding by the rules by winning "just enough" without making the results look suspicious? Was he just playing us all along? Now that he's been exposed as a doper, it's hard to believe anything was honest anymore.

Hamilton and Daniel Coyle recently published a book about the whole sordid mess called The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs. I was going to wait for the paperback, but I can't. Barnes & Noble offered a coupon this past weekend so I ordered the book for only $13.65. I'm looking forward to reading it. As I said, I enjoyed Hamilton's online journal years ago, and Daniel Coyle's book about Lance Armstrong was one of the best (and it was not negative, so I do not believe he has a bias against Armstrong). After all these years I've forgiven Hamilton, though I still feel a bit cheated for believing in him. As for Armstrong, I don't know. He made so many millions in winnings and especially sponsorships that he may go down in history as the greatest fraud in all of professional sports. I don't know if I can forgive that. Fortunately, he surely doesn't give a shit.

* Come to think of it, is anyone interested in my VHS cycling tapes? I have at least half a dozen Tours de France plus a few Giros d'Italia, some of the one-day classics, plus videos about old-timers like Jacques Anquetil. All are in excellent condition. I don't think I watched any of them more than five times (I only watched while I rode, and that would have been a lot of hours on the trainer). Seriously, I can give a full inventory to anyone who wants to buy some or all of them. I haven't watched them in years, and now everybody has DVDs anyway.

** He even lied to his girlfriend, Anna Hansen, assuring her she wouldn't get pregnant because chemotherapy had supposedly made him sterile. One assumes she wasn't so surprised by their second child. Some lies can only work once. But other lies can work seven times!

*** Wait, there has to be one more arrogant Texan to make it work. Those books are almost always about trios.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

BC2012: Backstabbing for Beginners by Michael Soussan

This book sat on my shelf until one day I made an offhand comment to my wife using the title. That night I showed her the book I had mentioned, not necessarily expecting her to read it. She loved it, and as soon as she was finished, she started bugging me to read it.

Backstabbing for Beginners: My Crash Course in International Diplomacy is Soussan's lively memoir about the years he spent working at the United Nations in the Oil-for-Food Program for Iraq. Of course, we now know the program as much for its scandal as for anything it accomplished. The author was right in the middle of the action although he was not directly involved in the scandal (he didn't profit from it, but he did know that there were shady deals with kickbacks going on).

If you have ever considered working for the UN, this book will probably dissuade you. The UN's internal office politics are even more brutal than international politics. It demonstrates how a young, idealistic person is battered by bureaucratic machinations until he finds himself drawn into playing the same Machiavellian games. In that sense, it could be a very depressing book but Soussan manages to keep it from getting too dark.

This book also shows that 1.) Saddam Hussein was a brilliant politician as well as a complete bastard, and 2.) Iraq was a totally screwed up situation long before George W. Bush got involved. Another great book for insight into the later years of Hussein's rule is The Demonic Comedy by Paul William Roberts.


Thursday, October 18, 2012

Squeezing out Ecstasy

Am I the only one who confuses Squeeze with XTC? Like I'll be looking at a Squeeze CD of their greatest hits and I'll think, Where is "Senses Working Overtime" or "Generals and Majors"? Then I recognize my mistake and feel like an idiot.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Vote for Margarita!

My mom dresses up dogs for every holiday and takes pictures to make greeting cards. She entered her golden retriever Margarita in a photo contest. Voting continues until October 23:

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

My Life is an Open Book

The Open Books people were scheduled to pick up our books today. Last night at 2:00 AM I finally chose our 500th book to donate (perhaps appropriately, How to Start a Home-Based Writing Business, which apparently didn't help me much*).  Here's what 500 books looks like:
This morning at 10:30 AM they arrived to cart them all away. I can't take all the credit since many of these books belonged to my wife, but it feels good to finally get them out of the house. We still have more books than we can fit in our library, though. Here's what 500 missing books looks like:
The stuff on and behind the chair on the left is the beginning of a carload for Goodwill.

* IIRC the author's premise seemed to be that writing a business plan was the key to being a successful home-based writer. I would say that marketing is the key, and you don't really need a formal business plan as much as you need a marketing strategy. And even more important than either is the motivation and persistence to follow through. A poor marketing strategy executed with 100% commitment will always do better than an excellent marketing strategy executed weakly.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Directionally Challenged

Why is it that so many writers screw up east and west but not north and south? And why do so many editors miss these errors and let them get into print? It has gotten to the point where I think carefully every time I read east or west because I'm shocked by how many mistakes I find. For example, a book about a road trip from California to Florida mentioned entering Colorado from the east (since the whole book was oriented from west to east, this error really stuck out to me). Yet as noted above, I rarely see north and south confused. I wonder if it's some innate cognitive thing based on how the brain comprehends left and right versus up and down (if that is the case, I probably own a book that says so but I haven't read it yet). Maybe it's geographic dyslexia?

Monday, October 08, 2012

Hugo Chavez Reelected

Great, that means I have six more years of listening to my dad complain about him. Then again, he still bitches about Bill Clinton so maybe it doesn't really matter whether Chavez won (I think my dad likes complaining about Clinton almost as much as the former prez likes women!).

BC2012: Breakfast at the Exit Cafe: Travels Through America

When I saw this at The Book Cellar last month, I was hesitant to buy it. I have a lot of road trip books that I haven't read yet. Did I really need another? Then I looked at the map tracing the route that married Canadian writers Wayne Grady and Merilyn Simonds followed across the United States. There were many familiar cities and towns including Lost Hills, CA; Bakersfield, CA; Needles, CA; Roswell, NM; Albany, TX; Mineral Wells, TX; Jackson, MS; Selma, AL; Montgomery, AL..... The authors drove many of the same roads I pedaled on my cross-country bike trip ten years ago! Yes, I did need another road trip book.

I enjoyed much of this book and appreciated the Canadian perspective, at least until they got to Texas. Then everything seemed to be about race. Why is it that foreigners accuse Americans of being obsessed with race, and then they visit and all they can talk/write/think about is race? This pair beat that topic to death all the way through the southeastern states. Every encounter with a black person in the service industry became an opportunity to make some observation about slavery. Seriously, I've read books with "race" in the subtitle that weren't as fixated on the topic. Ironically, I decided I was sick of them right around the same time they got sick of each other and their journey (every group of travelers has its limit -- my wife and I can go about 19 days before we crack). I slogged through the remaining 40-50 pages and things got a little better even though they kept writing about slavery all the way to New Jersey.

It's too bad their obsession kind of spoiled what had been a decent (not great) book. I did learn a lot, though, even about the places I had already been. On the other hand, I noticed a bunch of factual errors so I'm not sure whether I should trust what I thought I learned. I really wanted to like Breakfast at the Exit Cafe, but I'd probably give it only two stars.

Friday, October 05, 2012

All Things Must Pass

When I was in grade school, I acquired the nickname D.J. I can't remember how or why; I may have even given it to myself. However I came to be called D.J., I got sick of it pretty quickly. Then I launched a reeducation campaign among my fellow students -- Stop calling me D.J.! It worked for the most part, although one kid called me Deej for several more years.

Today I am asking myself a simple question: Why on earth did I name my freelance writing business based on an old nickname that I despised?

I really don't know. I think it was just an expedient choice without much forethought. Now it will become the official scapegoat of my utterly pathetic freelance writing career. Sure I wrote a book, but that opportunity fell into my lap based on work I did before I even considered being a writer. So as a professional, I'm not much of a writer. Blame it on the name.

I am burying DJWriter, Inc., officially the victim of bureaucracy and unofficially the victim of abject laziness. When I chose the name, I sent an application to the state and paid a hefty fee (all fees are hefty for small business owners since convicted Governor Rod Blagojevich doubled them) for the "doing business as" (DBA) name. I did not send an application to the county (and I honestly cannot remember whether I knew I was supposed to at the time). Although I've opened two bank accounts without it (and closed them after the banks added monthly fees), another bank turned me down because I didn't have a DBA certificate from Cook County. That issue forced my hand, and I decided to abandon the name. In retrospect, I should have used my own name or chosen a more meaningful and marketable name.

Now that I can't actually deposit a check made out to DJWriter anyway, I may as well kill it off. At least I never got around to printing business cards! I'll be editing to redirect to my other sites, and soon I will rename this blog. So don't panic if the name is different next time. The URL won't change, nor will the absolutely riveting content. There are other long-term implications (hint: if I was making money I'd just pay the damn county and move on), but I'll write about that another time.

Trail's End

After the roaring silence of my blog readers the other day, I informed my publisher today that proceeding with an updated Biking Illinois wouldn't be a good idea. She agreed with my reasons and seemed to hold nothing against me for backing out, which was kinder than I expected (I generally expect the worst so I'm pleasantly surprised when it doesn't happen).

So I guess this is the end of the line. Eight years ago this week, Trails Books contacted me to write Biking Illinois, right after my last computer consulting contract ended and right before I drove down to Tennessee for my Uncle Bob's memorial service. The original print run of 3,000 sold out years ago, and copies are going for $50 to $300(!!!) on There won't be a second edition. My career as an author is quite possibly but not necessarily finished. Oddly enough, the only person who seems disappointed by this is my wife. I guess she liked the idea of me writing a book even though the subject matter didn't interest her and I blew a couple grand of her hard-earned pay researching it.

Thank you to everyone who bought a copy of Biking Illinois. I hope my book inspired you to explore the great roads and trails of Illinois.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Cowboy Banking

Last week I opened a bank account. I was sitting across from the assistant manager's desk, mostly watching her type things into the computer. A small clock radio sat on the credenza behind her with the music just loud enough to hear:
Well I'm packing up my game and I'm a head out west
Where real women come equipped with scripts and fake breasts
Find a nest in the hills chill like Flynt
Buy an old drop top find a spot to pimp
Yep, Kid Rock's "Cowboy" was playing as I entrusted my hard-earned money to this new banker.

I don't have a problem with Kid Rock. Lord knows I've listened to things more offensive lyrically and musically, and I find Kid oddly fascinating as far as the level of narcissism required to write song after song glorifying oneself.*

But there's something about hearing Kid Rock at the bank that made me wonder if it's all just a bit too casual these days. Banks used to convey permanence and command respect. They were the sturdiest structures in town, imposing concrete temples of commerce. The banker wore a nice suit and shook your hand, doing everything to assure you that your money was safe.

The banking industry has had a bad half-decade with the small ones failing and the big ones taking government bailouts. The only reassuring thing about banks these days is the "FDIC" logo that says your money is safe when the inevitable happens. Now you can open your account in a strip mall storefront with Kid Rock rapping in the background. The assistant manager didn't shake my hand. It's like they can't even pretend anymore.

* One of my favorite Kid Rock moments is when he finishes a song and a guy says something like, "Dude, there's more to life than just... you."

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

BC2012: The B.S. of A.: A Primer in Politics for the Incredibly Disenchanted by Brian Sack

This book had just come out when the final wave of Borders bankruptcies hit. Due to that timing, there were inevitably still copies available when the discounts got steep, so I got it for a low price. I read it aloud to my wife over the course of a week, but I was unable to get through the glossary (possibly the funniest part of the book) before she went to work on September 30. Instead, I read the last six pages at 12:45 AM to make it the first book finished in October.

The B.S. of A. is just okay. Sack pokes fun at both Republicans and Democrats, which I guess passes for "nonpartisan" these days. Sometimes he is pretty funny, but other times he makes pop culture references that already sound dated only a year after the book's release (a bad habit he probably picked up writing for TV shows, but books should be more permanent IMHO). It wasn't a waste of time, but I'm glad I didn't spend anything near full price on it.

Biking Illinois Update on the Chopping Block?

If anyone has a good argument for why I should update Biking Illinois -- and it would only be a cursory, half-assed update in all honesty* -- please post here or e-mail me ASAP. At this point it doesn't look like a worthwhile endeavor for me, my publisher, or the Illinois cycling community.

Briefly: My book stood alone in 2006, but now there are books that cater specifically to road riders and path riders (my mixed book has limited appeal when other books suit their respective niches), as well as two books for Chicago area riders. Aside from the great road routes I created (which got very little attention, much to my disappointment (80% of my efforts went into those rides though they were less than half of the book)), there is little info that cannot be found in those other books and/or online. Writing an update doesn't offer much to me personally either -- I lost money writing the original, and my hopes that it would help me get other paying work were naive at best. And heck, I hardly ride anymore -- or write, for that matter -- so my motivation and passion are weak. I thought I could psyche myself up for it, but I just can't.

But if anyone can see beyond all that, please say so. Otherwise I'm planning to call my publisher and bail out within the next few days (or whenever I get my courage up).

* I would make a few updates and corrections, and then I would add a paragraph at the end of each ride pointing out nearby trails that aren't mentioned in the first book (with a URL for more info, usually a state or county webpage). I probably wouldn't be riding or adding any new trails.

Monday, October 01, 2012

September - BC2012 and Other Goals

September was another down month for most of my goals, but BC2012 did not fare nearly as badly as in August.

1. Book Challenge 2012: Last month was a disaster. I gave in to my hoarding, acquisitive self and bought way too many books, destroying months worth of good behavior. This month came out on the positive side, but barely. September totals: 10 books finished, 9 acquired. Overall totals: 93 books finished, 85 books acquired.

2. Cut down on e-mail: I still need to bite the bullet and cancel more subscriptions.

3. Drive less: I did okay with this in September. I took the L downtown instead of driving to the suburbs a few times.

4. Physical activity: At this point, I've pretty much resigned myself to a short, bulbous life as Jabba the Hutt.

5. Drink more: I finished off two bottles of single malt -- 10-year Laphroig and 12-year Highland Park -- so there is room in my scotch cabinet for something new (IIRC both of those bottles lasted more than eight years, one reason spirits are better than beer or wine). I've also been working my way through the vodka.

6. Dine and shop locally: Not much dining due to ongoing disappointment with local restaurants, but I did shop a bit locally.

7. Clean and declutter: I'm pretty much in a holding pattern. Things haven't gotten worse, but I haven't made much progress lately.

8. Enhance and expand my web presence: No progress.

9. Figure out my professional future: I have no professional future, but I'll write more about that some other time.

10. Floss regularly: As I wrote earlier, every day for the past six months!

Nailed It

Today I had my first dental checkup since I set the goal of flossing daily. The hygienist asked how I was doing, and I told her I had flossed every day for the last six months.

"Any bleeding?" She asked.

"Nope. It would take a dagger to make these gums bleed!" I said confidently.

She marveled at how little plaque she had to clean off my teeth. It was the fastest cleaning I can remember. When it was time to rate my gums tooth by tooth (from 1 to 5, 1 being the best), only one spot was rated a "5" (and that's an anomaly; there is one gap between my teeth that is much wider than the others so flossing doesn't work as well -- that's something to work on for next time).

Going into the last quarter of the year, it has become obvious that I have failed in many of my goals. That made today's appointment especially satisfying. At least I have succeeded at one of them, and my dentist has proof.