I am fifty years old, and I am fat. Not middle-aged thick, not suck in your gut for pictures. I am Fatty d’Fat Fat, Lord Fatisimo of the Great and Wide Fatties. I am also male, mostly white, mostly Irish by way of the South, and I grew up a non-practicing Episcopalian in the northern suburbs of Los Angeles County. Which makes me both obsolete and redundant. I’m also part Venezuelan, part Catholic, part Jew (how else can I explain my Irish Catholic paternal grandmother’s maiden name : Lowenstein?), and part Mormon.
The Mormon part is of my own doing. I joined the Mormon church when I was 17, and I left the church 13 years later. I say that I am still part Mormon not because of any vestigial beliefs I might be wagging behind me, but because my two sons Hunter and Noah were raised in the church. Hunter’s rejection and Noah’s embrace of the faith are both partly results of my choices. When you are a father, no decision you make can be unmade. I can play music moderately well. I cannot whistle. I sing poorly, but I sing much better than I should because I have tried all my life. I wish I could sing better, but it’s a great pleasure to hear Noah sing so well. Oskar sings too, and while Hunter never sings in front of me, he whistles with a perfect pitch and a gorgeous tone.
I love most sports but I cant play any other than baseball. I did not exercise whatsoever until high school. As a result entropy and resistance to fitness are my natural modes. But however unlikely, I fell in love with bicycles when I was a kid. My first bike was a Peugot 10 speed, something like this :
My Scout troop went on a two day 100 mile ride, and inexplicably, I smoked everyone else in my troop, including the adults. The support truck had to find me and tell me to slow down.
So when I got into high school, I traded those wheels in for for a chariot : a purple and white Datsun B210 hatchback. I didn’t even think about bikes for about six years, until I was a missionary in Taipei. We rode bikes like this :
Cycling in Taipei thirty years ago involved thirty year old bikes, no helmets, grabbing the back of buses and cabs to get a little help now and then, and an almost constant party with death or injury. Not only did I love it, I missed the urban commando style of cycling when I came back to the states. When I was in graduate school I bought my first Macintosh, a Mac Plus, an I bought a Bridgestone MB‑2.
This bike feels like I’ve had it forever. That’s because I have. While the Mac Plus was relegated to the plastic mines of Indonesia long ago, I hung onto this bike for 23 years, and it is still in excellent original condition. I guess I have to stop writing in the present tense. My MB‑2 was stolen out of my garage last month.
One of my less adorable traits is that I secretly like it when valuable things of mine disappear. My first and only Rolex, a 1961 Submariner, was stolen from a hotel room in Miami in 2003, and I’ve never bought another watch. My Powerbook was stolen when my house was robbed in 1994, and on it was every poem, story, and letter I’d written since 1980. No backups. No copies. I didn’t get upset. I was angry my world was violated, but, first, having valuable things taken from you reminds you that nothing is really valuable at all. You’re still alive, you’re still moving forward, so how important could those things really be ? Second, it only confirms that nothing lasts forever.
It’s not like I’m low on bikes anyway. I still have my Specialized Stumpjumper Comp, my 90s Pinarello Montviso (which I’ve given to my son Noah, but which I’m using while he’s away in France), my Specialized Roubaix, and most importantly, my Surly Longhaul Trucker, pictured above.
Throughout the 90s I rode a lot. I had a Gary Fisher Procaliber that I rode into the ground. The San Gabriels, the Santa Monicas, Angeles Crest, Santa Cruz, Moab, and a ton of places I can’t remember. I wasn’t great or fast or aggressive. I just loved it, no matter how hard it was. And it was hard. Even before I got fat, I was always big, and nobody big should be climbing trails on a bike. But I did, and I never cared that I was last among my pals.
For reasons both dreary and self-destructive, I stopped cycling and basically anything physical for the past nine years. Coincidentally, most doctors will tell you that if there were a decade or so when it was okay to not exercise at all, it wouldn’t be from age 41 to 50. Maybe 3 to 12. Maybe. But not 41 to 50. The human body is already in such accelerated decline that the best you can hope for is to slow the inevitable. At the same time, I pupated an interest in fast cars into a something of a hobby. It happened one Sunday when I happened to see part of a Formula One race on a TV in a pub in Little Britain (Santa Monica). I was captivated by the slavish attention to speed, handling, and snottiness. I’d already been taken by the Tour de France (this was before you could watch every race of the season in the US — from Australia to the three Grand Tours to the Worlds) so I was quickly alienating myself from most of my friends. I still loved foot base and basket ball, but nobody I knew would get up at 4 in the morning with me to watch an F1 Qualifying session from Dubai.
I sold my 1973 Porsche 911s when Oskar was born, because I didn’t feel like putting an infant sideways in the back seat while I hammered the clutch around town. But I found the perfect car, a race car disguised as a family car : the BMW M5. A four door sedan, plenty of room for kids, and when I took my mother someplace, with the touch of a couple buttons, it drove like a town car. But when I was alone, touch those buttons again, and it was a seven speed 500 hp V10 hybrid. Not gas/electric, but cheetah/grizzly.
I traveled to see F1 races in Canada and Indianapolis, Champ Car races in Long Beach and Laguna Seca, and I drove for pure fun whenever I could find the time and the conditions. When the M5 started to get ridiculous looking, I switched to the M3, the smaller, faster sibling that is even more fun. I had always been a good driver, but I pushed myself and became even more capable and less afraid of dangerous situations. I still have the car today.
But all that driving only added to my decline. My mental nut (my wit, my memory, my ability to apply high level reasoning to complex ideas and systems) had diminished when I was 41 and numbing myself with cocaine and alcohol, had almost disappeared by the time I was 44 and gnarled by grief and depression over my father’s death, and was gone a year later when I was addled with obesity, apnea, and insomnia. It culminated in a 10 day hospital stay last year that was as terrifying as it was unsurprising. But when I got home and recovered, I began to change my diet, I began to sleep (thanks, technology), and by this time last year, I felt like Rip Van Winkle, awake after almost a decade of slumber.
By which I mean I began to feel myself again. In the preceding five or six years, I had read maybe ten books, and I doubt I finished any of them. I had barely written anything, and my journal entries are more useful as a graphic illustration of micro-napping than as writing. But from December to February I had read four books, and I found myself able to finally sit down, concentrate, and write. Not for very long, and not always with any kind of valuable results. But it was a start. For six months I walked every day for an hour or more, and I began to feel a modest bit of weight loss. It might have been a tremendous bit of weight loss, but compared to how much extra weight I was carrying, it was modest. I couldn’t run. I knew if I joined a gym I wouldn’t go. I got an indoor bike trainer, but I could only use it for ten to twenty minutes tops before boredom and exhaustion took over. I didn’t feel comfortable riding my road bike around town because it’s so light and thin. So I did something I hadn’t ever done before in my life. For my 50th birthday I bought myself a present.
My son Hunter suggested this bike to me last May. I don’t take credit for Hunter’s abilities because they far outstrip my own, but I have to think my love of bikes planted a seed. He has countless bikes of his own and he lives at the base of Wilder Ranch north of Santa Cruz which is basically mountain bike nirvana. He’s a professional bike mechanic for pro racing teams, so when I told him I was tired of being El Rey del Gordo he suggested I get the best touring bike around, the Long Haul Trucker.
A touring bike looks like a regular road bike, but it’s made to go far, not fast. The LHT is oddly old fashioned — steel frame, bar end shifters, cantilever brakes — but it can be repaired anywhere in the world. It even comes with extra spokes tucked into the chain stay. It is true that you never forget how to ride a bike, but you do forget how to get off one gracefully, how to anticipate braking and shifting, and how much your ass will hurt for at least the first two weeks. Tip : plush seats, foam seats, springy seats — these are all crap. Even a big rider will do much better with a traditional hard narrow saddle. The key to comfort is matching your sit bones with the saddle. That’s why leather saddles are useful — they will mold exactly to your geometry and within a month or so, your saddle will feel like an old friend.
It wasn’t weird riding a bike after such a long hiatus, but it was humiliating. At first, riding five or six miles around my neighborhood was taxing. And that was if I carefully avoided all elevation changes. Even the slightest incline would force me to get off and rest. But starting on June 1, I rode the bike every day until July 15th, and then I took one day off. But that time I was riding 10 or so miles a shot, but much quicker. And I had begun to resign myself that Venice is downhill from everywhere. So every ride was going to be either a slow slog uphill or a quick scream uphill.
I have been riding now for almost six months. The other day I rode into Los Feliz to see my cousin Mike for breakfast, and that was a 35 mile trip. The next day my thighs were a little sore, but instead of laying off, I rode for an hour, and the soreness disappeared. Now I look for hills to climb. I don’t always make the steep ones, but I don’t care. The thing is, I love it. I love being on a bicycle. Every time I get on and ride, I am instantly happy. I don’t care that the roads are horrific, that bike lanes are spotty, that most drivers feel bikes don’t belong on the road and want you to know it — I don’t care about any of that because it’s just good to be on my bike.
I’ve lost 75 pounds since last last year. I still have more to lose. I’ve also started to lose interest in my car. I’ve put barely 7000 miles on my M3 in a year, and the only reason it’s that many is that I’ve driven to Utah, San Diego and San Francisco twice each, and up to the Sierras over the summer. Without those trips it’s less than 4000. It’s not that I don’t like to drive anymore, but traffic is now comically awful. I can ride my bike most places faster than I can drive during weekday rush hours.
So I’ve made a plan. When my lease runs out in 18 months, I am not going to get another car. I want to live for a year without a car. This is easy for some people, but I have family between 45 and 65 miles away in two different directions, and I have a son who is involved in various activities, there will be times not owning a car could be problematic. But the metro and the subway are useful, and Zip Cars are becoming more common every day in Santa Monica. I can always rent a car if I absolutely need one, but for trips under 4o miles round trip, I plan to rely on the LHT and on myself. I’ve already started, and in fact I need to post this so I can run over to Costco with Oskar and pick up some cleaning supplies.
I really hope you give up your car. Just that this is your plan is very inspiring.
Thanks, Julie. It seems like a very natural thing to do and I hope I can make it work.