Sunday, September 23, 2012

Hey, You! On the Bike!

Okay, maybe I've been spoiled.

Any way you try to pedal it, Montreal is one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world, from its extensive network of cycling paths (both recreational and practical) to its Bixi bike rental program (the first in North America), its annual Tour de l'isle and all the rest. One of the reasons I never got my driver's license until I moved to California was simply that I loved bicycling so much.

Especially in Montreal The parks, the trees, the little cafes and stores. The hushed, tree-lined avenues of NDG or St. Lambert. The paths through Old Montreal and its cobblestoned streets, along the St. Lawrence, over the seaway, along the Lachine Canal. I just loved it.

But now that I live in the High Desert of California's Antelope Valley? Meh. Not so much.

Like everyone else in this sun-bleached browned out, suburban strip mall of a town, I drive a car. Oh, I still ride a bike, although the fierce winds and relentless heat have made me a big fan of early morning jaunts, before the daily commute starts, when the sun is just breaking over the horizon and the bully boy winds haven't quite woken up, when it's mostly just me, some skittish rabbits and an occasional coyote, and the whispering of the automatic sprinklers as they announce the start of another day.

Of course, bike-friendly or not, no city is immune from asshole motorists. Or asshole cyclists. And the Antelope Valley seems particularly vulnerable to both infestations. Possibly why one friend refers to it as the "A Valley."

The gripes against bike-hating and bike-ignorant motorists are many, and well documented. But cyclists seem to forget that they, too, have responsibilities.

This was all brought home to me yet again this morning. The Girl Detective was in urgent need of champagne, cream cheese and bungie cords (don't ask) and so I hopped into the car for a quick trip to the local supermarket. Yeah, I could have taken a bike, but balancing 20 pounds of ice and a bottle of bubbly seemed like just too much work, Besides, she wanted a bag of ice, not a bag of slush -- we're in the desert, remember.

So, there I am, got the goodies in the trunk, got the windows rolled down to enjoy the breeze, got something good pumping on the radio. It's a beautiful morning in Southern California, bright and clear and not a rattlesnake or a brushfire in sight, and I'm heading back home. I pull out of the parking lot, stop at the stop sign. 

Look left, look right, look left again, pull out a little more just to make sure. I'm a careful driver.

And then some twinkie with the Cyclon shades and lime green spandex and the obligatory blonde hair waving in the wind comes whizzing along the sidewalk at 15 or 20 mph -- a pretty good clip, anyway, zips around in front of me and back onto the sidewalk, warning me to "Watch it, motherfucka!" or something equally charming and then, just before she slips out of sight, flips me the bird.

Just in case, you know, I didn't get the message.

I can only hope she soon meets up with a member of one of the other prevalent groups of assholes on the road -- drivers using cellphones. With any luck, my little twinkie will run a stop sign at some intersection the same time some iPhone iDiot does.

But, as I said, it brought it all home.

So, you there on the bike. There's a reason so many motorists hate you, Missy. And those of us who love to ride our bikes aren't so crazy about you either.

Sure, some drivers are meatheads. But that doesn't mean you have to be one too.

Sorry, Mr. Motorist, but you DON'T own the road. Because, unless specifically marked, cyclists DO have the right to be on the road.

We even have the right to be in the left hand lane if we're making a left hand turn at an intersection. According to California Vehicle Code 21200: 

"Every person riding a bicycle upon a street or highway has all the rights and is subject to all the duties applicable to the driver of a vehicle except those provisions which by their very nature can have no application."

So don't honk when you're right on our ass -- we probably heard you coming from a mile away. Oh, and when you see us waving our hands up and down? Chill -- they're hand signals, not some sort of obscene gestures. Learn what they mean.

And bicyclists? You DON'T own the roads either. Or the sidewalks. Yeah, I'm taking to you, Toots.

Unfortunately, much of the  hostility displayed towards bikers is our own damned fault. Any of you who think the rules don't apply to you should check out 21200 again. Or whatever rules and regulations apply wherever you live. 

But no matter what you may think, or where you live, or what your negligent parents may have taught you, we're NOT supposed to ride on the sidewalk or against traffic. We DO have to signal for lane changes and turns, we DO have to obey all stop signs and traffic lights.

Because, let's face it, any disagreement between you and a car is bound to end poorly for you (despite the apparent beliefs of some cyclists, possibly garnered from reading too many Marvel comics, wearing Spandex does not make you invincible.

Here's a good rule of thumb: If your bike doesn't have training wheels, get off the damn sidewalk. Before some ticked off pedestrian jams a stick in your spokes or someone pulls out of their driveway to see how well your helmet protects you from a lateral collision.

I don't care what you thought the rules were. The truth is, many of the bad cycling (and motoring) habits I've mentioned have been passed down from generation to generation, a conspiracy of sloth and stupidity and self-serving ignorance. It's shocking to discover how many otherwise intelligent-seeming parents  mistakenly believe that somehow, the rules of the road only apply to other people, and certainly not them -- or their precious offspring.

What you're actually doing is instilling bad habits into your children that could kill them. I've actually seen well-meaning parents instructing their children to ride against traffic (!) or, more frightening, telling them that they don't have to stop at intersections because -- get this! -- bicyclists always have the right of way! If you love your children and you're not sure of the rules of the road, please, for goodness sakes, go to Bike Link's California Bicycle Laws & Safety.

But by far the scariest thing is the kids who don't even know how to ride. It's sad to see some landlocked tubby, overweight kid (a glandular condition, my ass) who's been denied one of the true joys of childhood because his parents think it's "too dangerous." Sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Chunky Concerned Parents, but that Nacho/Mountain Dew/Video Game diet you've put Melvin Junior on is more likely to eventually kill him than a little physical exercise.

It may be too late for you, but maybe your kids still have a chance. Fuck the Lance Armstrong video game. Give Melvin a bike and kick him out of the living room.

But teach him the rules of the road first. And if you don't know 'em, maybe it's time you did.


Sunday, September 09, 2012

It doesn't feel like the first time, but still...

For the first time in over ten years, I feel like a writer.

Yeah, I know. Anyone who glances at my "writing" web site and sees all the reviews and columns and articles I've done over the years, or have wandered through the Thrilling Detective Web Site, and counted how many of those entries were done by me, may be surprised that I feel that way.

But that's all non-fiction. For some reason -- even though it's ridiculous -- for some reason, that writing doesn't feel like "real" writing to me.

It just doesn't count. Not the way fiction does. At least to me.

Ten or so years ago, after a few years of futzing around with reviews and Thrilling Detective, I sucked it up and submitted a story to Kerry Schooley for an anthology called Iced, a Canadian noir anthology. I was gobsmacked when "Two Fingers" was accepted. I was ecstatic when "People Skills" was snapped up by Matt Firth for Grunt and Groan, another Canadian anthology, a short time later.

Yessirree, Bob, I was on my way.

But then my life hit the fan.

When the dust cleared, I was living in California, 3000 miles away from my beloved Montreal and my kids. I was divorced and remarried and broke, stuck in a strange place where grown men put fruit in their beer. Unable at first to find work, I threw myself into whatever work I could get: web sites, editing, and writing for places like January Magazine and Mystery Scene. Turned out I had a knack for non-fiction, or at least could fool editors enough to get paid for it.

But the desire to write fiction burned deep. Diane, my long-suffering wife, aka The Girl Detective, aka Diana Killian, aka Louise Harris, aka etc., etc., kept pushing me. She started a monthly mystery writing group at the local Barnes & Noble as a way to get me (and her father) to write.

So I wrote. Short stories. Novellas. A novel without an ending. More short stories. Some were short and nasty. Some were whimsical. Some might even have been noir, and more than a few were hard-boiled. Some were playful character studies; others boasted tricky O'Henty-style twists. I even created a couple of series characters: a Montreal barfly private eye with a thing for beer and strippers, and an ex-pat Montrealer turned unlicensed Palmdale private eye (Gee, where did I get THAT idea?) and his sometime partner, a millionaire former television cowboy star well into his eighties. The stories came pouring out. and the critiques from Diane and the rest were invaluable. As was the act of critiquing. (If you want to learn to write, critique other people -- and let them critique you).

But I was a chicken shit. I never really completed anything. I never submitted anything. People pushed me, and I resisted. There was always something else I had to do first. A review for The Rap Sheet. A column on biking. An interview for Mystery Scene. The lawn. Running to the bank. The post office.

Then the digital boom came. Everyone was making out like bandits, self-publishing their stories. Most of them were crap, but hell, they were making money.  The tales of success were encouraging, and the lack of quality of so many of them was inspiring. Because if they could make money with this stuff, why couldn't I?

I figured ten years was enough. It was time to shit or get off the pot.

David Cranmer had just released another Beat to a Pulp anthology, and it was full of names I recognized. Even some whose work I had edited myself for Thrilling Detective. I got the anthology, and enjoyed it.

"How can I get into one of these," I tweeted. David told me to submit for the next one. The theme was superheroes.



"Yeah, people who dress up to fight crime," he explained.

Ah! That was different. An idea popped into my head. A story of long delayed revenge, revolving around the never-forgiven childhood theft of a stack of beloved comic books, and what happens when victim and thief meet up forty years later.

I scrapped it.

In trying to figure out why the stolen comic books were so beloved, I recalled my own youthful passion for comic books and superheroes. and realized I didn't want to write about a couple of middle-aged fanboys, no matter how homicidal one of them might be. No, I wanted to write about children.

A new idea slowly came into focus. But as I started to write, my generic setting and placemarker kids faded away, and I realized I wanted to write about me: where I grew up, and what it felt like. About a time when kids were allowed to be kids, and parents would let them;  a time when kids weren't  plugged in 24/7 to one electronic nipple or another. When kids played baseball; not a Wii baseball. When nobody had to arrange play dates, because it was a given that everyday was a day to play with friends. When "friend" was a noun; not a verb, and a best friend was the best thing in the world.

Part of it was homesickness, an affliction I've suffered on a daily basis for about ten years. Part of it was simply nostalgia, and no doubt part of it could be put down to a prolonged mid-life crisis. But there was something in this story that needed telling. Or that I needed to tell.

"The Revenge of the Red Avenger" is my first published fiction in ten years. It appears in Beat to a Pulp: Superhero, edited by David Cranmer and Scott D. Parker. It's available on Kindle for now, although you don't need a Kindle to read it. You can download the Kindle app and read it on your computer or your phone of your iPod or even, by now, your toaster oven. I hope you like it.

Now that the dam has burst, there'll be more.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Now is the time for your tears....

This is not the Quebec, or the Montreal, that I love.

I just came back from a closing shift at the bookstore where I work in Palmdale, California Rolled home about midnight or so, local time. Popped open a beer. scrounged a plate of leftovers Diane had left out. (I can never go right to sleep after a closing shift.)

Opened a window in my office to let in the night air, and listened to the coyotes whine for a while. Then I turned on my Mac to see how the Quebec election went.

It was better than I expected, worse than I'd hoped. The PQ had won, but only a minority government, thus making Pauline Marois the province's first female premier. She vowed, in her acceptance speech, to work for the common good. She even spoke English.

And then some asshole tried to kill her. Some idiot with too many weapons and too little conscience, yet another cowardly idiot with a gun, another would-be Rambo jacked up by all the divisive politics and rhetoric of racial and ethnic and cultural hatred that's become all the rage in North America: a place where a doddering, unsure actor arguing with an empty chair is now considered political discourse, and too many spineless politicians and rabble rousing "journalists"are more than willing to play the politics of ignorance and division.

Taylor Noakes, a local Montrealer with his boots on the ground, has a great blog I read regularly, and he covers it far more eloquently and with far more detail than I ever could. You can read all about it here  but basically, he admits he's "devastated."

That's probably the right word. Devastated.

Lord knows, I'm no fan of the PQ, but this is actually probably beyond devastating. And stranded 3000 miles and too many time zones away, so far from home, I feel utterly impotent and enraged.

And alone. Montreal's politics of the soul are hard enough to explain to those of us who love her; never mind to an American wife who's never been there. Besides, she's asleep.

And I'm not. I feel violated and hurt. Too full of whatever it is I'm feeling (Anger? Grief? Shame?) to go to sleep for a long time.

This is, suddenly, a night nobody should celebrate. And of course it goes without saying that most of Quebec -- French, English, rich, poor, federalist or nationalist -- are as horrified and repulsed by this this as I am.

Oh, Canada. Oh, Quebec. Oh, Montreal...

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