Monday, June 30, 2008

Wisdom of Crowds

The people have spoken. And the people are not confident in our cycling prowess.

In the first-ever Stewart Bike Trip poll, you have estimated that we'll average 50 miles per day. It was close though - 25 miles per day was a close second.

To put that in perspective, I used to ride 14.2 miles to work, over hills and through city traffic, in about an hour. Even loaded down and facing mountains, we can do 10 miles an hour. In a lot of these areas, there won't be much to do other than ride through.

Looks like we'll have to settle this on the street!
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Stayfill sponsors the Stewart Bike Trip

The Stewart Bike Trip is delighted to announce our very first sponsorship. (Hey, we gotta pay for airfare somehow.)

The lucky outfit is STAYFILL, a new solution for not just filling up bike tires, but also - and as any cyclist will tell you, this is the hard part - keeping them filled.

Some of the many reasons why Stayfill is the best invention ever:

-Keeps bike tires inflated for over a year. Just fill it and forget it. For those of us who monkey around with bike pumps Monday morning before the ride into work, here's an extra couple of minutes to lie in bed.

-Lasts 100 times longer than CO2. Which is pretty a badass statistic.

-Unlike CO2, STAYFILL stays inside the tire. STAYFILL's larger molecules can't pass through the tire wall. CO2 starts leaking almost immediately after filling and lasts about 2 weeks.

-Non-toxic, non-flammable, and non-ozone depleting. This is in line with the Stewart Bike Trip's commitment to green transportation - just think how low our carbon footprint is traveling via pedalpower rather than gasoline.

-STAYFILL's proprietary gas blend is inert and won't harm your tires. Which is good because the Stewart Bike Trip is thrifty and doesn't like paying for new tires any more than absolutely necessary.

Want to join the stable of happy Stewart Bike Trip sponsors, gaining access to hugely wealthy, intelligent readers who buy a lot of stuff while supporting a heroic voyage through history? Shoot me an email at mjfstewartATgmailDOTcom.
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Friday, June 27, 2008

The Zen of Hills

I like to say that cycling is the best way to see a country because you see it up close, no glass window between you and it. But that also means you feel it, every change in grade. And that means climbing hills.

There are the usual hills you run into everywhere (everywhere, that is, except Maryland's Eastern Shore, where distance riding is a delight unless the winds are blowing). For our trip, though, we're looking at the Carpathians, a curved swath of mountains we have to cross twice -- or even more, depending on how we make our way across Romania. The adjacent map makes the Carpathians look weirdly like a map of Vietnam. Or is that flashback?

Hills focus the mind. A favorite spinning instructor likes to tell us to "relax into the hill." Which is partly good advice. If you actually relax your body, of course, you won't get up the damned hill. But you need to relax your mind, simply accept that this part of the ride is uphill and a whole lot of work, and concentrate on turning those pedals over. I have a few rules for hill-climbing, which work for me. Mostly.

-- Don't think about how much more hill there is left to climb. We went over a volcanic mountain in Sicily on which there must have been a dozen switchbacks, and I was looking up the hill all the time, waiting for the top. Bad technique. Just turn those pedals over.

-- Anticipate changes in slope. It always amazes me how much difference a slight steepening makes in my effort. If I anticipate it, I gear better and handle it better.

-- Don't stop! Starting again, going uphill, is really bad.

-- You may not walk your bike up the hill. Don't even think about it. Just not an option. I've never done it. But I might have to someday.

The journey has some intimidating parts, starting with the "High Tatras" (see photo above) -- we don't mess around with no Low Tatras. Well, they also run trains through these areas, too.
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Thursday, June 26, 2008

There's something in the air...

That's not smog. Or fog. It's smoke. And where there's smoke, there are thousands of fires throughout the Bay Area, turning our usually romantic city into a disgusting, polluted ashcan. Unless there's a nuclear war going on somewhere somebody forgot to tell us about.

I just got back from the top of Bernal Hill, where I took in the smoky sunset (and took these pictures), and now my throat feel chapped. I haven't felt this nasty, respiratorily speaking, since I went to Bangkok. My eyes are watering. It SMELLS like smoke. I guess that's the price we pay for no rain half the year.

Not the kind of weather one should do much cycling in - better to stay in and write demented poetry and read depressing Cormac McCarthy novels. It'll be interesting to see what the pollution situation will be like, and associated cycling ramifications, over in the post-industrial Eastern Bloc.

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Poland - Why?

In one month's time, we will officially be on the road in Poland. Kind of scary, as I'm definitely not in good-enough cycling shape and will be sucking a lot of Polish wind for the first week or so.

It's a weird trip in many ways. First off, it's hard for me to believe I'd ever go to Poland without a compelling family reason to do so. I mean, what's in Poland? Death camps, the blood of centuries, Commies, sausages; not exactly a trip to the beach (except for the sausages). Also, Poland's getting more expensive, and tourism's taking a hit. Don't forget that residents have been spending the past two-hundred years leaving Poland, except when they weren't allowed to (Thanks Uncle Joe!). To travel to Poland, you have to live within 500 miles, be a history buff or be a huge sucker for national advertising. Put us firmly in column B.

Of course the upshot is that we might meet incredible people and have mindblowing experiences, after which we'll trumpet Poland's countless benefits from the mountaintops. Watch this space for the inside scoop!
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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Stewarts of Poland

It looks like we won't have to do much explaining about how someone named Stewart could claim an ancestral connection to Poland. Cousin Martha Stewart (not a blood relation) is in Poland this month and is knocking them dead, in anticipation of the Polish version of her magazine.

And she's not a Polish poseur, making the best of some slender genetic connection. Martha claims four Polish grandparents, three more than I can (and mine was Jewish, which I'm pretty sure would not count to some Poles). Turns out her maiden name was Kostyra.

Best of all, Martha grew up on "pierogies, the traditional Polish stuffed dumplings; kielbasa, the Polish-style sausage; and babka, a spongy yeast cake popular at Easter." It's good to know that she's not all about fashionable food like sprouts and polenta.

This changes my whole frame of reference for Martha.

Correction -- One of those tedious truth-in-information types, who happens to be a friend, advises me of the consensus view that the Howard Dean-tortures-a-cat photo recently featured at this site is a computer-generated fake. OK. We take it back. We're sorry. Still, it's a great fake.

Which reminds me of a great Thaddeus Stevens line (there are so many, apt for every occasion). So, Lincoln asks Thad if the guy he's about to appoint War Secretary is a thief. Thad says, "He wouldn't steal a red-hot stove." The guy hears about Thad's remark and demands a retraction. Thad agrees. Next time he's with the president, he reminds the president of his earlier remark about the War Secretary candidate. "I now take that back," he says.

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Monday, June 23, 2008

Helpful Jews

As we all know, the Jews have added a great deal to civilization, from Hollywood to quantum theory to, in a point very dear to my heart, being excused from football practice in high school so that we could observe the Jewish high holidays.

Add another point to the list - incredible genealogical resources. Last night I published a posting on seeking for help in tracking down relatives who may or may not live in Israel (our latest info is 15 years old and much may have changed). This morning I had 24 emails from helpful Israeli strangers in my inbox, the vast majority of whom personally volunteered to comb the Internet and local directories themselves on our behalf. It was an extraordinary outpouring of support, and I found myself wondering if we Americans would respond so voraciously to a similar plea from a stranger abroad (though then again, all of our directories tend to be in English rather than Hebrew).

We don't expect finding any solution to our quest for family contact in Israel, especially as our last point of contact is so outdated. But major props to the Jewish community for helping a (quarter) brother out.

And if anybody out there has any tips on tracking down these cats, please let me know at mjfstewartATgmailDOTcom.

UPDATE: In the past hour, one of the relatives has been located! Maybe I should change the title to "Super-Helpful Jews"?
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Sunday, June 22, 2008


Now that we are almost within a month of departure, the real work of getting the Right Stuff, as well as psychic preparation, begins. This week's equipment breakthrough was the acquisition of Ortlieb rear panniers.

The virtue of Ortliebs is that they are truly waterproof. NOT "water-resistant," a term that means that your stuff will get wet if you are out in the rain for more than five minutes. But truly waterproof. They seem to be made out of the old oilcloth that was used for yellow rain slickers when I was a kid. Nancy and I got caught for about 10 miles in the rain on a ride in western Maryland earlier this month, and I developed a real appreciation for the virtues of waterproof, as opposed to water-resistant. (That's us, riding in Italy on a sunny day -- no need for Ortliebs there.)

Then there's the psychic preparation. Beginning with the weight of the panniers. I rode home from the bike shop with them, and with old bike shoes inside them. Maybe half the weight I'll have to pull when the panniers are stuffed. Ugh. Need to get stronger.

One last mechanical point -- bike mechanics rule. The guy at the bike shop, City Bikes in on Connecticut Avenue (I think he was Mike, but I may be thinking of the rock group), agreed with me that the instructions for installing the panniers were useless, about a dozen difficult-to-make-out diagrams without even a listing of parts. Instead, "Mike" simply applied his impressive reason and experience, not to mention patience, to figure the thing out. And the panniers work.

I took a ride this morning, stopped at the vegetable stand for fresh tomatoes, dropped them in my panniers, and made my way home. Thank your bike mechanic.

Thanks, Mike.
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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Another Precinct Heard From

Well, no, this isn't about Howard Dean and how he possibly could have been a serious candidate for president. I just like the photo.

This is about getting ready for this astonishing trip from Warsaw to Odessa. I've been focusing most on tracking down some family history, since part of the trip is about examining the heritage we dimly possess from these exotic places. So far, most contacts have been with the Odessa branch of the family (Gorsky, changed to Gordon), and I have turned up:

  • Lots of scientists, although Matt & I are from the word branch of the family, and are not so strong on the quantitative and scientific (though Matt was darned good at that stuff in high school).
  • A couple of lines of the Gordon clan have been afflicted with ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), which is an extraordinarily tough road to go down.
  • No one (so far) knows beans about what life was like back in Odessa.
  • My great-grandfather (Leiba) came to this country in his late 30s with six kids, had another kid, and never worked a day in his life after that. This puzzles me. How did they eat? Suppposedly the oldest son, Irving, supported the family, but it's a bit hard to credit. I keep thinking Jewish gangsters, but supposedly Leiba was at synagogue three times a day, so that doesn't fit either.
  • When my great-uncle married outside the Jewish faith (the first one), no one told his mother; indeed, he taught his new bride some Yiddish so she could pretend to be Jewish with his mother, who was almost blind. The old lady, though, was not particularly taken in. She kept saying, "She doesn't sound Jewish."
On my father's side, I'm trying to track down two of his cousins who live in Israel, for whom I have addresses from 1993. If anyone out there has some thoughts about how to trace people in Israel, please let me know. All the web-based searching tools I can find are in Hebrew, which is a barrier.
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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Sweet Hypnosis of Genealogy

First thing's first - big shout out to the Genealogy Blog for giving a big shout out to us.

Getting ready for this trip I've gotten involved in genealogical research for the first time. That's not a very market-friendly term - "genealogy" reeks of old people and disease, while "research" has its own set of labor-intensive, dusty-library connotations that'll scare off the younguns. Who married who when, who died in what town, how many kids, who cares? That was how I felt until a couple of years back.

A couple of things changed. One - I got a huge data dump and went over it thoroughly. It's fascinating to see all the parts that come together to make you, all the variables involved, and if just one thing had been different you never would've been born. Second, growing the family tree is addictive. It's problem-solving. It's filling in holes and finding explanations. It's the thrill of linking your family to one of the most important military actions in American history or Napoleon's nemesis. And all of it related to everyone's favorite subject - themselves.

If you're thinking about taking the plunge into this mesmerizing world, here's a tip*: get yourself some software. Last year a guy in my office brought in a scroll of paper he was using for his family tree, which struck me as quaint and nice but hugely inefficient, something the Medicis would do to figure out who gets the inheritance rather than an intelligent way to organize invaluable family information.

*Will try to keep unsolicited advice to a minimum
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Monday, June 16, 2008

Who are these people? - An Introduction

On the left is (great)-grandmother Eve/Hava Schwartz (nee Gorsky) who immigrated to New York from Odessa, Ukraine, in 1905. That was an excellent time to skip town, as the latest round of anti-Semitic pogroms were underway and being Jewish in Odessa was kind of like being a Broncos fan at a Raiders game, except killing was largely acceptable in Odessa, even encouraged. Say what you will about our Oakland brethren (heard a funny and relevant analogy comparing the East Bay to Eastern Europe last week, but that's another story...) murder in the actual Coliseum itself is heavily frowned upon.

Our cycling voyage ends in Odessa because we'd like to learn something - anything - about Eve's life in the old country. We're not expecting to find much, as we have zero leads/contacts there, but just being there should jar loose a few emotional strings. And who knows? Maybe we'll bump into a long-lost cousin. If you have any recommended places to visit in Odessa, or know of someone who might help us out, please post a comment or let me know at mjfstewart AT gmail DOT com.

For those of you unfamiliar with Odessa, it was immortalized in Sergei Eisentein's Battleship Potemkin, which, among other cinematic accomplishments, pioneered the "baby carriage rolling down a flight of stairs" conceit which was famously ripped off the The Untouchables as well as classic comedy sensation Naked Gun 33 1/3. For a few centuries there, Odessa was a thriving cosmopolitan city, really the cultural and financial heavyweight in the region. Now most people relegate it to the pile of cities I like to call Eastern European Sovietized Dumps. We'll offer a full unbiased report when we get there.

And on the right in the picture? That's your co-host - David O. Stewart - about 40 years ago.
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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Helmet Cam Maiden Voyage

One of the many technological innovations you'll come to expect from the Stewart Family Odyssey is the HelmetCam (or, in this case, the HandlebarCam). Experience Eastern European crazy drivers and stray dogs from the thrilling pedaler's perspective!

This video's a test drive I took on the mean streets of San Francisco...I'm mostly testing the YouTube link here - links will be be more riveting in the future.

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