Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Confessions of a Pedal Pusher

One of our friends recently bought a new bicycle that cost him a “mere” $1,200. I wouldn’t pay that much for a bicycle even if Brad Pitt were strapped to it and did all of the pedaling for me (well…maybe).

I honestly can’t understand why bicycles are so expensive nowadays, especially since they are nothing but stripped down, lightweight versions of their former selves. Back when I was a kid, bikes were solidly built and weren’t likely to be blown over by a strong gust of wind.

My first bike was a shiny blue Schwinn with upright handlebars (fashionably decorated with colorful plastic streamers and a flowered basket). It also had fat balloon tires, foot brakes and a wide, thickly padded seat.

I rode that bike everywhere, even up steep hills. Sure, it was a struggle, especially when I neared the top of the hill and had to stand on the pedals and use my full weight to force them to make each revolution. Grunting like an old sow seemed to help me get there, though.

The first new-fangled bike I ever owned was a five-speed that my husband bought for me as a surprise one summer.

I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but there wasn’t much I liked about that bike. For one thing, the seat was so small, it completely disappeared when I sat on it. Even worse was the embarrassing position I had to assume whenever I rode it. I don’t know too many women who are secure enough to enjoy riding with their rear-ends sticking up in the air and their breasts resting on the handlebars.

The first time I went soaring downhill on the bike, I tried to slow down by lightly applying pressure on the foot brakes, as I’d always done on my old bike. Unfortunately, this bike didn’t have foot brakes, so the pedals just went around backwards…and I continued to pick up speed.

As I whooshed past the scenery, everything became a blur. Visions of my legs sticking up out of a ditch at the bottom of the hill somewhere, a twisted bicycle wrapped around them, made me panic. I squeezed both handbrakes as hard as I could…and nearly wound up toothless.

Shifting gears also was something I never got the hang of. Too often I found myself pedaling furiously and going absolutely nowhere. Other times, I felt as if I were trying to tow a tractor-trailer. There seemed to be no happy medium.

The more I rode the bike, the more I longed for a thick, padded seat and handlebars that didn’t look like a ram’s horns. I also wanted a bike with fenders so on rainy days, I wouldn’t end up with a muddy stripe down my back that made me look like a giant skunk.

My dad, innovative soul that he was, decided to build a bike for me that he figured would be the answer to all of my problems. He took an old bike frame, welded a platform onto the bottom of it, and then set a car battery on the platform. The battery was used to power a small motor that turned the wheels and eliminated the need for pedals, which he removed.

To start the bike, Dad installed a doorbell button on the right handlebar. With one simple press of the button, I was zooming off at a whiplash-inducing speed of five miles per hour. The only problem with the bike was that it weighed a ton – a fact that I became acutely aware of when I was about a mile from home one night and the battery died, so I had to push the bike all the way back home.

“I’m not riding another bike until I get one like the one I had when I was a kid,” I finally told my husband one day. “Forget the 10-speeds. I want zero-speeds…and foot brakes.”

“But what about the bike trails around here, like the ones at Bear Brook?” he asked. “They are hilly and bumpy and curvy. They are made for mountain bikes, which is what you really should get. You’d never make it even 20 feet on one of those trails if you had an old-fashioned balloon-tire bike! Haven’t you ever seen those guys on their mountain bikes on TV, flying up over hills and bumps and soaring through the air?”

“I don’t want to fly up over hills and bumps,” I said, briefly imagining how the landing, especially on one of those hard, skinny seats, would feel. “Anyway, I can always just ride my bike along the side of the highway.”

He frowned at me. “Somehow that doesn’t make me feel a whole lot better.”

I finally sold my 5-speed bike. And I haven’t owned another bike since.

My knees, my back, and every bicyclist at Bear Brook State Park should be very grateful.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The 1970's Were Tough

There is a new show on TV that is both hilarious and painful for me to watch. It’s called “The ‘70s House.”

This reality show features a group of eight young men and women, most of them barely in their 20s, who must live together in a house that represents the lifestyle of the 1970s. They have to eat, talk, dress and act exactly the way people did back in that decade. Every time one of them breaks the rules, he or she will be evicted from the house. The last person remaining will win an assortment of expensive prizes, including a new car.

I don’t think I realized just how tough we had it back in the 1970s until I saw the reactions of the contestants on the show.

“Look at this phone!” one of them exclaimed. “It’s attached to the wall and has a… cord… on it!” The group gathered to stare at the relic, which also had a rotary dial.

“No microwave?” another one asked, his eyes scanning the kitchen.

But their faces really paled when one of the show’s hosts announced that they had to hand over all of their modern-day items. “I want your cell phones, your CD players, your iPods, your laptop computers and your name-brand cosmetics and hair products,” she said. “None of those were around in the ‘70s.”

If she had told the group that all of them were about to undergo appendectomies without anesthesia, they couldn’t have looked more stricken.

“And now for a tour of the house,” the host said.

As she led the contestants through rooms of flowered wallpaper and shag carpeting, their eyes widened in disbelief, especially when the host pointed out the state-of-the-art stereo system that included a record turntable and an 8-track tape player.

“I’ve never seen an 8-track before,” one of the girls, visibly awed, said.

My eyes immediately darted toward my own stereo, which had a Bay City Rollers tape still sticking out of the 8-track player.

The contestants also laughed when they were given a crash course in the language of the 1970s and were told that they had to begin using words such as “groovy,” “flower power,” “outta sight” and “far out.”

But what cracked them up the most was the clothing of the 1970s, which the show provided for them and insisted that they wear.

“This polyester isn’t very comfortable,” one guy said, wincing as he tried to adjust the crotch of his pants, which clung to him like a second skin.

When I saw the guys standing there in their hideous plaid polyester bell-bottoms, matching vests and Frankenstein-like platform shoes, I dissolved into laughter.

My husband frowned at me. “I had a pair of pants just like those green and blue ones!”

“Now that you mention it, didn’t they go with your green leisure-suit jacket?” I laughed even harder.

I stopped laughing, however, when the girls emerged from the bedroom and one of them was wearing a wildly flowered sack-dress that practically was a clone of one of my favorite dresses back in the ‘70s. Even worse, the girls were standing on some ugly carpeting that looked exactly like the one we still have in our living room.

“Now, I’m going to teach all of you how to do a popular 1970s’ dance called the Hustle!” the host said brightly.

Ironically, just the other day my husband and I had been talking about the “good old days” when we used to go out dancing and do a pretty mean Hustle, and how over the years, we’d completely forgotten how to do the dance.

We were offered a refresher course as the contestants on TV lined up in their polyester finery and attempted to learn the Hustle. Awkwardly they flapped their arms and clomped around with all of the grace of a herd of elephants…drunken elephants.

“Did we look that ridiculous when we used to do the Hustle?” my husband finally asked me.

“Lord, I hope not.”

Half of the show’s contestants, because they’d won an earlier basketball challenge, were told that they were going to be treated to a special meal that was really popular back in the 1970s…fondue. They seemed less than thrilled, mainly because most of them had no clue what fondue was.

As one of the guys popped a speared melted-cheese-covered cube of bread into his mouth, he made a face that usually would be reserved for smelling a stink bomb.

“This tastes more like fon-don’t!” he muttered.

The show ended with one of the contestants being evicted because he mentioned that he wanted to get Botox, a procedure that was unheard of back in the 1970s.

To be honest, I can’t wait to see next week’s show. I’m pretty sure I’ll end up spotting a clone of my current living-room set on there.

Thursday, July 7, 2005

Curse of the physically fit

While at the mall the other day, I noticed a T-shirt that had, “Eat Right and Exercise…Die Anyway,” printed across the front of it. I was tempted to buy it.

The shirt was a painful reminder that this is the time of year when winter flab no longer can be hidden beneath a bulky sweater or a down parka. For this reason, it’s also is the time of year when most people rush to get into shape.

But this year I’m not going to be one of those rushers.

When it comes to trying to get a shapely well-toned body for summer, past experience has taught me that no matter how noble my intentions are, I’m cursed.

Take, for example, back in the 1960s, when I joined Lillian Powell’s Figure Salon, the first salon of its kind in the Manchester area.

My one-year membership fee entitled me to unlimited use of the salon’s state-of-the-art equipment, which featured such torture devices as vibrating-belt machines and mechanized wooden rollers that acted like giant rolling pins to flatten flab.

On my first visit to the salon, an overly enthusiastic, leotard-clad employee who looked as if she hadn’t eaten a solid meal in about four months, took my measurements. She held the measuring tape so loosely, the numbers she jotted down easily could have been mistaken for Moby Dick’s. She then put me through my paces.

I learned an important lesson on that first night: never gulp down a burger, fries and a big glass of milk just prior to getting strapped into a vibrating machine. The employee hitched the belt around my hips, turned on the machine and walked off. For 20 minutes, I stood there, shaking worse than someone standing near the epicenter of an earthquake, until she finally remembered me. By then, I felt as if the milk in my stomach had turned into a giant clump of butter.

The wooden rollers also were less than comfortable. The machine was about hip-high with horizontal rows of rollers going up the front and down the back of it. I was instructed to drape my body over the top and then let the rollers roll away my midriff bulge.

The entire time I was bent over the machine, I was acutely aware that my least flattering and most jiggly side was sticking up in the air and greeting everyone who entered the salon.

When my measurements were taken a week later, the employee pulled the tape so tightly, she nearly cut off my circulation. Naturally, my measurements came out much smaller than the ones she’d taken the week before.

“Oooh!” she practically squealed. “You’ve lost a total of 10 inches! Keep up the good work!”

I had every intention of keeping it up, but two nights later, Lillian Powell’s Figure Salon skipped town with all of the members’ money. I was so distraught, I turned to a hot-fudge sundae for comfort.

Not long after that, I decided to enroll in a modern-dance class. I figured that not only would I learn how to do some fancy footwork, I’d get a good workout at the same time.

Once again, I was wrong.

The dance instructor, a barefooted young woman with straight black hair that nearly was as long as her long black skirt, was more into “interpretive” dance. In fact, I spent more time sitting cross-legged on the floor and “meditating” about dancing than actually dancing.

Finally, during the third lesson she said, “I want all of you to stand up now and pirouette around the entire perimeter of the room.” She demonstrated several concise turns.

Eager to finally be moving and burning a few calories, I began to rapidly pirouette around the room. Within seconds, I felt so lightheaded, I had to lean against the wall before I keeled over.

“You’re not spotting!” the instructor shouted at me.

I cast her a blank look. I definitely was seeing spots, if that was what she meant.

“Spotting!” she repeated. “You have to pick a spot on the wall and then focus on it every time you turn. That way, you won’t get dizzy.”

“Now you tell me,” I muttered to all three of her.

Finally, a fitness center opened that seemed tailor-made for me. It featured something new called passive exercise machines. The brochure said that all you had to do was lie on them and they would do all of your exercising for you. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

My first day there, I stretched out on one of the machines and to my delight, it methodically began to lift my legs, up and down, up and down. Soon, I was so relaxed, I fell asleep.

I actually looked forward to working out on those machines every week, even though I never lost a single pound. But even if I had, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway because the place went out of business a couple months later.

So when a friend of mine called me the other day to tell me she’d just joined a women’s fitness center called Curves and wanted to know if I’d like to join, too, I said, “Unless you want Curves to immediately go out of business, you won’t let me set foot near the place!”

The poor woman had no idea what I was talking about.