Friday, October 15, 2010

Slaughterhouse Project 69 - Century Ride Edition

I skipped writing last week because Saturday morning featured the Viva Bike Vegas Century Ride, which, unfortunately, was the first event I ever withdrew from after it started. Kelli and I rode it, and there were three moments that made the whole thing worth the price of admission:
1. The chance for both of us to start an event together, which we'd never done before.
2. The course started with a very exciting downhill ride through a rather scary portion of east Las Vegas, and being part of a great huge ribbon of very fast bicyclists was pretty cool.
3. The pictures from the bridge and the view from the bridge, the absolute last time that such a ride or picture will be possible, was terrific.
That said, it was a very tough day. Weather wasn't much of a factor for the time that we were riding; I could see it getting hotter later on in the day but by the time we stopped it was in the low 80s and pretty dry. If it were a race day I wouldn't figure the heat to be a concern. Besides, we knocked out the first 40 in about 2.5 hours. We were significantly ahead of the pace we'd set for ourselves by that point.
In terms of the course, it had its difficulties, but of the 45 miles we covered, I'd probably ridden about 35 of it before, and the rest was the bridge and several miles of downhill. Nearly 10 miles of it was my regular Lake Mead training ground, where I know which gear I should be in by specific weeds and reflectors.
To elaborate on what actually occurred leading up to the decision to quit:
1. Kelli's crash happened first, on the climb out of the Lake Mead area going back to US93 (Beth and Ken, you rode out this way after Silverman). I didn't see it happen. I knew I had gotten ahead of her and once I was into the climb myself, I knew it didn't make any sense to stop until I got to the top of it; it's a quarter-mile at about a 6-8% grade.
What happened was, she wasn't generating enough forward momentum, and fell to the right, over the curb, while still clipped into the pedals. She scraped up her right knee on the gravel and wound up walking her bike up the rest of the hill. Her seat twisted and her water cage was all askew. At that point she was thinking she would not be able to finish. I wanted to push forward, at least to the bridge, which we couldn't see otherwise.
2. What also happened here is the fall affected the adjustment on her front derailleur, the thing that switches the chain from the big to the small ring, next to the pedals. She couldn't shift up to use the big ring. When this happens, particularly on a road bike, it's like losing a kidney: you can live with it, but it's damned inconvenient. She would have no means of generating power at higher speeds, so she'd be forced to coast or pedal far slower. We knew there was an aid station at the bridge, though, so we figured we could get it looked at there. We made it the next mile or so to that aid station.
We got water and oranges and bananas, Kelli got her knee cleaned up at the ambulance, and we were on our way up to the bridge. Twice, on the way, which was mostly downhill, Kelli's bike decided to shift gears all by itself. Kelli's bike is a straight tri setup, so the shifters are out at the ends of the aerobars - and she wasn't even ON the aerobars, but on the hoods of the brakes.
We got in line for the pictures and were cheered by a nice line of volunteers. We also got some very nice pictures ourselves.
On the way back towards Boulder City, the front derailleur's not working again. She can't move to the big ring and loses the chain at one point; the mechanic on the side of the road had overcompensated. No problem, we'll find him on the way back and re-adjust. The chain is grinding against the derailleur at one point. This is not good.
We pull off and there are a few riders around, but they're taking down the aid station and the mechanics are already gone. We know the next aid station is about 19 miles ahead, and we'll get lunch and get it looked at in a little more detail.
3. At this point we're stopped on an uphill while a traffic cop is stopping traffic. There's about 20 of us. He points at us to go, and my left foot catches just fine to pedal a little bit forward. My right foot doesn't catch the pedal and I'm now generating no forward momentum. "Shit!" I fall on my left knee, still clipped in, several riders behind me waiting to see if I'm OK. Kelli was directly in front of me and she stopped. A guy in a green bike jersey stopped my Silverman water bottle from rolling to Arizona. My handlebar water bottles have emptied all over the road; they'd just been refilled when we stopped at the aid station the first time.
I assess the damage. A decent scrape on my left knee; there's blood but not a whole lot of it. I can stand. Nothing's broken. The bike is fine (amusingly, because I fell to the left, there's no damage to the gearing, which stayed on top). We decide to pedal to the hotel, which is about a half-mile away, and assess our situation there.
We get to the hotel and as we're riding alongside each other, Kelli asks, "Do you want to stop?"
"No. I'm too angry to stop right now."
We get past Lakeshore and start into a mile-long climb, and I'm starting to run through things in my head. For one, my knee is throbbing and starting to swell, but it's already scabbed up so it's not like I'm losing any blood. It's doing a nice job of reminding me it's there, though, every pedal stroke, every climb. I'm thinking of the following quote from "Kitchen Confidential":
"...And most memorably, Juan, the sixtyish day broiler man, a fierce, trash-talking Basque who, I swear, I saw one time sewing up a very bad knife wound on his hand - right on the line - with a sewing needle and thread, muttering all the while, as he pushed through the flaps of skin with the point, "I am a TOUGH (skronk!) mother fucker...(skronk!). I am a TOUGH son of BEETCH! (skronk!). I am tough...mother (skronk!) fucker!" Juan was also famous for allegedly following up a bad finger wound with a self-inflicted amputation. After catching a finger in an oven door, he had consulted the union benfit list for amount given to victims of "partial amputation" and decided to cash in by lopping off the dangling portion."
(I've gone to that chant a time or two on some difficult climbs.)
So I'm running through the scenarios in my head. The derailleur scraping noise could lead to the chain snapping. She's scraped up. I'm banged up. We're in the midst of a mild climb and this is the best we're going to feel all day.
And we have 70 miles to go.
Kelli has now ridden 20 miles farther on a bicycle than she ever has in her life. She's not going to be able to complete the race in the allotted time, and she's expending a lot of effort to get up this hill. Now I've never quit a race that I've started, and there have been points where things looked really, really bad, but I still had cards to play. Chest pains in the water in Chicago? Butterflies, just concentrate on the next buoy, breathe and listen to everyone on the shore. Kicked in the head in San Diego? Swim towards the sun and watch for the turn buoy on the left. Leg cramps at the Pumpkinman race? Break out of the shoe and walk some of the run if you have to. Heat exhaustion at Lake Las Vegas? Get back to transition, slam the Redline in your bag, and splash some water on your face.
But here, even though there's a number on my back and a timing chip on my leg, I remember this isn't a race. And I'm not by myself. And Kelli's not going to elect to drop out on her own, so I am not just responsible for my own safety, I'm responsible for both of ours. Well, not entirely - she's obviously going to take her own situation into account and can make her own decisions - but you know what I mean. My knee is swelling and my calf is bruised.
We have 70 miles to go. That's it. Stop the fight. Dammit. It's over.
I drift back on the climb and tell her about the gas station up ahead. We pull off there and I call Jenn and Ed to get their truck and come grab us. Kelli's dad had brought her truck as well, but not only are the Brusvens a few miles closer, I didn't want Kelli's dad to run out of the house to get us and have the kids hear we'd fallen off of our bikes and were coming home. That could sound scary. Better that we just get home early.
In the time that I'm stopped at the gas station, I tear off my race number in disgust, throw it out. I take the number off of my bike and do the same. (This morning, I tossed the race shirt in a Goodwill bin.) After I'd thought about it a little bit more, I realized that the part of the course we were about to go on was the River Mountain Trail, which would be inaccessible to cars for 17 miles. Getting to where we were over the last 10 miles had been dicey. There were a lot of variables that I wasn't sure were worth trusting over that distance.
So in terms of preparedness, I would like to think that I could have covered the distance if I'd have remained unhurt. Looking at the elevation, I wouldn't be surprised either way - we had almost finished the day's sharpest climb, if not the longest.
But I would go back, for precisely the same reason that I raced at Lake Las Vegas 6 days after Chicago; I had to know that I could beat it. The distance I'll get to conquer in 27 days at the Silverman as part of a relay team. I'm going to have a very aggressive month of getting miles in, so that I don't have the kind of doubts about my body that I have right now.
It really hurt to quit. If faced with the same matrix of options I would have done it again, but it really hurt. We talked yesterday about the nature of this event being more difficult - I rode differently than if I were by myself, and so did she. We're putting together next year's schedule and taking all of this into account. We each really like competing, and we'd be in different waves of a tri so we wouldn't have the pressure to see where the other one was. Same with a running event like a 10K or so; it's not like we'd be hours apart, so we could start together and catch each other as we finish. Even a distance swimming event, which Kelli would win because she's a far better swimmer than me, would be all right. But it's hard to ride together right this minute. Next year might be different.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Slaughterhouse 68

Start Time: 9:15 PM End Time: 11:20 PM
Word Count: 2,115


I am, as many of you know, a civilian employee for what I normally refer to as a large government agency. I'm a network systems analyst and have done so for almost nine years.

As many of you are aware, we are in a fairly deep recession, and Las Vegas has been hit particularly hard. Some of the industries that we were - and somewhat insanely, remain - dependent on include tourism and growth. Every horrible thing that happened to the economy seemed to hit us even harder. Housing bubble? Oh, we were right out at the front of that wave. There was a point where at least eight of Nevada's buildings were going to be among the tallest in the nation, and they were going to be condos, and they were going to make some people very, very rich. They didn't happen. At least five resort projects on the Strip are ghost towns now as the credit market for said structures collapsed.

Then people realized that they didn't have the money to go on vacation any more, so the main industry that we have here, gaming and tourism, lost out to a combination of "staycations" and that lovely Indian casino that's less than 250 miles away from anyplace in the United States. Gaming, sales, and property taxes raced for the floor.

The trouble with that was, we have lots of businesses who were attracted by this sort of business siren song:

"Nevada has no state corporate tax! It also has no franchise tax, estate tax, stock transfer tax, capital gains tax, personal income tax, inventory tax, tax on corporate shares, inheritance tax, estate tax, gift tax or minimum tax!"

So when our major industries, such as gaming (maximum tax rate of 6.75 percent; other jurisdictions it's 50%) and mining (allowed to deduct all expenses and, as a result, paying an effective tax rate of 1.5 percent) were asked by the citizenry (currently paying an 8.1% sales tax rate in Clark County, among the highest in the nation) to, y'know, help out.

Instead, they enlisted the Chamber of Commerce to produce reports that say that our public employees are overpaid. The Greenspun family (owners of the local Cox Cable franchise, two television stations, the Las Vegas Sun newspaper, and American Nevada Developers) was nice enough to produce a report on their CBS station that followed people from each public agency to ask them to justify how much money they were making. As a result, you can Google my name and find out how much I knocked down in OT last year. Requests for the reporters to reveal what they were being paid to read from a TelePrompTer went unheeded.

As for the publication of that number, I understand the rationale of it. I understand that I'm a public employee and my salary is a matter of public record. That's fair. But there are some things about being a public employee that you might not know about. I'm hoping this will help explain things.


America is the greatest country on Earth for a number of reasons, but the primary one is the opportunity for nearly anyone to go out and take a chance at making their fortune. You have a better shot at rolling the dice in this nation than anywhere else.

However, part of a structure's effectiveness is its ability to retain employees. The common saw for this in software is they are running a business where the most important assets walk out the door every night. This is not the case at Boeing, where that 777 Dreamliner will stay right there on the ground, or General Motors, where somewhere in the world, the lines are humming with activity. (That somewhere may be Mexico or India, but you're seeing the value of labor versus materials there.) At Microsoft or Google, the next big idea is merely that, and it's swimming in the head of one of the very smart bodies who populate the place.

A police officer or a sergeant or a lieutenant does not know the ins and outs of his squad or sector or area command the moment he steps on the beat, but through a combination of institutional knowledge and technology, he learns where to look, what to see, who's in charge, et cetera. That knowledge is critical to the overall safety of our community. It is prized, promoted, and paid for. And I, as well as dozens of other people within my specific area of responsibility, am in charge of protecting it.

But the tradeoff I made, and that those dozens of people made as well, is the guarantee that no one is ever going to throw their arm around my shoulder and say, "Someday, all this will be yours." Even if I ascend to the highest levels of management at my position, I'll never own any of the materials I develop. We'll never have profit-sharing. When Sheriff Civil repossesses that airplane on the tarmac and auctions it off for seven figures,  we won't see so much as a can of soda proffered in celebration. The work that my coworkers perform - particularly the ones in uniform who are listening to a motorist screech about how they pay our salary after they were caught doing 82 down a residential street while applying makeup - is often thankless, soul-destroying and dangerous. It's also non-profit.


If you think that I and my coworkers make too much money, consider this: I had to pass a background check that has been called as stringent as the CIA's (some of our applicants have Department of Defense clearances and aren't hired), a psychological profile, a polygraph examination, a written exam, a practical exam, an oral board of three panelists and a year's probation. As a result, I'm allowed to access data that most of the population isn't. A lot of work doesn't go home from the office. There's a whole lot I won't talk about. You cannot just drop by my desk without passing at least three checkpoints, and I know damned well how many exits there are from my building (four if you count the roof).

Considering the nature of the information that I have access to, would it make sense to pay me so little that I could be susceptible to bribery or blackmail? The New Orleans Police Department paid so poorly for years that their officers took side jobs as bouncers and bartenders, and theirs is a sordid history of murder, blackmail, graft, and corruption. It's a sad comment on human nature that you get the honesty and secrecy that you're willing to pay for, but it's true.


The Chamber and other groups love to point out that there's a huge disparity, a veritable chasm, between the average public employee salary and the average private sector worker. Of course. There's also a world of difference between the handicaps of the golfer who works in the pro shop and the guy who maybe gets to play every other weekend, too.

Let me see if I can explain the analogy. When I first started with the large government agency, I had been working in this field full time, 40 hours a week, for nearly eight and a half years. I had a binder full of professional certifications, references going back a decade, and exposure to the latest technology in a management role. I had just enough to get my foot in the door, and the starting salary for my position was lower than the job I currently had.

Now the guy in the pro shop isn't Tiger Woods. (This week, anyway.) But he doesn't get hired right off of the street to offer any sort of advice to a club's members if he's not sure which end of the golf club is the one you try to hit the ball with. He's going to be a very skilled golfer or he's not going to be hired in the first place. So if you don't have the bare minimum of qualifications, which excludes a whole lot of people who would be cheerfully hired at many private-sector organizations, your application is rejected. The eligible pool of candidates for my job is very small. Combine that with the fact that the background investigative process can be tortuously slow, and you won't find many talented people who can cool their heels for six months while waiting to walk through the door. I've been a subject matter expert for some of the positions we hire for, and it's not uncommon for us to look at 400 applications, reject 250 for testing, watch another 120 fail to pass the written exam, watch 10 more flunk the practical, lose 15 more by the end of oral boards and have a list of 5 people for the position, then watch them drop out as their backgrounds have problems.

We're selective. Much more so than the general public is subjected to before they're hired on to a private sector position. And I speak from experience; those first eight and a half years were in the private sector. I did very well until 9/11 happened, and I realized that job security and a pension were nice things to have - and I had the luxury of already having a job while the 8-month-long interview and background process took place. If you want to argue about my compensation, realize that I was smart enough to understand a stable retirement was more possible with a public agency than by taking a flier with an internet start-up in 2000, or by rooting for my 401k to not be underwater come 2009.


I work for the most fickle group of carbon-based life forms on the planet, people that believe that prescription drugs can be given away at a discount, where their mandated cost is pennies on the development dollar for those who aren't already suing the manufacturer for side effects and false claims. A group of people that believe you can ask for more things, demand electorally that they be provided, and then scream about the cost when the bill arrives. (Do they do this everywhere? The grocery store? Red Lobster?) That's right, my boss is the American voter.

Of course, as an employee for that large government agency, this is also my customer, who's more than willing to provide me with the verbal reminder that they pay my salary. As a professional, I have to agree to every single one of the tenets in our employee manual, which proffers that officers are not allowed to take a warning shot or refuse a direct order, such as an order to go investigate the burglary of that aspiring manicurist and knee-steering circus performer who felt I was insufficiently reminded of who's paying my salary. If I don't, I'll lose my job. Quickly. Think about the story of this man. Now, if he has a heart attack and needs medical attention, I guarantee you that the fire and EMS workers of Oak Brook are professional enough to avoid trying to put the blood pressure cuff around his neck. We send police officers and firefighters into situations that we wouldn't tackle on a bet - and part of my job is to make sure that the officer gets the computer record that says what's behind that door.

Up until three years ago, you didn't even have to be accredited in law enforcement to be the Clark County Sheriff. They changed it after we almost elected a con artist. One year an art student ran and was bounced out in the primary. I joked that the law enforcement side would go straight to hell, but the courtroom sketches would be top notch. I'm grateful that there's a provision that I can't be fired for political support of either side, and I try to honor that policy by not having any public or even semi-private opinions on the leadership of my department.

I don't deny or brag about my position or salary. I realize that I'm very fortunate to be in a position to serve the community and be well-compensated for doing it. There's not going to be an IPO, I'm not going to get stock ownership, and even if I have the greatest occupational year of my life it won't get me a raise, but I know that what I do makes this community safer, saving the lives of both victims and the accused. I'll never make anyone happy to pay their taxes, but I do hope that I could make you think. Thank you for your time.

Writing Project Update

WORDS THIS WEEK: 900. Still moving, got sick, what have you. Not easy to punch the keys when there's boxes hovering over your shoulder.



THIS WEEK'S QUESTION: Kelli sent in a very nice question that can actually wait for a bit, because I've had something on my mind for quite a while. Some of you got a preview of it today on another person's Facebook page, but I'm going to take a few moments to flesh this concept out.

500 WORDS FINISHED BY: 10/1-2 midnight