Hotter ‘N Hell Hundred – The Ride

The ride was scheduled to start at about 7:15, and this event was serious about being on time. Even at 6:30, there was a huge number of people heading towards the start. We took up at least six city blocks on a four-lane (maybe five-lane) road. The number of people there was just astounding. I’m disappointed that none of my crowd pictures turned out well. Standing there on the edge of the road, I could easily see 10,000 cyclists lined up to start the ride.

I did manage to get an okay picture of the monster, or whatever they call it. I think this is the ride’s mascot.

I also managed to get somebody else to take a shot of Frank and me before the ride. I didn’t take any other pictures during the ride, but Marathon Foto was there, and I got a bunch of shots from them.  You can view them on my Facebook photo album.

After a few announcements and the traditional singing of the National Anthem–it was amazing how the chatter stopped with the first notes of the Anthem–a flight of four fighters (I think they were F-15s, but I could be mistaken) from Sheppard Air Force Base did a low fly-by, and as they passed the cannon fired to signal the start of the ride.

It’s hard to explain to somebody who hasn’t experienced it just what the start of a large bike ride is like. We’re all packed together far too tightly to just get on our bikes and start riding. They line us up by expected finishing time, with the faster riders in the front. Those of us further back end up walking a hundred yards or more, slowly pushing our bikes along until we get to the start line, where the road widens and the space in front of us opens up enough that we can get on the saddle and start pedaling. Then, we slowly increase speed, always being mindful of the people in front and the speed demons coming up to pass from behind. The key here is to keep your eyes on what’s happening ahead of you, keep riding in as straight a line as possible, and always look carefully behind before making any lateral changes. You have to pay attention to hand signals from riders you’re approaching, keep your ears open for shouts of “hole” or “bottle” or “glass” from riders warning of hazards ahead of you, and “on your left” from people coming up from behind. I’m surprised at how many riders were wearing ear buds and listening to music at this point. I can maybe understand listening to music once you get out on the road and away from the crowds, but at the start of a big ride like this, you really shouldn’t have anything interfering with your awareness of the situation.

I’ve done quite a few of these organized rides, and I’m fairly accustomed to the things that happen at the beginning. But it seemed to me that there were a whole lot more lost water bottles–especially at the beginning of the ride–than I’d ever seen previously. The first five miles was a veritable obstacle course of bottles rolling around on the road. It’s a good thing we had a four-lane road all to ourselves for the first 10 miles or so.

I felt good. The temperature at the start was about 70 degrees, and the forecast was for a high in the low 90s and a south wind at about 7 MPH. The route is roughly a rectangle that’s approximately 35 miles east-west and 15 miles north-south, with the start point about 10 miles west of the southeast corner. The ride proceeds clockwise, so we headed west, then north, a very long stretch across the “top” as we head back east, and finally a meandering south and southwest grind into the wind back to Wichita Falls.

Frank seemed to like being left alone to zone out, so I left him behind shortly after the 10 mile mark and set to the business of riding. I couldn’t get over the number of people out there. At one point–near the 15 mile mark–I topped a little rise (the flatlanders called it a hill) and could see two or three miles in front of me. As far as I could see, the road (two lanes by this time, but with decent shoulders) was packed with cyclists. I’d never seen that many people still together 15 miles into a ride. It thinned out over time, of course, but in the entire 100 miles there never was a point that I couldn’t see several dozen riders sharing the road with me.

I do most of my training alone, so I’m still a bit uncomfortable joining a paceline, in part because I’m afraid I’ll do something wrong and cause a wreck, and in part because I have a difficult time trusting that the people in front or behind me won’t cause me to wreck. On the plus side, cooperating in a paceline can save you a lot of energy and increase your overall speed because you get the benefit of drafting off the others and–especially in a big group–only have to hammer it out up front very rarely. I joined a few pacelines along the way, pitching in to help when it was my turn, and had a few impromptu lines form behind me from time to time when I’d pass a group of riders. I stayed with one group for a good 10 miles or so until they pulled off at a rest stop while I kept going. I just couldn’t find a group that was maintaining a speed that I found comfortable.

Riding alone has its benefits. I can share short conversations with people and then fall back or speed up, wishing them a good ride and going back to enjoying the sights and the antics of the riders and spectators. And there were lots of spectators. Every little town we rode through had groups of people sitting along the road cheering us on. And, of course, there’s the mild amusement of rural Texas. The little town of Electra, Texas, for example, boasts “The Pumpjack Capital of Texas!” They even have a Pumpjack Festival. There were a few others I laughed at as I passed, but I don’t recall them now. And although I had my camera in my jersey pocket, the road was too crowded at first and I was too exhausted later to even think about fiddling with a camera while I was riding.

The town of Electra is at the 30 mile mark. I had originally planned to stop there for water, but with the cool weather and the light tailwind for the previous 10 miles I hadn’t had to drink as much as I expected. I elected to push on to the 40 mile mark before stopping. I was moving along at a good clip, too. At the 30 mile point, I was averaging almost 21 MPH–much faster than I expected, even on this flat course.

Skipping the 30 mile water stop was a sound decision. I really did have enough water and food to take me to the 40 mile point without trouble. At about 37 miles, I made the turn from north to east and began the 40 mile trek across the “top” of the course. I picked up another paceline and burned a little too much energy staying with them before I realized that I couldn’t maintain that heart rate. I was letting the excitement of the ride and my surprising speed overrule my judgement, and as the 40 mile stop approached I decided that I could make it to the 50 mile stop. That was a very poor decision. I had less than half a bottle of water left and no food except some peanuts, and I’d already determined that I didn’t like peanuts quite that much for riding food. Two miles later I realized that I’d done a stupid thing, but there was no way I was going back.

One thing non-cyclists don’t realize is how rough these country roads can be. A road that feels just a little rough when you’re driving over it in a car can be torture on a bicycle. In a car, you’re riding on tires that are at least six inches wide and sitting on a soft seat insulated from the road by springs and shock absorbers. You don’t even notice small shallow dents in the road. A road bicycle tire, on the other hand, is about an inch wide and there is no suspension. The fork and frame absorb some of the bumps on the road, but you feel a two inch wide hole that’s only 1/4 inch deep. Maintenance on these country roads consists of chip sealing, which results in less-than-smooth (to be kind) riding surface. After the first 30 miles or so, it seemed like the entire ride was on chipsealed roads. A few miles of chipseal is a minor annoyance. 10 miles or more is just punishing. Since the bike doesn’t absorb the shock, you have to: in your hands, wrists, shoulders, back, and butt. There’s no doubt that rough roads wear you down.

The “50 mile” stop was actually at 54 miles, and I was out of water. I stopped at the rest area, refilled my water bottles, drank as much as I could comfortably hold, ate some fruit and cookies, and lounged around for a few minutes. They had a band called, I think, Red Dirt Surf, playing surf guitar music. I like surf guitar in small doses, and it really seemed to fit here. I also chatted for a few minutes with the ham radio operators who had a tent there at the stop before climbing on my bike and heading out again. I had been off the bike for about 12 minutes.

I finished the first 54 miles of the ride without stopping, with an average speed of 19.8 MPH, which I’m pretty sure is the fastest 50 miles I’ve ever ridden on a bike. But when I pulled away from that stop, I realized two things. One, the wind had picked up a bit. It was still from the south, but it had become strong enough to be a nuisance as I headed east. The other thing I realized was that I wasn’t going to finish the second half of the ride nearly as fast as I did the first half. I was mildly dehydrated, and I had burned a little bit more energy than I should have. I made a conscious decision to slow down a bit, drink more, and try to rebuild some energy.

It’s funny how one’s memory of things changes once the pain sets in. After leaving that rest area, I stopped looking at the sights and concentrated more on my riding: picking the smoothest possible line (in the right tire track, usually), maintaining a good posture, pedaling as smoothly as possible, keeping an eye on my heart rate monitor, and remembering to drink regularly. My stomach was a little upset (I think it was the peanuts), so I had a tough time getting myself to eat very much. At least I put Gatorade mix in two of my three water bottles and forced myself to drink it even though by now I’d become pretty sick of the taste. About the only things I remember between mile 54 and mile 69 where I stopped again were the town of Burkburnett (the biggest town we passed through, other than Wichita Falls), and the little party going on at Hell’s Gate–the cutoff point that riders have to make before 12:30 if they’re going to do the entire 100 miles. I had no trouble there; I passed Hell’s Gate well before 11:00.

I do recall that, as I approached the rest stop at 69 miles, it dawned on me that this was the furthest I’d ridden this season. My longest training ride was only 65 miles, and I felt a whole lot worse on that ride than I was feeling at the moment. That gave me a little lift. I stopped again at 69 miles, refilled my water bottles, ate a bit more, and sat down under the tent for a few minutes with a cold towel on the back of my neck. I drank a bit, got to feeling better, and headed out again after less than 10 minutes.

The next 10 miles weren’t too bad. We were working our way towards the northeast corner of the course. There was one jog north that felt good with the wind at my back, but I knew I’d have to pay for it later when we turned to head back into the wind. That happened at about 78 miles. Mine wasn’t the only groan when we made a hard right turn and felt that wind directly in our faces.

I stopped again at 84 miles to fill the water bottles and sit down again. I wasn’t eating enough, but I feared that if I did it’d just come right back up. Cold towels on the back of the neck worked wonders to help me cool down, and I even managed to soak my bandana in ice water before taking off. With hair as short and thin as mine, I have to wear a head covering under my helmet or I end up with a rather painful sunburn.

Pulling away from the 84 mile stop, I fully planned to ride it in from there. Even as tired as I was, I couldn’t imagine not being able to ride the last 18 miles (yes, the course is actually 102 miles). I even got a good chuckle a few miles down the road when I spied the First Baptist Church of Dean (one of four buildings in the big town of Dean, TX) and thought of taking picture to send to my friend Dean. But that would have taken effort. There was a rest area at one of the other three buildings there, and I decided I’d take another break. My average speed was already way down from the nearly 20 MPH I’d established in the first half of the ride, and I had given up on the idea of finishing the course in under six hours. Plus, there was a nice big shady spot on the grass.

The stop was at 92 miles. I had only 10 miles to go, but I was ready to be done. I refilled the water bottles, took off my helmet, and laid on the grass in the shade for 20 minutes. I might even have nodded off for a few minutes. I helped a guy pump up his tire (he had a slow leak and didn’t want to take the time to replace the tube), then grudgingly climbed on the bike again for the last 10 miles.

Prehaps not surprisingly, I started feeling real good almost immediately after I got back on the road. Maybe it was the rest, and maybe it was the prospect of being finished. We were close to the big city again, meaning the roads had improved and there were people on the road again cheering us on. The other cyclists around me were feeling good too, it seemed, and we were sharing some laughs and dark humor about the state of the roads we’d so recently covered.

There’s an “outlaw” rest stop–apparently not officially part of the ride–somewhere along there, maybe three miles from the finish. I think it’s a bar. They had a heck of a party going on, and were offering free beer to riders. It was sorely tempting, but I knew that if I stopped there, I’d never complete the ride. I let my better sense prevail and rode the last few miles to the finish.

Maybe a mile from the finish, the route climbs an overpass that isn’t much of a hill, but at 100+ miles any hill seems like a mountain. Plus, it was into the wind and on a fairly rough shoulder. But getting to the top was well worth it. From there, I could see the home stretch: just down an exit ramp, a few turns through the flat and smooth city streets, and a four-block straight run to the finish line. A couple of people passed me on that straight, pushing to “finish strong.” I just rode it in at my normal pace, figuring that saving a few seconds wasn’t going to make much of a difference in my time.

I completed the ride in six hours and 55 minutes, with an average overall speed of about 14.8 MPH and an average moving speed of 16.8 MPH. I spent 6:05 pedaling and 50 minutes at rest areas. Time off the bike is what kills your time in a long ride.

My major mistake in this ride was passing up the 40 mile stop. Had I stopped there to rest, refill my water bottles, and eat something, I would not have become dehydrated. I was smart enough to realize my mistake and try to recover (a good thing), but I probably should have taken it a bit easier between 54 and 69, and eaten more even though the thought of doing so turned my stomach. It sneaks up on you, and by the time you realize you’re dehydrated, it’s too late to recover without seriously slowing down.

Still, 6:55 is close to the fastest I’ve ever covered 100 miles, and I’m reasonably happy with my performance considering my abbreviated training period this year. I’m disappointed that I made the mistake of pushing on past the 40 mile mark without stopping to refuel, but glad that I realized my mistake and took steps to minimize the damage. Next time I’ll know better. Right?

Everything considered, it was a great time. I’m looking forward to next year, tent camping and all.

Hotter ‘N Hell Hundred – Before the ride

The Hotter ‘N Hell Hundred endurance ride was held this past weekend in Wichita Falls, TX. It’s billed as the largest one-day bicycling event in the world. I don’t know if that’s true, but it was more than twice the size of any other ride I’ve participated in. The Web site says that there were 13,067 riders, and I have no reason to doubt it. I’d never seen that many cyclists in one place before.

The HH100 is a huge event that spans at least three days. There are trail races and a criterium on Friday, the endurance ride on Saturday, and another criterium on Sunday. There’s the bike expo for at least two days, with vendors selling all manner of bicycling gear at booths inside and outside the convention center. This event is large enough that there were even some vendors selling non-cycling stuff like you’d see at summer festivals all over: jewelry, trinkets, hand-made geegaws, etc. But mostly it’s about bicycling.

It’s not all about bicycling, though. Outside the convention center there were vendors selling funnel cakes, sausage on a stick, and other stuff that I’d categorize as county fair food. Although I didn’t see any cotton candy, now that I think of it. And, of course, there was plenty of beer. I found it odd to see Lance Armstrong endorsing Michelob Ultra. I thought the guy had better taste in beer.

I didn’t even try to get a hotel room for the event. Friends told me that the hotels were booked well in advance, and the rates were outrageous. One guy I talked to on Friday said that he paid $200 for Friday night. Rather than stay in a hotel, I elected to take advantage of the free on-site tent camping. The camping area was maybe a half mile walk from the start line, right next to a building that has bathroom and shower facilities. I figured that’d be a great deal, so I borrowed a tent, packed my gear, and headed out to Wichita Falls on Friday morning.

I timed my arrival perfectly, getting there about 2:00 PM, when packet pickup opened. I located a suitable camping spot, set up the tent, got the lay of the land, and headed over to the convention center to pick up my ride packet. I purposely waited a while in order to avoid the rush of eager beavers who just had to pick up their packets as early as possible. Unlike those people, who stood in line for over 30 minutes, I found no line at all. I just surrendered my waiver form, got my race number, and then presented my race number to get my goodie bag.

The goodie bag didn’t have a whole lot of “goodies” in it. Of course I got about a dozen flyers for upcoming rides, pamphlets about bicycle safety, and pleas for support from various organizations. A couple of course maps. A coupon for a free Whataburger (goodie #1). A water bottle with the HH100 logo on it (goodie #2, considering that I forgot to bring bottles with me). A small Cliff bar. A bottle of something called Athletes Honey Milk, which tasted okay after the ride, although I should have shaken it better. Oh, and a “Go Army” wristband similar to those “Livestrong” wrisbands that everybody’s wearing. Anybody want it? Yeah, the goodie bag was a bit of a letdown.

The spaghetti dinner that I paid eight dollars for was held from five until nine inside the coliseum. We sat at tables out on the floor that is, from what I understand, usually covered with ice for the local hockey team. To tell the truth, I’m not sure why I paid for the spaghetti dinner in advance, because those mass feeding things are typically pretty bad. I was half expecting that I’d need to find some real food, but I was pleasantly surprised. How they managed to cook those mountains of pasta and sauce and get them right–not just edible, but actually good–is beyond me. But it was. Good, I mean. I ate a huge mound of spaghetti along with salad and a couple of bread sticks, and even went back for seconds. I did cheat in one respect, though: I brought my own drink into the place. The meal included tea and water, but I wanted a cola. I will have no qualms about eating their spaghettin dinner if I do the ride again. Definitely recommended.

To pass the time after dinner, I sat outside on a bench for an hour or so and carved a couple of my little dogs. It was nice there in the shade, listening to the music and chatting with people who’d stop from time to time to see what I was working on. The primary reason I was sitting around was to wait for my friend Frank Colunga and his buddies to finish their dinner before I went visiting. They drove up in two motor homes and were having a home-cooked meal rather than the spaghetti, and I didn’t want to interrupt their dinner. A great bunch of folks, and I enjoyed visiting with them for an hour or so before it got dark. They were headed off to sleep and I wandered back to my tent to do the same.

I think I mentioned that the tent camping area is right by the event center. Actually, it’s in the parking lot of the event center. There are grassy medians between paved parking rows, little grassy islands scattered throughout the unpaved parking lot, and grass on two sides of the parking lot along the road and along the river. I was surprised at how few tents there were. But that wasn’t the only surprise I’d get tonight.

Pizza Hut was there at the parking lot with a car and a sign that said, “Call <number> to order. Pick up here!” Apparently in years past they’d get calls for pizza, and instructions that said, for example, “I’m in the big blue and white dome tent over by the river,” or some such. They had so much trouble delivering that this year they decided to have a single place for pickup. They did a surprisingly brisk business.

I had planned to be in my tent and asleep by about 9:00–10:00 at the latest. I didn’t realize that there is a bar across the street from the parking lot. A bar that has live music. LOUD live music. I can sleep through anything if I’m tired enough, but I wasn’t tired enough to tune out that music. It was loud enough in the parking lot that conversation was difficult. I can’t imagine what it was like inside the bar. Fortunately, they stopped the music around 11:00. Somebody said that the city paid the bar to close early this year, due to the complaints they got last year.

With the music gone, I just had normal night noises to deal with: trains, traffic on the highway, and people arriving, setting up tents, and getting settled in. The last went on until at least 2:00 AM.  They kept waking me up when they’d drive by a little too close to the tent.

The parking lot has lights. Bright lights that stayed on all night. That didn’t really bother me, and it was kind of nice not having to fumble for a flashlight in the middle of the night when I needed to go visit the bathroom.

I did manage to get a good night’s sleep, even with the interruptions. I had set my alarm for 5:15 so that I’d have enough time to get dressed, have breakfast, get my gear together, stretch, warm up, and in general get prepared for the event. As it turned out, I didn’t need the alarm. Somebody, either by design or by accident, set off his car alarm at 5:00 AM on the dot. A car horn honking 50 feet away is an effective wake-up device.

It wasn’t all bad. Waking up at 5:00 gave me a little extra time to prepare for the ride, including checking the bike over one more time and triple-checking that I had everything I needed. There was one amusing incident.  Remember those lights that stayed on all night?  They went off at 5:30 while it was still dark.  I and everybody else around me got a good laugh out of that.  Fortunately, I had a flashlight (one of those LED lights on a headband), so the lack of the parking lot lights didn’t affect me a bit.  At 6:30 I got on the bike and headed for the starting line.

Bicycling update

In early April I said that I was going to ride the Hotter ‘N Hell Hundred this month.  I started training, got distracted, and then started again seriously training in June.  Today is August 26 and the ride is this Saturday.  Tomorrow (Friday) I’m driving up to Wichita Falls where I’ll be camping overnight in a tent.  The ride starts at 7:30 Saturday morning.

I’m not as well prepared for the ride as I would have liked, but I don’t think I’ll have any trouble finishing the 100 miles.  The course is relatively flat and, despite the ride’s name, the weather forecast is for temperatures in the low 90s on Saturday.  My long rides (60 to 65 miles) the last four weekends have been in 100+ degree temperatures and except for one in which I forgot to drink enough water, I’ve finished the rides with no soreness and energy to spare.  As long as I remember to drink and keep myself fed, 100 miles won’t be a problem.

My bike computer read 16,788 miles in early April.  Today it sits at 18,145. I didn’t do as much training as I had planned, but it should be sufficient.  And I’ve been training on larger hills and in stronger winds than (if I’m to believe what others have told me) anything I’ll encounter in Wichita Falls.

It’ll likely be Sunday before I can post an update to say how I did in the ride.  I just hope I keep my wits about me and don’t go out too fast like I did in Waco back in 2002.

Testing an iPad

Writing a blog entry on an iPad is rather painful, but possible. I wouldn’t want to write more than a few lines this way, but it’s nice to have in a pinch.

Editing is possible using gestures to zoom. Still, it’s tedious. There seems to be some predictive text input, but I type faster than it prompts–even one-fingered.

So far, I see the iPad as a great consumption device. I don’t yet see it replacing a notebook for creating content.

WordPress update

I updated to the newest version of WordPress, and it broke the old theme that I’d been using for the last three years. This is the default WordPress theme and will have to do until I get around to changing things.

What they don’t tell you

I’ve read a lot over the years about long distance cycling.  The book is Bicycling Magazine’s The Complete Book of Long-Distance Cycling.  That book covers a whole lot of ground, not only information about training and equipment, but also a whole lot about aches and pains and things to consider.  For example, there are sections on skin care (use sunscreen), eye wear (sunglasses), feet, knees, problems with your hands and arms, saddle sores, gastrointestinal problems, and even women’s issues such as interruptions to their menstrual cycles, vaginitis, and bladder infections.

You can find similar discussions on sites all over the Web.   For all that, there’s one particularly painful issue that for some reason nobody discusses and yet most men I’ve talked to encounter at some point in their riding:  sore nipples.

I’m not joking.  After a couple of hours riding the bike on a hot day, the constant rubbing of your shirt on your nipples will make them sore.  I’ve seen guys bleeding from their nipples.  And what do they do about it?  Most do nothing.  At most, they’ll unzip their jerseys so that the shirt doesn’t fit so tightly and therefore doesn’t rub as much.  It’s crazy.

Over the years, I’ve tried lots of different solutions.  The one everybody thinks of first is band-aids, but they won’t stick to sweaty skin and my experience is that they’ll just sweat right off after an hour or two if I put them on before a ride.  One guy told me to put them on the night before–swore by it.  Said it gives the adhesive time to set up or somesuch.  Didn’t work for me.  Two hours into the ride, my nips are burning and there are two band-aids floating around in my jersey.

The only thing I found that works is lip balm.  The wax-based stuff.  Get a tube of ChapStick or something similar and grease your nipples up real good before a ride.  And be sure to stuff that thing in your jersey pocket, because a few hours into the ride you’re going to want it again.  As far as I’ve been able to tell, the brand doesn’t matter.  I’ve used the expensive “Burt’s Bees” stuff, the cheapest generic stick stuff I picked up in a discount store, and everything in between.

A side benefit, beyond preventing chafed nipples, is that anybody who asks if he can use your ChapStick will immediately retract his request when you say, “Hold on,” pull up your shirt, and start rubbing it on your nipples.

The Royal Nonesuch – almost

In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckelberry Finn, Huck and Jim hook up with a traveling group of actors who are, to be kind, less than honest. To me, the most memorable stunt they pulled is in a little Arkansas town where they advertised a show:

AT THE COURTHOUSE!
for 3 nights only
The World-Renowned Tragedaians
DAVID GARRICK THE YOUNGER!
and
ENDMUND KEAN THE ELDER!
Of the London and Continental Theatres
In their Thrilling Tragedy of
THE KING’S CAMELOPARD
or
THE ROYAL NONESUCH!!!
Admission 50 cents

LADIES AND CHILDREN NOT ADMITTED

The performance, as it turns out, is in two parts. First, one of the “actors” gets up and makes a little speech praising the tragedy. Then the curtain goes up and another actor, wildly painted but otherwise naked, cavorts around on the stage for a while. The crowd, which makes up about half of the men in the town, is quite amused by the performance until the curtain comes down and they realize that they’ve been had.

Rather than admit that they’ve been had, the audience agrees to talk up the show and convince the other half of the people in the town to see the show the next night. On the third night, now that everybody in town has been had, a large number of people show up with rotten eggs and other nasty things to throw at the actors. The actors, knowing full well how these things go, light out from town without putting on the show the third night, taking with them over four hundred dollars they got for the three showings.

In the 30 years since I read that book (thank you again, Mr. C.), I have come to realize that the behavior of the first night’s crowd in this story describes very well the behavior of people in many situations. Rather than admit that they’ve been had or don’t understand something that others say is insightful, funny, profound, or whatever, people will try to convince others of the thing’s value. Even if they know that the thing is worthless. To most people, it seems, it’s much better to agree with the crowd than to point out that the Emporer has no clothes.

This behavior explains a lot of things, like the idea that Moby Dick, The Catcher in the Rye, or movies like The Thin Red Line, In The Bedroom, Titanic, or The Last Emporer have any redeeming value. It also explains most of what passes for political thought in this country. Rather than actively think about important issues and how to best solve them, all too many people glom onto whichever politician stirs their emotions, and then try to convince others that the object of their adoration has all the answers–usually by doing a poor job of parroting sound bites and without understanding the issues or the motives behind the politician’s point of view.

In Huck’s story, the foolish people in that little Arkansas town figured it out. Nobody actually believed that the “tragedy” was good or worth the 50 cents they paid to watch it, and on the third night they were going to run the rats out of town–most likely in a very unpleasant way. The American people, on the other hand, have not figured it out. Oh, sure, we’ll run the rats out of Congress periodically, but we do so by electing another set of rats who are as bad as if not worse than the ones we’re getting rid of. We don’t know what we want. All we “know” is that we don’t want what’s currently there. What we get is no better than what we had–just different on the surface.

Don’t believe me? In 1976, there was no possible way that a Republican could have been elected President. With the Watergate scandal, Nixon resigning, Agnew forced to resign in disgrace, the economy in a long period of stagflation, and our withdrawl from (one might say defeat in) Vietnam, there was no way that the American people were going to elect a Republican. And four years later, with fuel shortages, interest rates at record highs, the economy no better in the eyes of most people, and the embarrassment of the Iran hostage crises, there was no way Carter could be re-elected, or any Democrat elected President. The same thing happened to George H.W. Bush in 1992 (although he really was an ineffective President), and to Al Gore in 2000 because he had to contend with the beginnings of the dot com bubble bursting. 2008 was in many respects a repeat of 1976: there was no possible way any Republican could have been elected.

In most cases, the President was little more than the fall guy.  One could make the argument that G. W. Bush instituted policies that made Republicans anathema to many Americans, and America anathema to much of the world, but those policies were in large part ratified by a bi-partisan Congress.  Carter inherited his economic troubles, and history shows that his decision to take the bitter pill of high interest rates was the proper solution to the problem.

The same sort of thing happens with Congressional elections, most notably the 1994 election when Republicans gained majorities in both houses, and in 2006 when Democrats did the same thing.

The tribalists who make up the majority of the voting public probably don’t cross party lines very often. The number of people who will vote “Democrat” or “Republican” regardless of the person behind the label is astonishing. Some sources say that elections are decided by as few as 10 percent of the voters–those who have no strong party affiliation. Whether those people vote based on their beliefs in the candidate’s fitness for the job or for an entirely different reason like a desire to throw the bums out is an open question.

The point is that the voting public, as a group, is fickle. When election time comes, we too often blindly throw out the old in favor of the new, either not realizing or not caring that the “new” is really just the same old thing in a brand new box.

Mid-term elections are this November, and the media are making some noises about Republican gains. Or, more to the point, Democratic losses. It’s unlikely that Democrats will lose their majorities, although I suspect that their days of nearly total control are numbered. That’s all to the good, by the way: we should never allow a single party to control the Executive and both houses of the Legislative branch of government. Not that it’s mattered much in recent years. Between 2006 and 2008, President Bush and the Democrat-controlled Congress were like mutual rubber stamps. Whatever one wanted, the other granted.

My biggest fear is that Republicans, if they make significant gains in the upcoming election, will take the wrong lesson from the experience. They will call it a “mandate for change.” (How often have you heard that before?)  How quickly they forget. In 2006 and 2008, voters overwhelmingly threw out Republicans. And now we’re poised to unseat many of those we placed in those positions so recently. We aren’t voting for anybody, but rather against the current situation. The electorate is behaving like a blind man trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle in which all the pieces are shaped the same. No matter how you put it together it “fits.” But the picture is wrong–it doesn’t work. And two years from now we’ll scramble up the pieces and blindly try again.

I’m not entirely convinced that people want meaningful change. I think the voting public, as a whole, is still too comfortable with the way things are and is unwilling to put forth candidates who are fundamentally different from the slick, polished, cookie-cutter phonies we’re presented with every election season. When I see wide support for candidates who are a little rough around the edges, who supply real answers to tough questions, and who are serious about addressing real issues rather than the silly superficial crap that Congress is always focused on…then I’ll begin to have faith in our political system.

Until then, I’ll do what I can to select the best from the poor crop of candidates I’m presented with.

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