Sunday, April 23, 2017

From Greenie to Snowflake

Last month, I bought a new bike.

This might not sound like a life-altering purchase, right up there along with buying a house or even a new car, but I've actually been in the market for a new bike since before I even started shopping for a new house (that was in early 2015), and in many ways, it has been an even tougher decision! I wanted to make sure that when I bought a bike, everything about it would be perfect. Which meant, of course, that I simply never bought a bike at all.

What finally spurred me to move from bike shopping to bike buying? Plain old-fashioned desperation. My old bike, Greenie, had been around the block a few (hundred) times, and he was really starting to show his age. At some point a few years ago, I tried to replace the front shifter cable, failed at that, and finally removed the front derailer entirely. Ever since then, my chain has been prone to falling off when I go over bumps. Pretty much everything else on the bike was equally out of tune. My problem downshifting into fifth gear hadn't improved in the 4 years since I first noticed it; the brake pads were on their last legs; and, the last straw in a cavalcade of minor annoyances, the pedal makes a scraping noise whenever it turns. It had progressed beyond my ability to fix it (make it worse) myself, but it didn't seem worthwhile to take it into a shop to be goaded into some temporary semblance of repair.

It was time for an upgrade! For real this time! A little before Christmas, I took the plunge and ordered myself a bike on Amazon. My boyfriend's Christmas present to me was professional assembly by our local bike shop. A few days after Christmas, we picked it up at the shop to was the wrong size! I had ordered a small and somehow ended up with a fully assembled (at the cost of almost as much as the bike itself) extra large!

With disappointment, a bit of shame (why had I not checked the box to verify I'd received the right size!?), and a certain amount of trepidation (would they accept my extremely costly-to-ship return in the not-original packaging?), I sent the bike back (they refunded me) and spent a few months wallowing in uncertainty. By this time, the fantastic deal I'd received on the first bike was unavailable, and I was beginning to have my doubts about whether I'd have liked that bike even if it had been the correct size.

Returning to the drawing board, I revised my expectations a little. I knew it wasn't very likely that I would find the bike of my dreams on the first try, especially since I was switching to a completely different breed of cycle—a road-leaning hybrid style after a lifetime of riding a mountain bike! So on my second round of serious bike shopping, my top priority was price. I would make some compromises, get a bike that would under no circumstances cost more than 400 dollars, I would find out what I liked and disliked about it, and then the next time I was in the market for a bike, I would know better what to look for.

Since I hadn't been so keen on the first bike I'd ordered online, I decided to give a local bike shop a chance to sway me. I tried a couple of mid-range hybrid bikes, at a significantly higher price than the ones I'd been looking at online. Both of them rode so much more smoothly than Old Greenie, I was almost convinced I could love them...except they were black. I hate to say that the single strongest factor deterring me from the purchase of these otherwise good bikes was their uninspiring color. But I I hop on my bike at least 12 times a week and spend 3+ hours weekly riding it. If I couldn't feel even the tiniest spark of enthusiasm when I look at it, I just couldn't commit to buying it!

A few days later, I finally found the perfect "starter bike" on the Performance Bicycles website. It wasn't black. It wasn't a beautiful shade of aqua like my second-choice model either, but it was also cheaper by almost a hundred dollars, so I decided that white was a good, affordable compromise. I was sold when I learned that it would come with free assembly and lifetime adjustments by Performance!

So finally I found myself in possession of my new bike! As I always do when I receive a new shiny thing, I waited a few weeks to give it a name, to see what really suited it. The name that kept coming back to me was Snowflake.

No, it may not be the most creative name out there, but I think it embodies the spirit of freedom and ease that I'm trying to achieve with my newer, faster, lighter wheels. My old bike (Greenie) had been named after its color, so it seemed it appropriate to keep the tradition alive. I'll probably never ride this bike in the snow, so its name adds just a touch of subtle irony as well.

I wanted to introduce you, my loyal readers, to this bike now, because, with the change in my lifestyle that comes from changing my bike-style, I'm sure I'll have a lot of stories in the future about how I'm adjusting to my new ride.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Don't It Yourself

I once said that every guy I ever dated, no matter how briefly, came into my life for a reason.

One guy, who I only ever met online (but with whom I had a short and very fiery online relationship full of drama), said on his dating profile that his talent was "Fixing things, rigging things to make them work."

Was it that throwaway line on okCupid that set me on my current trajectory – instilled in me my  philosophy of DIY-til-you-die? (Or was it the plethora of "life hacks" I keep stumbling upon on the internet?) I can no longer remember, but I can be certain that it had an impact on me. Before that, it had never occurred to me that being able to cobble something together was something to take pride in. But now, it's part of my unshakable M.O.

I have more love for my home improvement projects that end up like a Frankenstein's Mashup of glue, scavenged parts, and a smattering of mismatched screws, than I ever would for a beautiful brand-new, store-bought version of the same thing.

But there comes a time when every do-it-yourselfer must draw the line. And for me, that time came when I needed to install a handrail for my basement stairs.

The basement staircase was one of the many "special" qualities of my house when I moved in—it had no handrail whatsoever. That was not a problem for me, young and nimble and indescribably graceful at all times, but it became an issue when I wanted to begin renting out the basement bedroom. Suddenly the primary user of the basement staircase wouldn't be me with a load of laundry in my agile and capable hands, but a paying guest. Who would no doubt be happy to sue me for any slip or fall. I don't have much of a defense in a lawsuit when my staircase lacks a basic safety feature such as a railing.

But I wasn't worried! As an avid DIY-er, I was ready to take on the challenge. Fortunately, the stairs had come with a just wasn't installed. I found it in the storage cubby under the stairs! All I needed was a few screws, and my staircase would be ready for business!

Cut to 5 months later. The railing has still not been installed. Turns out the hardware that came with the railing was bent and needed replacement, and it took me this long to get motivated and find suitable parts (I got them from Community Forklift for 99¢ each, of course!)

Cut to 4 months after that. The railing has still not been installed. Turns out my basement drywall is just as "special" as the rest of the house, and has no studs upon which to anchor a handrail. But that hasn't stopped me from trying. Now my drywall is pocked with screw holes of varying sizes, and a couple of places where whole chunks are missing, thanks to my inability to master the art of drywall anchors.

I had literally been failing to install my handrail for 9 months, before I finally reached the line of Don't-It-Yourself. I brought in the professional contracting big guns (which was of course a struggle in itself, between the lack of call-backs, the no-shows, and the refusals to provide an estimate). But once they arrived, my handrail was up and stable in less than 30 minutes. And in the two hours that they were there, they also replaced my non-functioning gas oven with a new one (one which I'd picked up for free from a Craigslister, of course!), and installed a new bathroom fan in my basement.

Those tasks would have taken me, on my own, days, weeks, or even months, which would have undoubtedly been filled with many frustrated tears, and possibly a blown-up house!

So no, I'm not ashamed that this time I decided to let the pros handle it. In fact, I just might be changing my tune. Next time I'm faced with a home improvement, no matter how DIY-able it might seem, I may just treat myself to a professional job.

Monday, April 3, 2017

All washed up: The never-ending search for hygienic hair

Warning! This is a long post...but if you read all the way to the end of it, you might hear an encouraging message and get some takeaway tips for managing your hair!

I'm no stranger to experimentation with my hair—short, long, blond, streaked, blue, black, self-cut, every kind of curler—I've tried it all, and you've seen it all. Well, almost all.

What you don't see are the continual behind-the-scenes experiments that I've been running for years, regarding the less glamorous aspects of hair care—mostly, how to keep it clean.

Up until around 2013, I'd had a pretty simple hair routine: I washed my hair every day with whatever 3-dollar bottle of Suave I'd most recently bought at Target. I didn't even use conditioner.

I'd long ago come to the conclusion that if I didn't wash my hair every day, it would become streaked with oil, stiff, and stringy looking, within a few hours of that magical nightly cutoff point. They say that blond hair, straight hair, and fine hair are all more predisposed to be oily, so I got the triple whammy.

I was fine with my daily washing schedule, until I read something telling me that shampoo is bad. Well, not unequivocally bad, but definitely not your hair's best friend. Shampooing, you see, dries out your scalp, causing it to freak out (in scientific terms) and produce more oil in a desperate attempt to balance out the dryness. Unsurprisingly, the result is even more oily-looking hair than before! A vicious cycle!

The solution, I read in some natural beauty blog, was the "No-'poo" method. It was a silly name, but it promised to return your hair to its perfectly balanced, healthy, pre-shampoo state, by basically not washing it. If necessary, you were supposed to "gently" clean your tresses with "natural" baking soda—and no harsh surfactants! 

I followed the dictates of the No-'Pooers for several months, leaving my hair unwashed and only using a baking-soda-water mixture to get it clean. The baking soda was not enough to really get rid of the grease, so I still had to shampoo every several days (they said that was an OK compromise for the initial stages when your hair was getting used to its new routine). But it never really did get used to its new routine. During this time, my photos all reveal me in a seemingly permanent style of overly long, limp, grease-soaked bangs. 

Bangs plastered to my forehead, as per my Summer 2014 usual.
I eventually gave up on no-'poo; I can no longer remember whether it was before or after I read that baking soda is just as drying as shampoo, not to mention it wreaks havoc on your scalp's natural pH any case, learning that was enough to dispel any sense of guilt I had at my shampoo-a-day habit.

Well, maybe not completely any sense of guilt. Everywhere I turned, I was still reading articles telling me to cut down on my shampooing.

From these articles, I gleaned that it's a measure of success among stylish women, how long one can go without washing one's hair. Once a week seems to be the golden standard to which we all must aspire, while oil fountains like me, who start to look like wet dogs in under 24 hours, are doing something wrong. (Women's media: promoting unattainable standards since the 1600's!)

From this new crop of self-hatred beauty resources, I learned about dry shampoo. At first, I thought it sounded fake—how can you really wash your hair without liquids? As it turns out, dry shampoo doesn't really "wash" your hair—it just absorbs the oil so it looks cleaner. It's basically like a spray-on version of the baby powder I'd long been using for emergency bangs-refreshing, but easier to use and less static-causing.

So my new routine became thus: Wash my hair every two days; then spruce it up on the second day with a hearty misting of dry shampoo, thereby saving my locks from a daily encounter with the dreaded real shampoo.

It was a system that was working for me—making me feel virtuously balanced between cleanliness and earthiness—until some other publication had to go and ruin it by reminding me that caking my hair in a desiccating powder every two days wasn't really doing it any favors. As I read it, I had to concede that, just as diatomaceous earth kills insects by absorbing all their moisture, dry shampoo is probably killing my hair, little by little, by stripping it of moisture in the same way shampoo does.

So at this point (it's only taken me 4 years to reach this conclusion), I realized I was in a catch-22. The same catch-22 I was in 4 years earlier, but with fewer options left to try. Either wash my hair every day, making it look nice and clean and shiny, or don't—replacing the shampoo with some other product which is probably worse for my hair in the long run.

Framed like that, it seems pretty obvious that I should just give up on the "alternative" beauty methods and stick with the shampoo that has been working for me all my life.

But the problem is, I don't know when to quit.

So I decided to try an extreme measure. The next time I was on vacation and didn't need to go to work for a few days, I would completely stop washing my hair. Free from the constraints of looking office-appropriate, I could cover it with a hat or scarf if it then started to look hideous. That time came just a few weeks ago, when I was on spring break and had 5 straight days off work. I washed my hair on a Friday evening, and then didn't wash it again until Wednesday afternoon.

By the second day, it was looking its usual oily self, but I persisted. Surprisingly, as the days went on, it didn't look appreciably worse (I guess a certain degree of greasiness is indistinguishable from any other). It never got so bad that I needed to cover it with a hat or scarf...and I actually got to experience the surprise benefit of increased stylability! That is, if I brushed my bangs to the side, they would stay there instead of immediately flopping right back into my eyes. I was beginning to see the upside of having greasy hair.

Since being unwashed didn't look nearly as bad as I'd been expecting, I've continued the experiment, going as long as I possibly can without washing my hair. Since March 17, I've washed my hair exactly 4 times (4 times in 18 days! That's 1.5 times a week! I'm basically a glamour girl now!). I've made some concessions, putting baby powder in it when I needed to look presentable for a photo or an important night out, but basically I'm rocking the hippie hair like I was born for it!

When I do wash it, I try to only wash my strands and avoid rubbing shampoo into my scalp. I figure if oil overproduction is really caused by distressing my scalp, then the solution is to just make sure my scalp is happy—I can do whatever I want to my hair and my scalp won't know about it! Eventually I might reach a point where my scalp thinks it never gets washed, and then maybe I will finally be the beautiful, fluffy-haired princess I always wanted to be!

Maybe. As with any good experiment, more research is needed. Consider this post my preliminary findings, with more data to be released at the end of April.

This is my head, 4 full days after a my last hair-wash, plus a baby-powder
bangs-refresh two days ago. Pretty, right?