In the 1980s I had the good fortune to be a student of Dr. John Baur at the University of Memphis. Despite the fact that the U of M had the reputation for being a low-cost finishing school for the young women of the Mid-South, for his dissertation Baur wrote what has been hailed by a few authorities as the definitive music theory text. Unsuspecting undergraduates served as his guinea pigs, we muddling our way through an education in the way Western music gained complexity progressively until it flew apart at the intervals themselves following Richard Wagner’s career.
It was through Baur that I learned how Wagner would overlay multiple keys to such a degree that the only metaphor I could come up with was the gender-bending of Julie Andrews playing a man playing a woman in La Cage aux Folle.
Baur not only changed my understanding and appreciation of music, he changed my perception of what it meant to have a command of your subject. He’d open classes with little refreshers of our most difficult material. Often, he would play one of the varieties of an augmented sixth chord (French, Italian or German) and ask us to spell the four notes composing the chord from a base note, say B. After spelling out a chord more dissonant than the words “free love” are to a hooker, he would then ask us to spell the resolution, which he would then play for our grateful ears. That ability to talk so comfortably about tonality informed my approach to bike geometry. There was a time (back when I was reviewing several bikes a month) when you could give me a seat tube length for one of the big bike manufacturers and I could repeat back the top tube length, head and seat angles, bottom bracket height and fork rake.
The record will show I was a terrible student of Baur’s. I was a percussionist and my ability to spell four-voice chords was eternally a step behind those of my classmates’ who played more tonal instruments. Still, I count him as one of the more important educators of my college career.
It was while we were grading each other’s quizzes one day that he cautioned us not to be too hard on each other. It was important he pointed out not to look for the mistakes, but to “look for the music.” We needed to mark off what couldn’t be counted as music, not every dissonance that might be interpreted as a mistake, if only on paper. When a few of us gave him vacant looks that betrayed our lack of understanding he told us a story.
Earlier during his graduate work a professor of his directed everyone write a prelude in the style of the pieces found in Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Not an easy thing to do. He then made copies of each of them and had everyone grade each of their classmate’s compositions. It was an effort to help these future music educators search for music, not mistakes. For good measure, the professor snuck in an actual piece by Bach, but one that was unlikely to be known by the grad students.
What Baur told us next shocked me. Most of his classmates gave Bach a “C” at composing in the style of Bach. Baur said he was relieved to note that he graded Bach highest in his class, but still only gave him a “B+.”
I’d be lying if I told you I made a conscious decision to find the music in the things I analyzed, but it was a lesson I carried with me. I went into a writing program where our job was to critique the work of others as a means to learn how to critique our own work. It was easy to see the bad lines, but it took time to learn how to see the good ones.
At a certain point, I turned a corner. It wasn’t conscious or even deliberate, though there was definitely intent. I just noticed one day that I began responding to those lines that were good. When someone got something right, it spoke to me and as I read I trained my eye to search for moments that shed light on the human condition. Sometimes I went whole poems looking for something that spoke to me and never found it. On other occasions I would marvel at how line after line might draw me in and seduce me with a voice I never wanted to stop speaking to me.
I noticed that once I turned this corner of finding the good in someone’s work I had an entirely different experience in critiquing my classmates’ poems. It became a good deal more enjoyable. The experience of sharing with someone how they composed something that you found to be true, to be beautiful was an entirely different experience than telling someone that their cherished few lines were crap. The act of celebrating creative work is also the act of celebrating the individual.
It’s more effective than telling someone they are attractive.
The experience of suddenly seeing what someone had gotten right, rather than just looking for the things that didn’t work carried with it a notable infusion of energy. After a while, I can’t read more bad writing. Whether it’s fiction, poetry or journalism, reading bad writing wears you out. It’s like riding a road that stopped being maintained in 1957. At first it’s an adventure. But for daily training rides, it’s a flippin’ chore.
I carried this sensibility into writing about cycling. How it is I’ve maintained any energy for writing about doping, considering it brings me no joy, is a testament to the power of outrage, but it will never have the strength to keep me in the sport the way so many other aspects of cycling do.
The trolls dis me and say I like everything I review, as if I’ve some newbie’s starry-eyed wonder for all bike gear.
The truth is simpler, and much harder to argue with. The negative review has the power to entertain a reader once in a while, but it does little to feed the cycling jones. I see myself as a torchbearer. My job is to testify to how great riding a bike is, to demonstrate my excitement for cycling and believing that it’s a better, more fun sport than anything else you might spend your free time doing. Done right, that has the ability to help feed your love of the sport.
If your inclination is toward cynicism, it would be easy to see what we do here as just rubber stamping rampant consumerism. We get far more requests to review stuff than I actually review. Like the work from classmates that didn’t pass muster, stuff that’s not terrible but not amazing is really difficult to summon the necessary energy to write even 300 words about.
On the other hand, reviewing a great product is a chance to have some fun.
Now, here’s where I need to point out why I still get excited about product review. I’m pathologically opposed to conspicuous consumption and the trappings of consumerism as recreation. I was once romantically involved with someone for whom clothes shopping was a hobby. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it, but what I can say is that I’m not someone who shops to fill an unrecognized void. Nor do I expect you too, either.
I love that intersection point between science and new products, such as how a change in our understanding of aerodynamics or carbon fiber can lead to new wheels that are an instant ticket to greater speed. Such discoveries carry with them the weight of truth and in that I see beauty. I’m much too lazy to labor over the review of a lukewarm review about a product I won’t miss should it leave the market. I do this job because I get excited, because it gives me the chance to “look for the music.” And the best part of this job is sometimes I run across a new product that accomplishes something seemingly impossible—it can make the experience of riding a bicycle fresh, almost like that first time I took off under my own power and realized, realized the world was for the taking.