For the Week of August 9, 2004
Every generation "fails" the one that follows.
Hindsight is 20-20 and we all strive to help our kids avoid our own mistakes. The result is we set them up for their own mistakes, and a rejection of our values, which (hopefully) gives them their own values, which they'll use to batter the next generation.
We call this progress.
Far too much bandwidth has been taken with the conflict between baby boomers and the "Greatest Generation" that brought us up. The time has come, I think, to see where my generation is failing our children.
And the word for that failure, to me at least, is fear.
We've all been burned in one way or another. Whether it was Vietnam, or the reaction to it, or drugs, sex and rock, and the reaction to that, nearly every member of my generation has been hurt by the world, and carries lessons of that hurt down the line.
We carry it, unfortunately, in the form of fear. We tell our kids, all the time, don't. Don't do drugs, don't drive cars, don't have sex, don't do as we did, don't make the same mistakes. Just don't.
There are two problems with that. A life of don't is a wasted life. And by filling our kids' hearts with fear, we're really infantalizing them.
Both my kids are scared to grow up. My daughter is 16 and often acts 11. She's frank about mourning her childhood, which has been pleasant, and fearing the adult world. Friends tell me I'm lucky. Maybe I am. But is she?
My son is 13 and he has safety issues. He constantly concerns himself with risk, to the point where he won't have fun. He falls off the horse and so won't ride again. He looks at the big rock and doesn't trust the ropes to rappel him off it. Unless he feels safe, in a small group, with the boundaries clear, he quickly becomes frustrated, angry, argumentative. He has lots of opinions, about life and politics, but they're all informed by TV, or they're reflections of my own opinions.
Here's the dirty secret we won't tell our kids. Growing up is a great adventure. It's dangerous, but it's also glorious. Whatever you do, when you find the courage to do it, and become independent of your parents, then the world opens up and can become a truly wonderful place, becomes what you make it. It's not a TV show, it's something you can impact, something you can change. It's not too big to contemplate, or too scary to be a part of.
Yes, there is danger in the world. My generation has caused much of that danger, the pollution and the intolerance and the ignorance and the waste. Let's not get into that. Let's talk about what you can do better.
This fear has infected the medium you're using. When I was dealing with Microsoft on their plans for broadband they kept on harping about the glories of their "parental controls," assuming every parent would pay big bucks to snip the balls off the Net and keep their kids from seeing its seamy underside. AOL's broadband campaign (which ran in heavy rotation during the Tour d'France) is now precisely the same, with a "big burly bodyguard" keeping junior from seeing how God causes man to make babies. (Early versions of this commercial underplayed a soundtrack that sounded like a porn movie, with a woman giggling. Later versions changed the soundtrack - apparently even the hint of what was being censored was too explicit for the commercial censor.)
Thank God for other teens. My kids came back from camp this week, recounting dirty jokes told them by fellow campers, including the old one about the Grand Tetons. (The camp was in Wyoming.) My daughter faced her fears on horsepacking rides to 12,000 feet, and my son faced his own fears of fear itself. I hope they grew up out there, because there's precious little opportunity for them to grow up at home, where we need to know where they are every minute of every day, where we need to know how they're being supervised, online and offline.
When I was 16 (he said, turning into an old fart before his own eyes) I went to a real, live political convention, 1,000 miles from home. No parents, no supervision (except for the party, which I should add right off was the Republican Party). And what a party it was. God, did I get drunk. I remember, barely, being inside a full elevator the last night of the event, collapsed in a heap amid my nation's future leaders, laughing at something, I don't remember what. I also remember flying home, sick as a dog, and falling in bed to sleep for nearly three whole days, my parents wondering what happened. I think I made it in for 11th grade, maybe I was a day or two late.
No parent would let their kid do that today. No American parent would, at any rate. (I know I wouldn't.) No wonder that, when our kids finally go off on their own, to colleges and fraternities, the bonds explode and they're off on benders, girls and guys gone wild, but always with the hint of supervision that being on-campus gives you.
I don't care what your politics is. If you live conservative, all the time, you're never going to live at all. You've got to test yourself, test yourself against the world, push the boundaries, fly. If you spend your life afraid you might as well not have lived.
My kids have sound values. They're not going to do anything stupid. I just hope they haven't been brought up with so much fear that they don't do anything at all.
I work as a freelance writer in Atlanta, and am on the development team for EgoScout , a new kind of marketplace for cellular data services.
My last book, "The Blankenhorn Effect" won the Computer/Internet category in the 2003 Independent Publisher (IPPY) awards .
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Takes on the News
Always-On In The Field
The New York Times recently featured a story about sensor networks in the wild.
What they've got, in fact, are a bunch of Always-On testbeds.
For instance. A sensor network checks the condition of grapes and the soil they're growing in, letting the grower know when to water, and when to harvest to get the best wine.
That is a great Always-On application. How many of those can you sell, maybe 1,000?
But what if, instead of building a big sensor network you built a little one, along with a simple drip irrigation system.
Know how many of those you can sell? You can sell millions. Start with golf courses, move on to schools and office parks, and watch sales zoom with water prices. Just follow Moore's Law and within two years you've got a consumer product, the whole set-up available at a do it yourself shop for maybe $300.
ON World of San Diego is quoted in this story as estimating the sensor network market at $7-10 billion by 2010. They're way low. Or, if they're accurate, they're looking at maybe the midway point in the hockey stick.
Sensors are not bound by the limits of the wired world. They can rest anywhere -- both on your body and in the environment. Depending on how quickly they update the network, and the user interface linked to them, they can be simple or very complex.
This is the World of Always On. It's real.
The RFID Debate
I have been following the recent debates about Radio Frequency ID tags closely.
RFID is a vital Always-On technology. With RFID on your stuff, you can have complete control of your personal inventory through a wireless network.
But RFID markets don't work that way. RFID applications will come at us through business. The initial demand will come from big merchants and governments seeking tighter control of their huge inventories, not from you and I seeking some control over our small inventories.
And, to me, that's fine. That's how computing markets work. You go from big applications to small, from business to consumer. So what is this debate really about?
It's about government, of course. It's about the role of government, and in the end it's about whether government can be trusted.
That's the wrong debate, in my opinion. Trust is an absolute. Talk instead about whether government can be controlled.
I think it can be.
Call me crazy, call me a cock-eyed optimist, or just call me an American. Gut I believe democracy, that liberty, that checks and that balances can control government. Not perfectly. There is no such thing as perfection. But we can prevent many horrors, stop many others, and provide redress for most of those that happen.
What's required for that, however, is action, from everyone. Not just politicians, but journalists, and citizens, from you.
We need strong legal controls over the information on RFID chips. We need to enshrine this principle in our law -- the data belongs to the owner of the goods. And we need sanctions strong enough to make examples of those who violate this principle, to dissuade others from abusing the power of the technology.
The current argument is over whether it's possible to do this. I say that if it's not, then there is no such thing as legitimate government, no honest way for we, the people to manage our own affairs, that it's just a jungle and civilization a charade.
I prefer to believe differently. I didn't say it wasn't difficult to control RFID. But it's difficult to control the abuse of every technology, including this one. RFID is just another technology.
We do just what we do with any other technology.
We start with bright lines, written in law, separating right from wrong. We enforce the lines through every means at our disposal -- including exposure through the news and civil suits in the courts. It will never be perfect, but we'll always keep trying to do better. As we have for centuries, with increasingly comfortable results.
Let's not let our fear of government turn us all into (http://califia.hispeed.com/IncubationDrama/npcharacters3.htm) Ned Ludd.
Riding With Lance
I went out on my bike in a celebratory mood.
My bike is yellow, and there's yellow on my biking jersey as well. Usually I don't think about it, but this day it fit my mood.
I would ride slowly, joyfully. I would savor each moment, each sight along the road. Because on this day I would ride with Lance. I would celebrate our life together.
We have a history, you know.
Cycling has been my sport for over a quarter century. I rode as a kid, even felt like I invented bicycle motocross on a lot near my house in the mid-60s. But I didn't really become a cyclist until 1978, after coming back to Texas with a journalism degree and a burning hope to become a writer.
A close friend, Joe Bentley, owned a bike shop. He sold me a brown Sutter, a French road bike I could afford, and on Sundays he would map out a route for his family, for mine, and for a few other friends as well. We would drive for an hour or more, away from Houston's oil boom, with its skyscrapers, its traffic, and its yellow sky filled with exhaust. We would ride to some small town, and in front of an empty general store we would pull bikes down from cars, then head out for 30, 40 or 50 miles on the FMs, Texas' Farm to Market roads.
The FMs were first paved in the 1930s, when Texas desperately needed a market for the tar that made asphalt. Money was coming out of the ground, and the world needed gasoline, but without buyers for what came from the bottom of the refinery cracker petroleum might be worthless. So every village and town got a road, to every other village and town. A beautiful, black ribbon of asphalt, crowned in the middle, with dirt on either side.
These roads were still empty, and quite inviting, in the 1970s. Joe was an aging hippie before he found the bike, and a career as a mechanic, shop owner, and organizer of minor-league races around the state. But Sundays were for pleasure, for long slow uphills where you could feel each breath, and you could hear your heart pound, followed by longer, glorious downhills where you could freewheel at up to 30 mph, and wondrous flats where you could peddle along, in a group or alone, at your own pace, to see cattle waiting to become beef, grass waiting to become hay. Joe drew out triangular routes, from town to empty store to town, so we always made it back safely. Once a route went through a town festival, one of those food frenzies where the men all have Donlop Disease (my belly done lopped over my belt) and the women look packed into cotton dresses like sausages. We laughed and laughed at them, smelled all that good smoke, then rode on. There would be time for food, after the ride.
My wife Jenni and I crashed the Sutter early in 1981. Some jerk in a Chevy didn't see us coming through a light, under a freeway, our week's groceries in tow on a "Blue Sky" trailer (that was the brand), held by a leather strap around my seat post. I wanted out in the worst way (and I'd get it, a disastrous job in Birmingham, Alabama), but first Joe replaced my old machine with a beautiful yellow frame, called a Romic, with Campagnolo derailleurs and Christophe toe clips.
My valedictory to this good life would be riding to Austin with Joe, then on through the Hill Country to my wife's home in San Antonio. We would sleep on the ground, in state parks, and go beyond our normal haunts to the glorious land beyond, where the hills were longer, steeper, the downhills even faster, and where if you saw more than a car in an hour it was called rush hour.
Well, I failed. I was fine on the flat. We slept by a monument in Sealy, Texas, pushed on a second day, and on the third day I remember passing the baseball stadium in Austin, where my college baseball team was playing Texas again, and losing again. I think that was the hill where I gave up, my lungs gasping, my legs quivering. A long argument with Joe, so diappointed, got my legs to San Marcos, to a place by the freeway where Jenni would drive to meet me.
And that was the end of my athletic career. I felt tears coming to me and watched as Joe rode on, alone and unhappy. For me it was a long drive of despair, back home to Houston and, from there, to another life, a thousand miles away from my friend.
But there was the bike. When the going got hard (then harder) in Birmingham, there was the bike. I would ride out to Bessemer, a miniature version of Birmingham to its southwest, a failed town of half-painted houses and boarded-up stores. Then I would think of depression as I rode back.
When I was mercifully fired I carted my bike to Atlanta, where I had a job like the one in Houston waiting for me. And on the weekends I would ride, waiting for my wife Jenni to join me there. I found triangular routes like those in the old days, five miles to the side, which let me see my new hometown close-up, the houses and neighborhoods, the hills though much harder, leaving me spent at their top, hacking out my breath from car exhaust, sad, lonely, but free.
The next years were marked by bike rides. We did a century in Birmingham, and another outside Atlanta. But gradually we slowed, and when Jenni became pregnant with our daughter, in 1987, we stopped.
Joe had another friend, a closer friend, an athlete friend named John Howard.
John Howard wasn't a tourist like me. John was a legendary Texas rider, rolling over the FMs at speed, swallowing the land in 100-mile gulps. But it was a paltry fame to be a cyclist in 1970s Texas, and no great European team wanted him to ride the great races. He became, like the great street ballers of the city ghettos, both lonely and angry. He finally found something worthy of him, a new event in Hawaii called a triathlon. He would train to learn to swim 2.5 miles in surf, and run a marathon, but between there was the bike, an easy ride (for him) of 112 miles, in which he could grab hours on rivals. He won the third one, in under 10 hours - you can look it up.
But the great road races, the ones in Europe? The Tour d'France? No way.
It was left for another rider, a lesser man named Jack Boyer, to break the barrier. He competed in the 1983 Tour as Jacques Boyer . Joe got me an autographed photo of Jack that still hangs in a closet. Then a whole American team, sponsored by 7-11, the convenience store chain, went over and they were a joke they were so bad.
Then there was Greg LeMond . LeMond's name was French, but he was 100% American, and for his sport LeMond became French. He rode with a French team, in the French style. He was a domestique (a helper) for the great champion Bernard Hinault, and worked for him when Hinault won his fifth tour, in 1985, although Greg was far the stronger rider. Next year, Hinault said, I will ride for you, Greg.
But of course he didn't. He broke his promise, split the team, and fought LeMond all the way to Paris. The crowds all shouted for Hinault, they held contempt for the American who had somehow learned their game, but LeMond won anyway. The Era of Hinault was over.
Then came 1989. LeMond had been shot while hunting in 1987 (how Americain, they clucked), and it took two years to recover. But here he was chasing Hinault's great rival, two-time champion Laurent Fignon , up the Alps. By the last stage, to Paris, there was nearly a minute separating them, with Fignon leading, and the organizers did something they had never before done (and would never do again) - they made the race to Paris a time trial.
Fignon rode as he always did, hautily, with elan, on a regular bike with dropped handlebars, his blond hair waving behind him in its ponytail. He rode with a radio in his ear, his manager giving him his time and that of his rival. LeMond had no radio, but he grabbed every other piece of technology he could - the solid back wheel, new handlebars in the center of his frame, like those of a track rider, and a helmet that flared-off behind him, like a wing.
The drama was exquisite, Fignon was going as hard as he could, LeMond flying even faster ahead of him, Fignon's radio detailing how his lead was going down, 40 seconds, 30, 20, 10. In the end Fignon collapsed in exhaustion and disgust on the Champs Elysee, having lost the whole tour by 8 seconds. To this day, people ask Fignon about that race, and he always tries to turn their conversation back to his victories, but they always lock him back into the tragedy, the image of him falling off, onto the ground, crying in the arms of his manager. It is so, so French.
>From the comfort of my home, watching my year-old baby take her first steps, I cheered Greg LeMond, but I loved Fignon, too. He was five years my junior, LeMond six years.
I was now just a spectator.
Joe was even then, when I heard from him, mentioning this new, young rider, this great athlete with the even-better name, Lance Armstrong.
A name from fiction, that. You can't make up a better one. Say it a few times. Lance Armstrong. Lance Armstrong. Was there ever a more American name? And the story that went with it...Joe told me Lance was raised by his mother, that his father abandoned him as a child, and that what he wanted most was what every such child wants, to make the money to get her a home. He linked the asphalt of my Texas salad days to the hunger of the basketball courts near where I now lived.
The great American hope by then was Andy Hampsten. He was a good rider, who won a few stages, and sometimes finished in the top 20. But the era belonged to Miguel Indurain, the great Spaniard, who combined the heart of Secretariat with the tactical brilliance of Hinault. He would win every time trial, sometimes by a huge margin, then come through the mountains near the front at every stage, seldom winning that day's race, but always grinding his main rivals into the dust. He was a machine, he was a brute, he was unstoppable. He was glorious.
But every rider ages, often suddenly, and in 1996 time caught up with Miguel Indurain. A Dane named Bjarne Riis won the tour, a bald guy like me, and even better, that tour would then all come to my town, to Atlanta. To the Olympics.
Joe and his wife came, too. They used our couch as a hotel room but would rise each day long before I did, then head off to the Velodrome, or the mountain biking in Conyers. It was wonderful seeing them again. Joe had switched careers, he had gone to cooking school, and was now a pastry chef. He'd gained a few pounds too, but he still had his bike, and I was sure could still ride me into the ground. Especially since I'd been off the bike for eight years.
I played hooky from work one day that Olympiad. It was for the men's road race. It would be contested in Buckhead, just miles from my door, on some of the first roads I'd ridden. It would be Lance Armstrong's coming-out party. I had to be there.
Armstrong had done the Tour a few times by then, even winning some stages. But he was just 23, there was plenty of time, and we were waiting for his breakthrough. What better place than back home, at the Olympics, before adoring crowds.
Every Texan in Georgia made his way to Buckhead that day. Texas flags were painted on the roads, with "USA USA" and "Go Lance Go" on every incline. It was a giant cocktail party. The riders would do 11 circuits. We had our bikes with us. We would find a spot on someone's lawn, the riders would whiz by, then the roads would fill with spectators and we'd go look for another vantage point. At Paces Ferry Road the course took a sharp left, then a right. I stood at the right-hand turn and felt them go by, just inches from my face, the sound of their gears like a locust storm, the breeze like that of a NASCAR race, only fresh and clean, scented by sweat and deodorant.
Lance made his move as we all knew he would, four laps from the end. We had gone to near the start-finish line, where a giant TV screen had been erected to follow the whole course. We saw Lance whiz by. We cheered like mad. The crowd chanted "Go Lance Go! Go Lance Go" for many minutes after he went by, watching the TV coverage, rooting him home.
And then, inexplicably, he slowed. The peleton (the group or pack) caught him. He dropped back, further and further, spent. Another American rider took off after the leaders, who had attacked the peleton the moment Armstrong was caught. Lance's teammate fought like a demon, like a madman, but the gap was too great. He wound up fourth, which at the Olympics gets you a hearty handshake and a "better luck next time."
As we rode home, dejected, we asked each other, "What happened to Lance?"
As the days passed, after Joe and his wife went back home, I asked myself, "what happened to me?" I'd been on my bike during the Olympic road race, going back-and-forth across the course, first on the flats, then on some hills. It had felt good.
So I started riding again. I found my legs again. There was a group that left a nearby bar each Thursday, and went for 15 miles through the streets of the city, ending at the same bar for beer and tea. I found myself riding to the start of the ride, riding it with them, sharing a beer afterward, then riding home. A few years later, I felt good enough to ride on my own, to pick my way through the city, to find new routes on a Sunday morning, before the muggers woke up, or to head into the Sun, toward Stone Mountain, to ride around it (cars must pay but bikes ride free), and to come home in triumph, to a shower, to a beer, and to sleep the sleep of the righteous.
Was it Lance who had saved me, or Joe, or this yellow bike, now riddled with rust where paint had flaked off? I didn't care. I was long past 40 but I felt young, younger than I'd even felt in Texas, strong, proud, fast, freewheeling down the hills of the city, even passing cars sometimes, my fellow riders admiring me for my sleek antique machine, the cars giving me a thumbs-up when they saw my whitening beard.
What happened to Lance, as the world knows now, was cancer. He was already full of it when he rode before me. It started in his testicles and, by the time he felt weak enough to get checked-out, it was everywhere. It was lymphoma. The prognosis was fatal. "You have a 30 percent chance," the doctors told him, although they said later they didn't believe that. But they had to give him something.
Give me everything you got, he said.
So they did. The idea of chemotherapy is that, because cancer cells grow crazy, out of control, their frenzy leaves them weaker then other cells. So kill the patient, the doctors say, fill him with deadly deadly chemicals and, maybe, if we're lucky, the cancer cells will die first. Maybe, if we're real lucky, all of them will die, so we keep killing the patient even when the cancer seems gone, because if one cancer cell survives, just one, it will multiply, and the cancer will come back. Before we knew what cancer was victims called the diease "consumption," because the body would consume itself, feeding the rogue cells, growing weaker in the frenzy, exhausting itself to death.
I knew all this. Back in Houston, when I was Lance's age, a close friend got a similar cancer. She had a funny idea that, if she went to Hermann Hospital for treatment that was good, for it was the "House of Fife," while if she were sent to M.D. Anderson it was the "House of Death." Her first bout was at Hermann, but then came Anderson. Debbie Wyatt was 23.
Call it courage, a miracle, or dumb luck, but Lance Armstrong saw 24. He even saw 25, and started riding again. But he was getting no results, and thought about quitting. A coach named Craig Carmichael and a rider from that old 7-11 team, Bob Roll, reportedly convinced him to keep trying.
Sestriere and Beyond
By 1999 Lance was ready to try the Le Tour again. The race was covered then, on TV, by ESPN2, which put together a daily package that ran in the late afternoon, complete with music. I was faithful. When Lance won the prologue (a very short time trial meant to advertise the coming race) I was hooked. Then he won the main time trial, but that too was on a flat course. I was awaiting the battle between Marco Pantani, the previous year's winner, the great il Pirata of the mountains, and Jan Ullrich, born in East Germany, the biggest engine in the field, the 1997 winner, the Kaiser.
Then came Sestriere.
The mountains take a special kind of rider, not one who can manage pain but one who can break completely clear of it, the way Pantani had done. To wait while your legs go numb and your lungs cramp, then to face not hills (as I had) but mountains, real mountains, roads that rise at a 10% grade for mile-after-mile, and then not to ride but to race those roads, well, you beat cancer Lance, and we love you, but, uh...no.
Back in Atlanta I was alone that day. Both my kids were in school, their mom would pick them up. I had finished writing for the day, I was sitting before the TV. It was a quiet mountain road, I remember, a hard day, it looked cold, the kind of day that gets under your bike shorts, climbs into your chest, and makes you wish for nothing but the sag wagon and bed.
Yet here came Lance! On the final climb of the day, alongside climbers, real climbers, the slaves of the road, here came Lance, the cancer patient. (You're not considered a former patient until you've been clear, or "in remission," for five years.) He rose out of his pedals, he swerved around the group, he was using this new pedaling action he'd learned, "Granny gearing" we'd called it in Texas, a high cadence in a low gear. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, legs pumping so hard I feared the metal of the cranks might break, the frame shaking from side-to-side under the strain. Bang, bang, bang, bang, up the mountain road, toward the sky, not riding, no, racing. Racing. And winning.
Maybe it was the music. Maybe the announcer set me up. But I cried that day. I cried like I never had before, like I couldn't months later, when my own father passed away 3,000 miles from me, in a California hospital bed. Death was his choice, I'd convince myself. Life was mine. Go, Lance Go! Go! Go! Go...
When Lance crossed the line, and he raised his arms in triumph, I felt as though I had won, too. I watched every day of that Tour, saw the drama of his struggles with other contenders, and I watched as he rode every day in yellow. When I saw him stand in Paris and receive the final jersey, saw him turn to the crowd, heard the Star Spangled Banner on the Champs Elysee, well, I cried again.
Lance Armstrong has now passed into history. He was won the Tour six times, more than Hinault, more than Indurain, more than anyone. He was won it dramatically, he has won it narrowly, and he has won going away. He has mastered every climb, and memorized every turn.
Lance Armstrong has fulfilled the promise Joe saw for him years ago, when he was just riding the FM roads I started on. He is a brand, a household name . He is the greatest athlete of my lifetime, and as far as I'm concerned he has earned every accolade, every dollar, every drop of happiness he can wrest from this life, ten-fold.
And me? I turn 50 in a few months. But I can get to Stone Mountain on my yellow bike, I can go around it and get back home, 29 miles in two hours and change. I can pick my way through back roads to the Atlanta Airport, and find my way home in the same time. I've ridden the 35-mile loop through the heart of town, past my kids' soccer fields in Tucker, and gotten home safe.
But the final question is for you. The question is, what is sport?
For most of us sport is competition. It's victory and defeat. But if sport is just a story, or a TV program, if you're just a spectator, then I fail to see the meaning of it.
Sport is life. Sport is finding yourself, somewhere, maybe indoors, maybe outdoors, on a mountain or underwater, doing something hard you like to do, something you have practiced. Sport is finding yourself alone, with your heart pounding, the sweat pouring down, your breath coming in gasps, and measuring yourself, against the day, the week, the year.
A sport should be your life companion, a second companion if you're blessed with a good marriage. Your sport should bring you home, feeling competitive, riding into middle age and beyond healthy, strong, and vital. A sport should leave you ready for work, whether that work means pounding a typewriter or pushing a broom.
Everybody deserves a sport. For my kids it's soccer, and when they come off their fields they're often followed on by a large group of Mexican-Americans, men hot from hard jobs, some with their shirts off, round bellies browned by the sun, chasing a ball and calling out to one another, joy on their faces and in their hearts.
I pray my children can find a sport that lasts them all their lives. I pray you will, too. Whether you're on the bike, or on foot, on a court or a field, in a YMCA or off by yourself, the real competition is always against the moment. You may not live longer, but you'll live well, you'll live strong, and no day of your life will ever be wasted.
That's what Lance taught me, and I thought about it as I rode home, not too tired, nor too sweaty, glorious in victory and ready for my day. Thanks, Lance, for getting me back on the bike. Godspeed.
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