People get all hung up about nipples, because people get all hung up about things. We all have two nipples, unless they’ve been removed for medical reasons. My dog has ten of them, and he hasn’t used them for anything as far as I can tell, other than freaking out the kids. “Why does he have so many nipples?” they ask in horror. “Because evolution is a lie,” I tell them.
They’ve developed a fine sense for sarcasm, my kids.
Strictly speaking a nipple is a raised valve of sorts that emits a liquid: milk, water, grease. Think of nursing mothers, mechanics greasing ball joints, gerbils drinking in little plastic cages. Then, because we’re hung up on nipples, we start to see them everywhere, anywhere a small protrusion dares to protrude.
Nipples is also a 1969 free jazz album by Peter Brötzmann, which one critic described as “aggravating, inscrutable, cacophonous and soulless.” He had me at aggravating.
Cycling has tons of nipples. Your wheels have spoke nipples. Your water bottle has a nipple. Your valve stems, they’ve got nipples too. And unlike my dog, Django, who will never nurse puppies and spends most of his day asleep anyway, your bike is almost useless without its nipples.
If you’ve ever stripped a spoke nipple you know how quickly the bike can be incapacitated by nipple failure. In olden times, and still today if you’re a real nerd about these things, high quality spoke nipples were brass. “He’s got a real set of brass nipples on him,” said no one ever, but I sure wish they had.
Water bottle nipples seem, to me, substandard. They leak a lot, which is not all that surprising given they’re made entirely of plastic. The nipple on a hydration pack is much better, although I never don’t feel like a gerbil, when I drink from one.
Consider, too, your valve stem nipples. If you’ve ever snapped one of those off by the side of a far-flung roadway, you know the grim depths of nippletastrophe. Perhaps one of the defining traits of nipples is that they can be delicate, finicky even. In the ’50s and ’60s, “a finicky nipple” was an expression used to describe any hard-to-navigate situation, like the Cuban Missile Crisis.
That’s a lie, but the idea of JFK looking at his brother Bobby and saying, in his thick Boston accent, “This thing with Kruschev is a real finicky nipple,” gives me significant pleasure.
And let’s not forget, you probably have two of them yourself, whether they’re capable of emitting a useful fluid or not. And your main concern about them, while you’re riding a bike, is that they not get chafed. As an ardent and vigorous sweater, I have to worry about my nipples all summer long, smearing them with a variety of salves and unguents to spare me the searing pain of the post ride, hot shower realization that I’ve spent the pedaling day essentially sanding them off my chest.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door,” by which he meant the way forward is through improving people’s everyday lives. I’d argue our mousetraps are just fine, but our nipples could use a serious upgrade. They’re supple when they need to be firm and firm when they need to be supple. Women, for some reason, aren’t allowed to show theirs in public. It all makes about as much sense as free jazz, nuclear brinksmanship, or a grown man, greasing his hairy chest before he goes for a bike ride.