Friday, December 24, 2010

This is the only Christmas song that matters

"So happy Christmas.
I love you, baby.
I can see a better time
When all our dreams come true"

Friday, December 17, 2010

Goody Blake's my neighbor

I “rescued” a little old lady / hoarder neighbor this morning. She lives in the worst house on the block, one that appears from the outside to be filled entirely with crap. If her van is a microcosm for her house, there must be tons of stuff crammed in there. Tons. Because her van was full to the brim with disposable cameras, fliers, ratty blankets, extension cords, mismatched shoes, stacks of poster board…god knows what else.

Her car was stuck on the street on the very steep hill beneath our house. I was hurrying the girls into our CRV to take them to school, while neighbor-hoarder lady was spinning her front wheels on the ice.

Cars get stuck on that hill every time it snows or sleets. They always just roll back down the hill. But neighbor hoarder lady just kept spinning. 

Next time, the rock’ll stay on top of the hill. Next time.

Her house is the one the Habitat for Humanity people visited this summer. They all wore matching t-shirts and worked in the yard, trimming hedges, piling yard waste in recycling bins, scraping out the gutters. The little old lady sat in a rusty lawn chair and watched them work.

This fall, I left a broken lawn mower and weed eater out by the curb; I was going to find an Omaha version of Freecycle. They were gone by evening. The next day, they appeared in her yard with hand-written “for sale” signs draped over them.

Neighbor-hoarder lady has huge Santa Claus poster in the window of her side screen door. All year. It makes the arrival of Christmas season feel anticlimactic.

Just as was about to throw the car in drive and head down the hill, I realized that I was standing next to neighbor-hoarder lady’s van, asking if I could help. “Can you get me to the top?” she asked.

“No. You’re on solid ice. Can you get yourself back down?”

“No, I can’t.” Rheumy redness around the iris, sagging epicanthic folds draped over the eye sockets. Patchy jaundiced skin. Arthritic knuckles clenched-white on the wheel. “Can you?”

Can I what? Save you from whatever familial, financial, or mental state has consigned you to driving a 20-year old Lumina filled with shit, plugging the holes in the dike that holds back the demons or the grief with piles and piles of accumulated trash? Save my grandmother from a wailing lung rattle and desperate lunge for death? Make my daughter suddenly NOT autistic? Keep my mother happy despite her disabilities and loneliness? Comfort the three of my good friends who are struggling through divorces? Find jobs for all my colleagues? Catch the wind?

“I think so,” I told her.

I opened her van door and offered her my arm. She clutched it like a long-lost maiden aunt whom I could always charm.  I caught her twice as we scuttled from the middle of the street to a nearby driveway.

I got in her van and slowly backed it down the hill and pulled into an alley--but only after I put it in gear and tried to make it to the top. Jesus. We just have to experience suffering for ourselves, don’t we?

I walked back up the hill and found her sitting in the snow. She hadn’t fallen. I walked on, got in my car, and turned to look at two very wide-eyed daughters. “Everything’s okay,” I said. “We’re just helping a neighbor.”

I eased down the hill and hopped out to help her into our car. “I thank the good Lord for you,” she said. Katie became the welcoming committee. “Hi, Mrs. Neighbor Lady! What’s your name? I’m Katie, this is my sister Abbey, and that’s my Daddy. He’s still a college teacher. His name is Eric. Are you okay?”

Katie’s smart. She’s empathetic. Her autism only manifests in awkward socialization: over-the-top reactions, immoderate enthusiasm, obliviousness to another’s personal space, a complete deafness to social propriety or decorum. Thank god. She was instantly caring and concerned. She forgot to be scared of the neighbor-hoarder lady or to worry about the social awkwardness of a smelly old lady’s humiliation about getting stuck in the middle of the street.

Neighbor hoarder lady's name is Sonia. We drove her down the hill, and I walked her to her car and waited while she pulled out of the alley and turned north, headed around our block from the other side of the hill.

Somewhere, Adam Smith writes about sympathy, about it being motivated by a fear of the object that inspires the feeling. As if the fate of the other person will reach out and infect you.  One of the New Historicists calls the process “interpolation.” The object somehow reconstitutes the subject by placing him or her within its gaze. “There but for the grace of God go I.” The kind of shuddering realization that all of us are one bad decision away from spending the rest of our lives muttering in the gutter.

Or from ending up old, alone, impoverished, decrepit, buttressed only by piles of crap.

“Know what our jobs are, girls?” I waited for them to think as we drove to school.

“Are we late?” Abbey asked.

“Yeah, but it’s okay,” I said. “Know why?”

“Because helping her was more important?” Abbey asked.

“Yep,” I said. “Our job is to remember that.”

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A fasted state makes you faster?

My biggest limiters in cycling have always been my power to weight ratio and my back. I'm desperately trying to eliminate them for the coming season, and an interesting article in yesterday's Times may have offered a solution.

See the chart below? It's pretty typical of most years: I start out heavy after the holidays, slowly chip away at my weight before racing season, hit a 3-4 week window when my power goes up and my body weight goes down, either win or dictate the winner of a race in mid-summer, and then fall apart again.

The wins have all come in either flat crits or rolling road races. I've never finished a "hilly" road race with the leaders. Ever. The one time I made the podium in a technical, undulating crit in Santa Cruz, I crashed on the third lap and raced with an anguished fury that sustained a weird, Hulk-like transformation.

This year was a double-whammy: my bulging discs kept me off the bike and out of the weight room for almost all of December, January, and February. I'd have a good week followed by a week of laying around and grousing about the pain. I was heavy and had no aerobic base in April, so I sucked until July, had one good race day, and stopped racing because the bottom fell out under all that aerobically unsupported intensity. 

Two additions this year have defended against re-aggravating my back: yoga and chiropractic care. I go to at least one yoga class a week, and I've maintained my monthly DC appointments even after all the symptoms have faded.

So I've been on the bike more this fall than any in my recent memory. I've done almost no intensity, just spun around for 2-3 hours with Bryan on Tuesdays, gone long by myself most Saturdays, and ridden to the shop and back on Sundays. In between, I sneak in lunch-time rides of about an hour most days, and I've lifted weights at least two days a week.

As you can see in the graph, I'm at 201 right now. My body fat's around 13%, and I'm nine pounds ahead of last year's schedule. IF I can get my power at threshold back to 375 watts AND weigh 185 by race season, I'll have that magic power to weight ratio of ~4.5 watts/kg. The highest I ever made it was 4.07, and I won a race or two at that ratio.

I know I'll never be able to climb with the leaders in a Cat 3 race. But if I can limit my losses and stay close on the rollers, I can bridge on windy flats and rollers.

But how in the world can I lose weight without riding long base miles? And how in the world can I ride long when I saw THIS out my office window this morning?

Yes, Mike. Gravel. Okay, Mark, gravel. Rafal? Gravel. I'm getting a 'cross bike. I'm there. But still, most weekdays are a little too busy to drive 30 minutes to find gravel to ride.

So I'm on the trainer. I've now ridden three days in a row for an hour at a time. Tuesday and Wednesday featured some tempo and sub-threshold work, while today was just 60 minutes of aerobic spinning. (Breaking Bad? Bad choice for the trainer. It depresses the hell out of me at 6:00 AM)

I should go ride the trainer with the guys at the shop. But again, 20 minutes to get the damn bike on the car, pack a bag, set up the trainer, etc's a time-suck. And I have a book to write.

So here's the Times piece. According to a new study in the Journal of Physiology, exercising before breakfast in a fasted state burns mucho fateo:

One of the groups ate a hefty, carbohydrate-rich breakfast before exercising and continued to ingest carbohydrates, in the form of something like a sports drink, throughout their workouts. The second group worked out without eating first and drank only water during the training. They made up for their abstinence with breakfast later that morning, comparable in calories to the other group’s trencherman portions.

The experiment lasted for six weeks. [. . .] The men who ate breakfast before exercising gained weight [. . .] they had become more insulin-resistant and were storing a greater amount of fat in their muscles.
Only the group that exercised before breakfast gained almost no weight and showed no signs of insulin resistance. They also burned the fat they were taking in more efficiently. “Our current data,” the study’s authors wrote, “indicate that exercise training in the fasted state is more effective than exercise in the carbohydrate-fed state to stimulate glucose tolerance despite a hypercaloric high-fat diet.”
The experimenters gave all three groups a high-fat diet typical of the holidays. One group didn't exercise at all, one ate a big breakfast before exercise, and the third group worked out before breakfast but ate the same amount of calories AFTER the workout.

I accidentally put myself in the third group by getting on the trainer right after getting out of bed and eating breakfast with my kids about twenty minutes after finishing the workout. I'm NOT eating a totally high-fat diet (I'll cheat like hell on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve), so I'm curious to see if my fat loss will be steady as I follow this plan.

As my coach once proclaimed, "EOB at 193? DAMN!"

Let's see what happens over the next four weeks. As always, your thoughts are welcome.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

sweathog weightloss

This morning, the trainer taught me a lesson and created a conundrum.

Good things to know: I can sustain a 6:00 AM wake-up call to ride for two days in a row. I again crawled out of a warm bed to slather cold chamois creme on my junk and slither into raggedy spandex. Watching Tivo'd episodes of Boardwalk Empire helps, but Breaking Bad is too riveting and too depressing: I find myself watching instead of spinning.

My newish Hincapie chamois makes the aforementioned junk go a little numb, while my crappy old Voler chamois allows full circulation.Too bad the seams slice into my groin.

Here's the conundrum: I weighed 201.6 right after I used the bathroom. Then I rode for an hour  while slowly drinking a 24-ounce bottle of water. I weighed 200.2 after I finished the workout. That's 1.4 pounds of water loss in ONE HOUR! Doesn't that seem a little excessive?

The temperature in the room was 68, and I kept a big box fan pointed at my torso as I rode. The workout was 10 minutes of easy spinning, 3*10 minutes of ME (Zone 3) with 5 minutes rest between intervals, and a 15-minute LE (zone 2) cool-down. My Garmin said I burned about 700 calories and averaged around 137 beats per minute for the hour. 

Adding the 24 ounces of fluid intake, I lost almost 3 pounds of water during a one-hour workout. Gotta think about ways to increase my fluid intake and retention. There's just no way to replace that much fluid during a 3-hour road race.

Tricky Dick taught us the potential costs of excessive perspiration. If homeboy could lose a presidential debate and election because he sweat like a monkey for 90 minutes, how much could all that sodium loss cost me?!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Who knew miracles come in pairs?

Two minor revolutions erupted in Hobbit House today:

1. The folder marked "18th Cen Ag Writing .pdfs + searches" is empty.

In the last 13 months, I've read almost 20,000 pages of agricutural writing published between 1796 and 1810. Every page of every book that mentioned the English Board of Agriculture has either passed through that folder or across my computer screen. I've compiled a relational database of almost 1,000 entries and spent about 1,800 hours poring through pamphlets about manure and haystacks, looking for ideological needles. It's been the single most challenging academic, professional, intellectual, and laboring effort of my life.

What was to be one chapter of a book may now constitute an entire book unto itself. I'll still write the dissertation version of the chapter, but I have enough material to make some substantial and new claims about the ideological productions of the Romantic period. Holy crap. I'm so glad to be done.

2. I dragged my fat ass out of bed at 6:00 AM and completed a difficult interval workout on the trainer, and I had enough time left over to get the girls out of bed and off to school on time. Now I have 6 hours of interrupted writing time before I have to pick them up.

Honestly, I feel like a page has been turned. A burden lifted. Now I just have to write the damn thing. Then, I get to send it off to the committee and start thinking again about Wordsworth's poetry.

THAT will be a homecoming.
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Monday, December 13, 2010

Holiday epistles from the Great White North

Blank must be freezing his bollocks off--the Twin Cities got about a gazillion inches of snow yesterday.

He's also a huge Tom Waits fan. I'm an aficionado, but Blank is true devotee.

The object of my devotion, of course, is the red-headed siren. Accidentally learning that she covered old Tom's "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis" made me laugh and laugh:
hey Charley I almost went crazy
after Mario got busted
so I went back to Omaha to
live with my folks
but everyone I used to know
was either dead or in prison
so I came back to Minneapolis
this time I think I'm gonna stay.

Talk about a failed homecoming.

It's cold here in Omaha now; I rode the trainer on Saturday and Sunday rather than fight 20-mph wind gusts, 10-degree temperatures, and 2 inches of swirling snow. But Blank, man--your conditions must be rough as hell. Keep the faith. This one's for you.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Watching the wheels in empty gardens

My work often intersects with the zeitgeist, maybe because the social foxhole I've dug while writing my dissertation has obscured my view. I grapple with 18th and 19th-century metaphors of food production, and I tend to draw these images forward into our current ideological climate. Gardens gardens everywhere, and not a spot to dig.

The earliest literature I examine is from the 17th century; Milton's Paradise Lost sets the stage for much of what follows in the 19th-century Romantic period. I think that the poem's depiction of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden set off a chain reaction of empty gardens in our literature that extends all the way to the pictures on cartons of organic milk that I see at Whole Foods.

But the first empty garden I can remember thinking about comes from my own puberty. I was 12 years old when this song was released, and I was deeply moved by its chorus. When I rediscovered Wordsworth in my late twenties, I realized that the conceit of artist as gardener is much, much older than Elton John.

Commemorating the day of a death seems morbid, but martyrs are partly defined by the ways in which a culture extracts their sacrifice. Dying wasn't John Lennon's choice, any more than it was Martin's or Malcom's or Bobby's. But his message made him a target, and his loss defined a decade. Watching my mother sobbing in the car when the news came across the radio certainly marked a transition in my childhood. I already knew that art was precious, but December 8th, 1980 taught me that its loss could be devastating.

Today, I'm going to listen to Rubber Soul and Revolver while I read about farm size in 1797. And when I take a break to kit up and ride--alone, so far away from the gardens of California I grew to treasure and now so dearly miss--I'll listen to the homage to domestic tranquility that John Lennon wrote before he died.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Who the hell are all these people?!

This blog received 89 page views today, including:
Rochester, NY
Richardson, TX (a recurring offender, but I  have no idea who)
Manchester, UK
Oslo, Norway
Springdale, AR
Indiana, Pennsylvania
Staten Island, NY
Woodbridge, VA
Madison, WI
Vervies, Liege, Belgium
Newton, MA
Houston, TX
Annistion, AL
Wilmington, DE
Plus many, many Norcal and Nebraska / Iowa readers.

I'm clueless about who any of you are, but thanks for stopping by. Writing here is usually just my way of clearing out some cobwebs; my cultural allusions typically reveal much more of myself than does my prose.

I also use this forum to sell myself on the idea of a riding life in Omaha and the notion of a thinking life divided between two time zones. It's getting easier because of all the great folks I've met in Omaha.

But I'm clearly firing wide of the mark I most want to hit, so I think I may change the tenor of this communication in the coming weeks. I've been singing in and of the wind for far too long, and it's evidently grown deaf to my appeals.

Nevertheless, here's a last salvo. But it's also about the bike. A little.  Listen to the opening.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Little death-traps of snow

During an Aggie Cycling training camp four years ago, my second-favorite female teammate might have called me a "pussy." That may not have been her exact word, but since she used to be a Marine, who knows? 

I grew up in Nebraska, so I know winter. But three years of living in California helped me forget. It doesn't get really cold in Northern California, especially not along the coast of Sonoma County. But during that January training camp, it WAS really cold, so we had to ride through patches of ice hidden in the shadows of redwood trees stretched across the road.

My second-favorite female teammate and I were pulling a group of 20 riders; the "A" men had mountain-goated up and over the side of the hill, so the "A" women and the "B" men were trying to organize all of the rookie and "C" riders into a double paceline. Things were not going well. Most of the newbies hadn't ridden in a group that big, many of them were skittish about riding so close to people, and some eager guys kept gapping slower riders by pulling through too fast. It was, to adopt another Marine Corps colloquialism, a "total cluster."

So Amy the Marine, my second-favorite female teammate, started sitting on the front and not letting people pull through. I rolled up next to her, and we set a moderate pace to keep everyone together.

The goal was to teach people how to sit in close quarters and draft, so Amy and I tried to maintain a steady cadence and even tempo. But every time we came across a patch of ice, I involuntarily braked and sent a ripple back through the peleton. Just the thought of riding a 23 cm tire at speed through frost and ice kind of freaked me out, and I told her so. That's when Amy smiled and called me a "pussy."

I was a little smitten.

I have no idea what Amy's doing now; she finished an engineering degree at Davis, went to work for Lockeed, and stopped racing her bike. But the memory of her face popped into my head today as I rode along the Keystone Trail.

See, I've promised myself and others that I'll ride my bike outside all through this Omaha winter. I didn't get out last year--back pain, huge snowfalls, etc etc. But I'm healthy and motivated now, so I want to capitalize.

Since the start of the fall, I've ridden in 19, 26, and 33 degrees. And I feel like kind of a bad ass. I enjoy the pained nose and numb toes, even while I'm bitching about them. There's a rugged individualism and sense of accomplishment that comes from outlasting all the (sane) people who refuse to (have enough sense not to) venture outside into blistering winds and crunchy air.

But I'm still apprehensive about riding in snow and ice. Omaha got a little of both on Monday; the intersection at the bottom of the hill beneath my house looked like a demolition derby when I left to take the girls to school. Most of it melted yesterday, so at noon today I rolled down my driveway and north along Country Club Blvd.

It was sunny and 38 when I left the house. My new Bontrager RLX booties seem like an improvement over my softshell Pearl Izumis; my toes got chilly, but not at all numb.

I tacked northwest from Dundee through the Keystone neighborhood to Democracy Park, the northern terminus of one of Omaha's major hike/bike trails. The trail was bone dry as I spun southward, and the tailwind pushed me along at 22 mph. I was spinning so lazily that I almost didn't see it until I was on top of it:

Okay, so this is a summer photograph that I found online. But see the shadow cast across the trail by the overpass? Yeah, that bit of pavement was covered in solid ice and inch-deep snow this afternoon. I immediately thought of Amy: "E,  just coast right through it! I thought you were from Nebraska--you should know how to handle ice. Pussy." I think I remember the first part of her advice word for word, but I'm still not sure if she swore at me. That might have been my third-favorite female teammate, the one who never hesitated to tell me, in no uncertain terms, exactly what she thought.

So when I almost hit the patch of ice and snow today, I slammed on my brakes, skidded to a halt, and called myself a pussy. And that's exactly what I did every single time I came across a patch of ice. I think it happened five times in half an hour. Five times I told myself, "just roll right through it," skidded to a halt, and called myself a pussy. Five times. 

But I rode outside in December.

At least the trail didn't look like this:

But it will, sooner or later. If this winter is more like some of the ones I remember from my childhood, snow will fall, melt, and fall again. Maybe not every week, and maybe we'll have stretches in the 30s and 40s in February. But I'm preparing for the worst. I just gotta learn to sack up in the snow.

To that end, I have chosen a winter / 'cross / touring bike: the
Soma Doublecross. If my spreadsheets are correct, a 60 cm
built up with SRAM Rival, a Bontrager X-Lite AL cockpit, and my trusty Kysrium hoops should tip the scales at just over 19.5 pounds--almost 3-4 pounds lighter than the Fisher Presidio or Surly Cross-Check I was thinking about getting. I still really like the Presidio; Munson's is cool as hell, but it's just a bit too heavy.  I almost bought a used LeMond Poprad  last week, but I couldn't confirm that the inside of the tubes had been rust-proofed, so I let it go.

I think the Soma will be a good get. And the fact that the company is named after a San Francisco neighborhood bespeaks my cautious optimism about the course of my academic career. Plus, there are many online pictures of the Doublecross  that look like this one:

Let it snow.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


I could take a Greyhound home but when I got there it'd be gone
along with everything a home is made up of.
So I'll take two of what you're having and I'll take all of what you got
to kill this goddamn lonely, goddamn lonely love.

20,000 miles to an oasis
20,000 years will I burn
20,000 chances I wasted
Waiting for the moment to turn
I would give my life to find it
I would give it all
Catch me if I fall

Walking through the woods I have faced it
Looking for something to learn
30,000 thoughts have replaced it,
Never in my time to return

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Provisions for the Winter Siege

Last October, I re-aggravated the weak lumbar discs which have plagued my cycling for the last six years.  Several aftershocks kept me in near-constant pain until March. It sucked.

So did the weather. A foot of snow fell in late November and didn't really melt until late March. Storm after storm after storm rolled through and pounded Omaha almost every week. I lived in the Midwest for 30 years before we moved to California for grad school, but my first winter back in Omaha was the worst I can ever remember. Everyone I know agrees--it's hard to handle waking up day after day under constant cloud cover and incessant 15-degree temperatures.

So I hardly rode my bike at all last winter. I set up a trainer in the basement and tried to do some easy spinning, but even those brief sessions pained my back. I jogged and used the elliptical at the gym a few times a week, but my inability to sit and work at my desk or ride my bike really depressed the hell out of me. For the last six years, I've defined myself as a teacher, writer, and cyclist, and last winter I really couldn't be any of those things. My maudlin blog posts probably reflected that.

I managed to salvage a bit of fitness in July; after throwing in a quick month of base training and suffering through some truly poor racing in May and June, I had a good day at the Nebraska State Road Race Championship and enjoyed a solid week of recreational mountain biking in Crested Butte.

 Now I'm faced with the daunting prospect of another Nebraska winter.

I've ridden three days this week, through 35-degree temperatures. I can handle that kind of cold; aside from some numb toes under my neoprene shoecovers, I've stayed pretty comfortable in Pearl Izumi Thermafleece tights, Pearl Izumi Barrier lobster claw mittens, and various doubled-up long-sleeve jerseys over my trusty DeFeet baselayers. Miles  promises to loan me some MTB Sidi winter boots, while MOD and Redemske are all over Bontrager's new RXL bootie, so I hope to resolve the dilemma of my frozen pigs before the mercury hits the fan.

But man, it's gonna get cold. Maybe not as consistently cold as last winter, but still--colder than 35. 
It's also gonna get wet. Snow, melting snow, slush, sleet, ice--various bits of meteorological and metaphorical sh*t are gonna fall from the sky and linger on the ground.

Once upon a time, I was a winter-riding badass. I commuted from Field Club to UNOmaha everyday through throughout the winter of 2002. The first day I rode to work, it was two degrees. TWO! My commute was only around four miles, but still. TWO! Granted, I had 10 pounds more fat for insulation and 10 pounds more muscle for convection, but still. TWO!

Now I don't commute anywhere. I read and write at a desk that's only 47 steps from my bed. I drive or walk my kids six blocks to school. But I really, really want to try training outside this winter.

And I want to break legs next season. I sucked so badly for so long last year, and next summer will likely be my last as a dissertation-writer before I start teaching full-time. I'd like to see what I can accomplish with a solid aerobic base to build on.

So, I have some choices to make. Because I work part-part-part time at the Trek Stores of Omaha, I have access to some pretty cool stuff. But since I'm scraping by on savings and fellowship leftovers, I can't blow a whole ton of dough on everything I want.

I just sold a carbon frame on eBay from an old sponsor for "x" dollars. I'm going to spend those funds on:

  • AND a Cycleops Fluid trainer

For simplicity's sake, let's assume I can afford the power meter AND EITHER the trainer, the Surly, or the Trek. I want to do my base training outside if possible, but I need to plan on riding inside a fair amount, too, especially when the temperature drops below 20 degrees. 'Cause I ain't no winter riding badass no more. My friends' recent Twitter-smack can attest to that.

I already have a really crappy Performance-branded trainer that I bought 10 years ago for race-day warm-ups. It's ungodly loud and has a cumbersome resistance curve.  It'll do trhe job, but the thought of completing two-hour base mile rides on a crap trainer in my basement is as about as appealing as undergoing root-canal work on a passenger jet full of flatulent adults and screaming babies.

However, all the coaches and experts say that cyclists can replicate long, slow base miles by doing shorter, precise interval efforts on the trainer -- hence the powermeter. And come springtime, when I start doing serious intervals, the powermeter will eliminate most of the training ambiguity caused by the vagaries of my heart rate and the unreliability of my perceived exertion. I'll be able to train smarter and more efficiently with power than with heart rate. No debate there.

But this winter? Oh, crap. Winter. My man Sam worried that winter would make him laggard and unproductive, even as it passed:

And WINTER, slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
And I, the while, the sole unbusy thing,
Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.
I ain't going out like that. Not again. I SHALL kick winter's ass this year, come hell or high water. So,  here's my dilemma. Lots of sand, salt, debris, and grime will cover the roads of Nebraska and Iowa from December through March. I don't want to ride my carbon race bike through all that--it'll damage the frame, corrode the components, and endanger my health. I know MOD did all his winter gravel riding on his Chronus last year, but I'm going to sell my Fuji Team Issue in March, and I want to get top value for it as a near-new frame.  

I'd like a durable, value-based winter bike, and 'cross componentry and tires seem like a good way to go. They'll handle gravel, sand, muck--you name it. I can mount full-coverage fenders. I can pedal along in a stable position and spin up hills in the smaller front chainring. I can negotiate rougher surfaces and road debris with fatter tires, but I can also run road tires when the snow melts during a freakish 45-degree February heat wave.

But what about those inevitable 10-degree days? Should I get the trainer and just plan to ride inside whenever the weather's less than ideal, or should I plan to ride outside on a new 'cross bike in all but the worst conditions? Bike for outside, or trainer for inside? (Powermeter for either one)

What would YOU do?

(BTW, Brady, Shim, and Limpach rocked a ride last January that exemplifies my ambitions for this winter. Details are found here)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Waiting in Vain?

The Replacements, The Drive-By Truckers, and JTE all coalesce.

Waiting's a recurring theme.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Wild Swans at Coole

THE TREES are in their autumn beauty,           
The woodland paths are dry,           
Under the October twilight the water           
Mirrors a still sky;           
Upon the brimming water among the stones                    
Are nine and fifty swans.           
The nineteenth Autumn has come upon me           
Since I first made my count;           
I saw, before I had well finished,           
All suddenly mount             
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings           
Upon their clamorous wings.           
I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,           
And now my heart is sore.           
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,             
The first time on this shore,           
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,           
Trod with a lighter tread.           
Unwearied still, lover by lover,           
They paddle in the cold,            
Companionable streams or climb the air;           
Their hearts have not grown old;           
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,           
Attend upon them still.           
But now they drift on the still water             
Mysterious, beautiful;           
Among what rushes will they build,           
By what lake’s edge or pool           
Delight men’s eyes, when I awake some day           
To find they have flown away?

I take my girls on after-school outings at least twice a week. Last week we drove to Central Park Mall, a city park just three blocks away from the first apartment where we lived when Abbey was born. She spent the first six months of her life bouncing through downtown Omaha and the Old Market in a Bjorn baby sling.  Nine years later, we ran around on the Mall and watched the swans.  Assuming she goes away to college when she turns 18, her time with me is half over. That fact drives almost all my choices, now.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Achin' To Be

When I got her Facebook message last Friday, I wondered if anything was wrong. It was an innocuous "where are you today?", but it made me think she might need my help. I've learned to trust those instincts--why else would she contact me? 

Many of my friendships involve that role. I'm a listener, I suppose. Women share things with me. They always have. 

But for about a year, I've avoided counseling people or listening to their talk about their struggles. My distant friends still call every now and again to bend my ear, but the technological barrier of the telephone shelters me from refracted angst. And the longer I'm in Omaha, the less frequent those calls become. Time effaces the distance. People get used to not having me around.

I had a healthy dose of heart to hearts when I traveled east in August and west in October, but I've had few of those conversations with people here in the middle. I haven't been doing a lot of empathizing. Or socializing. I watch Husker games with the Irish Mob and ride bikes with newer friends, but I've watched two new acquaintances struggle with loss and kept myself apart from it, withholding sympathy.

I responded to her Facebook message last Friday by saying that I was home with the girls all day. But still, I worried just a bit. And ignoring that concern felt like a violation of all the other friends I've had.

We met briefly for coffee on Monday. The talk was about writing, about focusing on the process and ignoring fears about the outcome. A thinker can't allow concerns about how the work will be perceived to impinge on the creative or productive process, and I reminded my old / new friend of that.

But I was talking to myself.

The fears are paralyzing. Who will ever want to read this? Who will ever hire someone who writes such under-theorized drivel? Is there any tangible connection between all of the archival research and the poetry I'm trying to interpret? These worries kill the project before it ever takes shape.

I wrote a blog post this summer about how the fear of fear kills any chance of winning a bike race. This current paralysis in my work is the same damn thing.

I'm also letting fear keep me away from people. Leaving my Omaha friends to go to graduate school seven years ago was really hard. Leaving my Davis friends 12 months ago to move back here really sucked. I don't want to go through that loss again, so I'm keeping to myself as I try to finish my dissertation. But that's just another example of allowing a worry about the destination ruin the fun of getting there.

So the next time someone invites me to a pub crawl or a half-price beer night at Dario's, I may just turn up.

*       *        *

Last night, I worked three hours at the bike shop and had a good chat with Lowell about motivation. He's running a marathon in December to force himself to keep training through the Autumn. I congratulated him on his efforts and lamented not racing 'cross to keep myself motivated.

But now I wonder. What about riding for fun, for the sheer, unadulterated hell of it? Does time on the bike always have to be spent training for a goal? Do I always have to use my hobby to punish myself the same way I beat myself up about my work? "Gotta go train today so I don't get dropped next week!" 

It's bullshit. The objective this fall will be to write my book and ride my bike for fun. I'm still setting goals and deadlines, but I'm going to try acheiving them by enjoying the moments I spend in the pursuit.

*       *       *

It's windy today. The buckeye tree outside my office window is almost fluorescent yellow, and the sugar maple across the street is a shining sort of scarlet. I always think of my man Shelley at this time of year:
O WILD West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being           
Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead           
Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,           

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red.
 Shelley also worried about losing his work to fear, so he implored the wind for inspiration:
O! lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!           
  I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!           

A heavy weight of hours has chain'd and bow'd             
One too like thee—tameless, and swift, and proud.
My own metaphorical wind remains apart from me.  Tornado season's over, I suppose. So I'll have to content myself with this new autumn wind and hope that it's enough. But in the process, I'm going to try casting off what Blake called "mind-forg'd manacles."

The road's always been a good place to start. Imagine what's around the bend!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Insomnia's a killer

A good friend of mine works at night. I emailed him last week in the aftermath of the medical crisis, and he responded with news of his own.

It seems extended sleep deprivation can cause hypertension and diabetes. My insomnia exacerbates the mental stress of writing a dissertation, but he tells me that it may also lead to high blood pressure and blood sugar problems.

But the mind races, often about deadlines and unfinished work. I'm haunted by the fact that, last week, I didn't finish reading and annotating Communications to the Board of Agriculture, Volume VI. But what if I shouldn't have finished it? Maybe there's nothing relevant in its 800 pages? What if it has nothing to do with Wordsworth? What if I'm not smart enough to see the connections or too lazy to articulate them well in writing? What if I write the best dissertation I can, and there are no jobs anyway? That's the kind of crap that keeps me awake sometimes. One of the reasons I ride and train on the bike is because the physical effort helps anneal the psychic strain. It clears my head, so to speak--or it exhausts my body so much that I collapse into bed and pass out before my brain can start somersaulting.

But parenthood also wakes me in the middle of the night. In the last few months before Abbey was born, people always told me that I should "sleep NOW." I thought they were talking about the nighttime feedings that would subside after a few months. I experienced a few years of those; Katie's never been a great sleeper. But being woken up to feed your kid or help shush her back to sleep after a nightmare is a pleasure. It's a helluva lot easier than being woken by neurosis. At least when the bottle's empty, you can go back to bed.

But parenthood involves a lot more than feeding and storytelling. Kids hang a sword of Damocles
over their parents. Every choice affects other, helpless people. That power is terrifying at 5:30 AM. The threat of my failure looms large over their lives, too.

But what wakes me most often are synaesthetic vestiges of what's gone: mountain clarity, sage and lavender, camphor and old lady, calves glistening with embrocation, the disappointed expectation of crows, green winters, empathic "uh-huh's", oily magnolia leaves, sand in the shoes, emerald cities.

And the wind.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Still Fighting

Friends from three different time zones have sent "all well?" messages after reading some of my recent posts. Thanks. 

These same folks have also expressed a desire for cheerier, action-oriented content.

Others have asked, "Where's the bike stuff?!" Well, I'm training. I did some plyometrics and lifting on Monday, rode 30-30 miles in the hills on both Tuesday and Wednesday, ran and played soccer with Abbey last night, and will practice yoga this afternoon. My back is a wee bit creaky, but it hasn't slowed me down.

I'm also researching a new bike. Mod's fascination with 'cross and gravel has piqued my interest, so the two candidates are the Fisher Presidio and the Surly Crosscheck:

I want smooth-riding steel because aluminum has always beaten my back into submission.  And carbon won't survive the weeks of cold-weather gravel riding I hope to do with my new friends this winter. I guess Ti would be ideal, but who wants to spend that kind of coin on a second bike? And while I don't want to seriously race 'cross, a well-made steel frame with SRAM Rival components will let me toe a start line and not get totally destroyed.

These two bike options are what I can get through my one-day-a-week gig at the Trek Store of Omaha (South) . I could also opt for one of Trek's XO bikes, but the aluminum ride is just a bit too harsh for me. Don't get me wrong--I loved my ride on Lowell's version of the XO2. But the steel of the Presidio will be a bit more versatile for light touring and randonneuring with racks and/or fenders. Plus, I really like the understated and below-the-radar vibe these bikes exude.

So I'm still riding. I'm still reading the archive and writing the book. But mostly, I feed the girls breakfast, pack their lunches, take them to school, pick them up in the afternoon, take them on beaver-lodge hunts at a lake, accidentally expose them to patriarchal proselytizing when trying to teach them some Nebraska history, hike with them along the riverfront, take Kate to acting classes, and cheer for Abbey's soccer team. 

 We're still fighting it.

Everybody knows
It hurts to grow up
And everybody does
It's so weird to be back here.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

an update of sorts

After a week-long flirtation with medical disaster (everything's fine, but it was a scary few days), the long slog of a dissertation continues. Here are two moments that capture the seemingly endless process of trying to finish a book while chasing two kids and retaining a modicum of fitness and sanity. The first concerns a man grappling with the inevitability of failure, and the second...well, let's just say that when the writing's going well, the journey itself can be loads of fun.

Cognitive dissonance: the disconnect between expectations and reality.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

"One Fast Move or I'm Gone"

Back from Davis. Sorry I didn't make more of an announcement that I was visiting, but I had to keep the visit on the hush-hush. My friends Kevin and Vanessa just moved into a new place in Davis, and since Vanessa was also celebrating her 33rd birthday, Kevin asked me to come out to surprise Vanessa to help them celebrate.

I landed in Sacramento on Thursday and ate a burrito from El Mariachi, drank some Peet's coffee, popped into Wheelworks for a chat with Joe and bear hug from Adem, and shopped for records at Armadillo.

Kevin's job with a high-end home entertainment wholesaler has made him a bit of an audiophile; his speakers are almost as big as he is. He's also embraced the vinyl renaissance, so he's got a great turntable and wax reissues of, for example, London Calling, The Queen is Dead, and Closer.
But the great discovery of the weekend were two new albums by Jay Farrar and Justin Townes Earle.

The Jay Farrar is a collaboration with the Death Cab For Cutie guy that examines the novel Big Sur by Jack Kerouac. The Beats have always been vexing figures for me: one of my mentors at UN-Omaha who helped convince me to go to graduate school is a scholar of Beat-era literature; Gary Snyder's tenure in English at UC-Davis helped put their graduate program on my radar; a staged reading of the entirety of On the Road caused one of the only conflicts I ever had with another of my UNO mentors (she thought it was a sexist affront); my first visit to City Lights in 1997 showed me that San Francisco just might be Atlantis.  Subsequent visits to the city each awakened epochs of love and loss.

Farrar's "California" served as a fitting road-trip elegy for my time in California when I drove back to Omaha last year, and whenever I get wistfully "homesick" for Davis and the Bay Area, I listen to it still. But this new record is masterful. It features songs Farrar wrote for a documentary film called One Fast Move or I'm Gone: Kerouac's Big Sur.

This river of road,
It don't flow like it used to.
But it's more of a home
Than anywhere that I've ridden it to.

We used to dream together
But now I drink alone.
From the bottle to the tumbler
Is the only journey left I know.

And in my memory’s depths I retrace my steps.
I cannot find where I went wrong.
It was one fast move or I'm gone.

I found out at an early age I could make anything or plane
Disappear or cease to exist if I turn my back to it.
And that the interstates, they don't connect
Where you are to what you've left.
And the ghost of our dreams haunt the roads in between.

Though nothing could compare to the love we share
It just didn't have a place to belong.
It was one fast move or I'm gone.
One fast move or I'm gone.
One fast move or I'm gone.

Jack's battles with the bottle are well documented, but it's the reasons for his descent that I find both  attractive and repellent. Miraculously, I've dodged the genetic bullet of alcoholism by owning my addictive personality and turning those instincts toward slightly less self-destructive obsessions. But I find the addiction and recovery narrative endlessly fascinating. It informs much of my interest in Coleridge and De Quincy. But this track blames geographical displacement and lost loves for his malaise. Hmm. 

Addiction also features prominently in the current story about Justin Townes Earle. Given his father's fights with the needle and his namesake's early death from substance abuse, Earle's recent cancellation of his Omaha tour stop was pretty predictable--he's entered rehabilitation.

His new record is brilliant. Part of its appeal may have stemmed from Kevin's speakers and turntable, but it sounds good even on my shitty little computer-based system.

The penultimate track is a lament for Earle's brief time in Chicago and how it failed him. I like the lyrics because they seem to examine the oxymoronic notion that attempted relocation doesn't always lead to escape. One's demons can be bound to place, too, and nights spent mourning the distance often lead addicts to another substitute for home.

I come here with hopes and yeah,
I guess I came here with dreams
Now I'm all alone and
I can't even get to sleep
So take my heart and break it in
Send me back to the pines
Tired of lying awake and I
Feel like I'm running out of time

See my dreams before my eyes
Shadows on the wall
I ain't got no place I can fall

Snowing in off the lake
Punching holes in the dark
Through the lonely streets
Of Rogers Park

However, not all of my time in Davis was spent listening to plaintive alt-country music.  Tomorrow I'll blog about cycling with the new Master's Criterium California State Champion, gallivanting through the Mission and over Nob Hill with a crazed woman, warming the new house of some dear friends, and frantically researching some alarming medical tests on WebMD.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

It's been a year (about)

About one year ago, I was driving across the western half of the U.S. to relocate back to Omaha.

It feels like ten.

In the last 360 days, I've driven the entire length of Interstate 80 from San Francisco to Omaha and from Omaha to Washington DC. I'm pretty sure I knew what I was looking for. I was just too entrenched to admit it to myself. And now that I know I can admit it, it's probably too late.

While I've been a pretty ardent non-fan of Beck for the last 15 years, today I've found myself listening to this song about driving, memory, and regret. It's been caused by one of those weird Pandora moments, I suppose, when the universe responds to an unspoken need:

All that's left now is memory.

Does memory always lead to regret? I'm thinking here of the last moment from the first season of Mad Men, when Draper tells a client:
Nostalgia - it's delicate, but potent. [. . .] In Greek, "nostalgia" literally means "the pain from an old wound." It's a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.
The fragility of that twinge is what makes nostalgia powerful. You have to try to preserve it, because the pain will help you repress it if you're not careful.

But I don't want repression anymore. I could probably watch Eternal Sunshine once a day for the rest of my life, if only to remind myself not to forget. Forgetting may be easier....but remembering is truer:

Once the rain passes and the sun comes out, I'm going to go for a long, slow spin along the roads I've discovered with Redemske, Shim, Brady, PB, Rafal, and Tim.  New people.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

"God blessed me, I'm a free man
With no place free to go
I'm paralyzed and collared-tight
No pills for what I fear

This is crazy
I wish I was the moon tonight"

Crazy lady read my mind. 

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Once I was

Charlotte stuck this damn song in my head. I've been trying for two days to write a blog post to accompany it, but I just can't do it. I even posted something yesterday but then pulled it down almost immediately.

This kind of inarticulateness is really rare for me, so I know I must be onto something. I can usually hold forth for hours in both speech and prose (yes, I know that I sometimes talk waaay too much), so when an idea lodges itself in my head but won't let me express it, I usually take notice.

An explicitly stated inability or refusal to put something into words is a type of metaphor. My dissertation director calls it occupatio. It's a type of apophasis, a sort of definition by negation. Think of Shakespeare:

"Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds"

"Love = -(x)." But rather than definition by negation, occupatio occurs when the speaker claims that he or she cannot put something into words at all. Think of an athelete being interviewed on the field right after winning the big game:

Interviewer: Can you describe your feelings right now?
 Athlete: I can't put it into words.

I use this idea in my critical work a lot. Here's a snippet from my notes to my "Introduction to Literature" lecture on Romanticism. In "Tintern Abbey," Wordsworth tries to describe his former self and fails:
Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first
I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o'er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led: more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,
And their glad animal movements all gone by)
To me was all in all.--I cannot paint
What then I was.

Imagine that: the purveyor of what Keats called the "egotistical sublime," unable to describe who he used to be.

I think that may be what's happening to me right now. For the Wordsworthian speaker of "Tintern Abbey," the past, present, and future have all collapsed into one another:

And now, with gleams of half-extinguished thought,
With many recognitions dim and faint,
And somewhat of a sad perplexity,
The picture of the mind revives again:
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years.
Just like the Wordsworth of this poem, I find memory creeping up on me, and within that memory, I remember my former self anticipating the self that I would become. In other words, who did I used to think I'd be? And how does that formerly anticipated self differ from the person that I've actually become?

This retrospection also compells my thinking forward in time: who will I be next, and how do I use the lessons of my past failures and successes to better shape the person I hope to become in the future? How did I get here, and how can I use that map to plot my future path?

*          *          *

I can't really figure out what to do next. Who to be. Where to go. To quote Thomas Wolfe, talking about the wind, "O lost! amid the hot mazes, lost."

When I first came back to Omaha almost exactly one year ago, I was pretty damn sure of the choices I'd made and my plans for the future. Now, all of that certainty has gone to shit. I have no fucking idea what I'm doing. And maybe that's the best first sign of my recovery? Admitting to myself  (and all 12 readers of this blog) that I have no idea might just be the first step towards figuring it out. Saying "I can't say it" might help me realize just what the hell "it" is.

So here's Tim Buckley, stuck in my head. He's also experiencing a temporal collapse of past, present, and future. Two lyrical moments are sticking with me: 
Once I was a lover
And I searched behind your eyes for you
And soon there'll be another
To tell you I was just a lie
In other words, the self that I thought I was is in danger of being retrospectively invalidated, which sucks. Because the self  I was with you is the only one who mattered.

The other moment is this:
And though you have forgotten
All of our rubbish dreams
I find myself searching
Through the ashes of our ruins
For the days when we smiled
And the hours that ran wild
With the magic of our eyes
And the silence of our words
And sometimes I wonder
Just for a while
Will you remember me
"The silence of our words." Damn. THAT'S an occupatio.

The hardest part about being in Omaha? None of the people who knew the self I was in Davis are around to remind me of who I used to be.  But even if they were here, they'd have "forgotten / all our rubbish dreams". I saw Ginny last week, and that helped remind me.

But I still miss the wind.

Friday, September 10, 2010

first the butt, then the hands, and now... the feet?!

I love my Fi'zi:k Aliante saddle. I'll never ride anything else--unless I get to try the new version with the cut-out:

I also think we can all agree that Fi'zi:k makes the best bar tape; the white grips really well in your hand but doesn't turn brown ten seconds after you install it, like other white tape does. It cleans up nicely with just a little sprayed-on Simple Green.

Now the mad geniuses from Vicenza are making shoes. Here's my question: are these kicks the epitome of style or way over the top? Zoot suit boogie or bowling night buffoonery?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Time present and time past

I was awake from 6:30 AM to 11:30 PM yesterday, and of those 17 hours, fewer than five were spent on my dissertation. The rest of the time was spent waking children, making them breakfast and lunch, driving them to school, walking them home from school, shopping for gluten-free cookie mix with them, making dinner for them, playing soccer with them, wrestling them into the shower, reminding them to use floss for the 1,000th fucking time, and reading them bedtime stories.

I barely had time to shower and feed myself, let alone delve into the archive of 18th-century agricultural writings. I did manage 60 minutes of yoga, but only because I desperately needed a momentary respite of mindfulness.

When I berate myself about how long it's taking me to finish this dissertation, I should probably remember days like yesterday and give myself a break. 

When I lament that my training has been so wildly inconsistent, I should probably recall that Abbey was just chosen for the gifted and talented program at her school and that Katie has blossomed after many, many hours of occupational, speech, and behavioral therapy. 

Maintaining any balance is damn-near impossible sometimes. But giving up either the writing or riding would lead to disaster. So it all goes slowly.

Except the days. 

Monday, September 6, 2010

Welcome to the Occupation

Here's where my thinking goes on Labor Day:
The directing motive, the end and aim of capitalist production, is to extract the greatest possible amount of surplus value and consequently to exploit labor power to the greatest possible extent. As the number of cooperating laborers increases, so too does their resistance to the domination of capital, and with it, the necessity for capital to overcome this resistance by counterpressure. The control exercised by the capitalist is not only a special function due to the nature of the social labor process and peculiar to that process, but it is at the same time a function of the exploitation of a social labor process, and is consequently rooted in the unavoidable antagonism between the exploiter and the living and laboring raw material he exploits.

Hang your collar up inside
Hang your dollar on me
Listen to the water still
Listen to the cause where you are
Fed and educated,
Primitive and wild
Welcome to the occupation

Here we stand and here we fight
All your fallen heroes
Held and dyed and skinned alive
Listen to the Congress fire
Offering the educated
primitive and loyal
Welcome to the occupation

Hang your collar up inside
Hang your freedom higher
Listen to the buyer still
Listen to the Congress
Where we propagate confusion
Primitive and wild
Fire on the hemisphere below

Sugar cane and coffee cup
Copper, steel and cattle
An annotated history
The forest for the fire
Where we open up the floodgates
Freedom reigns supreme
Fire on the hemisphere below
Listen to me