Thursday, March 11, 2010

Of back injuries, labor unrest, bike training, and Yeats.

A guy I don't know yet writes a blog about cycling and writing here in Omaha. He's also a dad, so we obviously have a lot in common. We're also both reeling from layoffs--he lost a job at a newspaper, my wife lost hers in teaching.  And we also share the scourge of recurring back injuries; his last blog post examined his frustration with his recovery process. 

I thought about that post as I sat in Mark Wurth's chiropractic office yesterday and got the news I'd been waiting five months to hear: full steam ahead. He cleared me to pursue all the athletic training I wanted, with one HUGE caveat: "If it hurts, stop. That kind of back pain," he said, "is your canary in the coal mine." 

Of course, the Marxist in me immediately thought about Thatcher's repression of the miner's strike. I thought about Kevin Green and I watching The Molly Maguires, a great film about Irish nationalists standing in solidarity with labor activists. And this song played in my head: 

The chorus starts: "I'm hanging on. / You're all that's left to hold on to. / And I'm still waiting." That's an apt summation of life after a job layoff, huh? Work falls apart, so we cling to our lovers and friends while we "pray for better days." But we should all be thankful that we don't depend on jobs down in the mine.  (Fans of the esoteric nature of my allusions may notice that my blog's title also comes from a U2 song. I think I've finally lost a fifteen years-long argument with my wife: who was the best band of the 80's?  I argued for The Smiths and The Police, but Jessica always says U2.  Crap. I think she's right. And if any of you freaking Bon Jovi concert attendees says a word, I'm off of you for life.)

So after he unknowingly reminded me that I'm lucky I don't have to risk my life doing my job, the chiropractor cleared me for unlimited training on the bike. And that's a form of recreation, right? A way to have fun? As long as I don't cause myself any pain, according to Dr. Wurth, I can go play as much as I want.

But cycling romanticizes--and demands--suffering more than any other sport. I've played pretty good high school football, wrestled, and run track. I've dabbled in recreation league basketball. I've spent a fair amount of time in weight rooms. But I can honestly say that cycling hurts more than any other sport I've tried to play.

A good friend of mine just finished a half-marathon. Another finished an Ironman in Kona last year. I doubt my bike racing has ever hurt as much as these women did during their races. But in my experience, cycling is all about physical and emotional suffering. Doing hill repeats with Paul Mach up Cardiac almost made me weep--and he usually finished seven trips up the hill in the amount of time it took me to do five.

So yeah, training hurts. And the crashes! Nearly every cyclist I know has broken a bone by falling off a bike. One broke a hip, another a pelvis, and another a vertebra. I've seen friends carted off race courses in ambulances. I can think of six friends with plates on their collarbones. Even an uber-cautious (cowardly) racer like me has gone down half a dozen times. 

Yet we all still ride and race--because we love it. We love the pain. Our souls soar when the suffering ramps up, and our spirits plummet when we get dropped by faster riders. I'll never, ever be able to follow anyone up a long hill, so I hurt every time my teammates disappear up the road without me. But I keep throwing my leg over the top tube and pining a number on my jersey. 

I've won a team time trial with an acute lumbar disc herniation. I've raced crits with agonizing back spasms. Can I even conceive of a race season without some pain? Isn't winning a race all about being able to suffer more than the next guy?

But here's the larger question, for which the bike riding query is just a synecdoche: can I do anything worth doing without hurting myself? 

Lots of things in my life have hurt lately: missing absent friends, watching the kids try to adjust to a new school and home. And writing a dissertation is a protracted exercise in masochism. It ain't coal mining, but it still hurts. 

I just wonder if it has to. Does everything worth doing have to bruise me somehow?

W.B. Yeats was on the fence about this idea throughout his career. On the one hand, he thought writing was supposed to hurt. Here's the opening of "Adam's Curse:"

We sat together at one summer's end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, 'A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.'

Of course, the poem then examines the ways in which life as a woman is harder than making any poetry. Yeats eventually agrees with this claim, but maybe he knew a thing or two about pain since he suffered with an unrequited love throughout his entire adult life. 

In his later years, Yeats again examined the interplay between pain and work: 
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance? 

After a lifetime spent suffering for art, love, and Ireland, Yeats decided that only play and joy can inspire great work. Scourging our physicality isn't a prerequisite of spiritual cleanliness, and beautiful art doesn't require pain.  

So I'm going to ride my bike tomorrow, and I'll try to write some more of my book. Sure, both things will be hard. Here's another wise man's thoughts on that:


"Avoid the clap." Truer words were never written on a baseball. 

Sure, they're hard, but the book and the bike don't have to tear me apart. All that suffering is self-inflicted. I'm going to try to remember that I'm blessed with the chance to pursue a passion in my work and that I'm extremely lucky to climb back on the bike.  

So if you see a guy laughing maniacally while riding a bike on the Keystone Trail or giggling while staring into a computer at Blue Line coffee, it'll be me. 

Trying to care for my canary.

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