Tuesday, July 27, 2010

It must be vacation week!

Redemske's off riding one of the stages of RAGBRAI, the one that rolls through his hometown of Algona. When I spent a chunk of time in the Midtown shop yesterday, trying to get my mountain bike ready for my own exodus, I was spared his incisive commentary. Of course, his absence meant Lucas and Chris had more audible space to occupy, a luxury they fully exploited.  But they also let me use a stand and gave me some mechanical advice.

As always, thanks.

I'm also going underground for a few days.  Blog-wise, that is.

Today's a pretty big day. I was worried about it for most of the last week, but today, I've reached a sort of zen-like acceptance.  So far I've made breakfast for the girls and tried to put together a shopping list for camping food.

Maybe my acceptance of today's milestone arises from tomorrow's departure for Crested Butte, my second-favorite spot on earth. Blank and I first visited in 2003, and I've wanted to return ever since. We'll be riding 20-30 miles of alpine singletrack every day for 6 days, camping out, telling stories, and causing trouble. Why worry about today when tomorrow sound so cool? Of course, one could argue that savoring today and being present in the now is the mindful path, but for today, one of the things I get to savor is the anticipation of tomorrow.

Here's some cheese to accompany that sentimental schlock. The video is schlock, too--but the sentiment's real. Happy 40 to me.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Recipe for disaster?

Here's the data:
  • For the first time since March, I really don't want to ride my bike at all;
  • my energy levels have been low for about six days;
  • I've been generally irritable around the family;
  • my work productivity has plummeted;
  • I'm not sleeping very well;
  • my mileage and intensity increased a lot during the lead-up to the races two weeks ago;
  • I built to a pretty good "peak" for those same races;
  • I'll be riding a bunch of six-hour mountain routes at altitude the week after next.
Conclusion: I need a rest week. No Wednesday worlds for me! Just some walks with the kids, a little yoga, and some core strengthening.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Dirt Worship

So my book's about agriculture.

Well, not really--it's about Romanticism (British literature published from 1789 to 1834ish).

Well, not really--it's about the nascent Marxism found in the above.

Well, not really--it's about locavore ideology and rhetoric.

Okay, it's about all of these. I basically spend 100 pages or so examining the ways in which ag writers in the late 18th century talked and thought about massive changes: the loss of small farms, increased economies of scale, enclosure of commons, standardization of farming practices, theorizing and experimentation, genetic modifications, etc. Then I look at the ways in which Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey use food and farming metaphors in their poetry to make overt or subtextual claims about politics. This process is sometimes called historical materialism, for those of you playing the home game.

The last chapter will try (TRY) to show that current writers such as Michael Pollan, Gary Paul Nabhan, and Barbara Kingsolver--all of whom either examine or advocate "local" eating--basically rehash and renumerate Romantic tropes.

But when one's got farming and digging on the brain, sometimes other stuff pops up and causes a "EUREKA!" moment. Like this bit from Peter Gabriel, who figures digging as psychological self-evaluation:

I don't think I reveal too much when I admit that the last year has been an emotional motherf*cker. So in addition to my work on the book, I've been doing some other "work," bits of which have leaked onto this blog. It's been an odd combo, hasn't it: pop versions of academic ideas, bike racing, cultural asides, and self-examination.

Winning the bike race last week was the culmination of a simple obsession: never quit. Never. No matter how badly I lost, I always finished. No matter how discouraged I got about my injuries, I always tried to climb back on the saddle or sit at the desk. No matter how delayed my training became, I always tried to get at least something accomplished. No matter how high my frustrations with Omaha grew, I did my best to support old friends and remain open to new ones.

So, to quote Peter, "This time, you've come too far." Too far to quit now. That's not exactly what the line means in the context of the song, but what the hell.

I'm close. Too close to quit. On any of it. And "I'm digging in the dirt / To find the places I lie hurt."

Blank and I are about to embark on "Dirt-Worship VI," our annual week of mountain biking. This year, we're returning to where it all began.

Maybe we'll find something on the trail worth writing about.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Owl Ride!

Before we got blown halfway to Oz by the storm last night, Redemske told me a funny thing: "I didn't know your daughter was autistic."

That's funny because Katie's disability is one of the things I usually "lead" with in conversations with new acquaintances. I try to let people know about our family's connection with austism in order to gently educate people about the condition.

It's a spectrum disorder, with many, many permutations. When people find out about Katie, they usually express surprise. She's what the psychologists call "high-functioning." Redemske said, "I just thought she was squirrelly." And she is. Her impulse control isn't as developed as that of her peers--and before you think, "upbringing," don't.

But she usually seems like an ordinary kid. A little weird, but still. She doesn't fit the stereotype of an isolated kid rocking in the corner, refusing to make eye contact or engage with others. Her intelligence is well above average. She has a ton of emotional empathy. She engages others with candor, enthusiasm, and interest. She's genuinely affectionate.

But while "neurodevelopmental typical" kids instinctively pick up the rules that govern interpersonal communication, Katie struggles to adapt her behavior to variables like personal space, conversational relevance, or vocal volume. She has NO sense of irony. She runs up to groups of peers and launches into a diatribe about Sponge Bob with no preamble or feed-forward. She's socially enthusiastic but awkward. And her willingness to get right in someone's face really freaks out some shy, retiring children.

She also suffers from some mild sensory integration issues; cacophonous, echoing voices in a large gymnasium force her to shut down a bit to process all of that noise. The mall on the Saturday before Christmas presents more sensory information that her system can process, so she forgets basic rules of safety or behavior. (But then again, so do I)

But she'll crawl in your lap and talk your ear off about space, or kung-fu, or her guinea pig. She knows when you're sad and comforts you. She has a perfect sense of pitch and a great memory for lyrics.

 My wife was astute enough to get her diagnosed when she was only two and a half, and since we lived in Norcal at the time, we were able to get her a multitude of behavioral, occupational, and speech therapies before she started school. The UC Davis MIND Institute was a godsend. Early intervention is CRUCIAL for autistic kids, and in Katie's case, she has a very good chance pursue any career she wants as an adult because of all the intensive therapies she received as a toddler and preschooler.

Many autistic kids aren't so lucky, and therapy options in Nebraska lag far behind those in other states. That's where the Monroe Meyer institute comes in--she's there right now, at their summer camp. She's quickly becoming the rock star of her group precisely because she's so high-functioning; many of her camp buddies are totally non-verbal. She might be, too, if not for all the interventionist help she received when she was three and four.

Monroe Meyer also serves kids with Fragile X, Down's Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, Muscular Dystrophy, and many, many other disabilities. The facility offers all manner of therapies for kids who grapple with mental and physical challenges.

The OWL ride posters and website don't really highlight the fact that registration fees support Monroe Meyer. So here I am, up on my blog-soapbox. Register here. The ride takes place this Saturday, July 17th. It starts and finishes at Lewis and Clark landing at 11:00 PM. Imagine a chance to ride from downtown through Dundee and past Field Club--at midnight. With a bunch of other cyclists.

I'm jazzed.

It looks to be a pretty chill, social ride with good food and music. Pitch is catering. I'll be rocking my new Team Type I kit, replete with its heady aroma of race-winning karma, so come up and say hi. Maybe I'll even let you sit in my famous draft.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Grappling with victory, part 2

I hate night sweats.

During the last five or six years, I sometimes wake up in soaked sheets the night before a big event: my qualifying exams, the girls' first day at a new school, teaching a new poem or short story, reading a poem at my friend Ginny's wedding.

It's weird, though. I spent nine years in the theatre. I was the student speaker at my undergraduate commencement. I've given professional reports and presentations to clients, CEO's, potential customers. I've delivered academic papers at conferences. Before all of these events, I was usually excited but almost never nervous. And I always slept well. 

But the night before bike races? Man. My nervousness is exacerbated by the likelihood of physical injury. I've seen too many friends and rivals carted off to the hospital with broken collarbones and separated shoulders to sleep easy the night before a race. So not only do you have to worry about failing to race well, you also have to worry about getting hurt.

And that worry spawns another fear: the fear of racing scared. Being scared of racing scared is worse than being scared of being hurt. Fear of fear is the worst of all.

So when I rolled over in the breeze of the bedside fan at 5:00 AM last Sunday, I shivered from more than the pre-dawn chill.

At first, I thought I had fallen asleep in the backyard hammock; I was soaked to the skin and heard loud thunder and rainfall. The weird coalescence of sensory input was almost synaesthetic: the sound of rain created the feeling of being wet and vice-versa. Only after I sat up and rubbed my eyes did I realize that I wasn't soaked in rainwater. 

I immediately assumed that the Dave Babcook Memorial Road Race would be canceled. Because it was POURING down rain. Thunder, lightning--a typical Midwestern thunderstorm. I almost wished for a cancellation; I was tired, stiff, scared, and frustrated by my poor showing in the crit the day before.

But I brewed a pot of coffee and cooked some oatmeal. I actually ate the recommended three hours before the start for once, and I rolled out the door after throwing a cycling cap and rain cape in my race bag.

The skies to the west looked like they were clearing as I drove out of town toward the race course, and the rain subsided to a light misty drizzle. I arrived at the staging area on the campus of Mt. Michael High School about 90 minutes before the start, and guys were actually wearing jackets. In Omaha. In July. The temperature was probably no higher than 60 degrees, and the rain and wind seemed to have blown the humidity out of the valley.

As I stood around with some other racers and talked about the likelihood of the rain ending by race time, a rumor started circulating that part of the race course was flooded. Sections of the road race course had composed the TT course the day before, so I knew that that part of the course was mostly flat to slightly rolling, but the flooded section supposedly lay at the bottom of the road race course's only real descent. See the road marked 234th to the far left of the map? That section parallels the Elkhorn River, a waterway that's been pretty eager to jump its banks all spring. The officials debated between neutralizing the section of flat between the descent and the climb, but eventually they determined that sending five groups of racers along that section would prove too dangerous.  Voila! No climb. Rather than running seven laps of the figure-eight shaped course, we'd contest 14 laps by continuing straight down 226th instead of turning right onto the descent. A race with a selective climb suddenly turned into a flat and windy circuit race. There were small rollers, but nothing I couldn't draft up.

I toed the line with about 20 other master's riders and rolled out Mt. Michael Road for a neutral start to 216th St. I chatted with the Kansas City-based racer who had beaten me by a minute in the TT the day before, and we did some math. He was alone. I had one teammate. Team Kaos, on the other hand, had six guys in our field. And they did everything they could to exploit those numbers.

I have to admire their perseverance--they launched attack after attack, sometimes solo, sometimes in pairs. During the first six laps, I covered at least five moves. Three of them found me with two Kaos riders off the front, so I told the guys that I was going to sit on and not work in the breaks as long as they sent riders up the road in pairs. I said that I'd work in a break with a Kaos rider and someone from another team, but not if I was isolated with two of their guys.

Truth be told, I was nervous. When the Kaos guys launched, they really launched. I had to put in big efforts to either latch on or bridge, but as I sat in the first three or four spots on the road, I realized that the wind was my friend and the flat roads were my forte.

After a solo rider got off the front for the better part of a lap and then came back without a chase, we all sort of realized that the race would end in a sprint. The TT winner from the day before pulled back another two moves, and a skinny climber sponsored by Olympia Cycle valiantly pinned it every time we hit the small rollers, lap after lap, but nothing stuck. We let a 50+ guy get up the road after we passed the feed zone in lap 11 or so, but when I started to chase, my teammate admonished me to ignore him since he was racing a different category. I'd never raced with multiple categories before, so letting him go violated all my instincts, but away he went. My teammate--who happened to be in the 50+ race, too--bridged shortly after, and we never saw them again.

The remaining 15 or so masters guys (we evidently dropped a few, but I never saw the back of the field) completed our 14 laps and started the long run back toward Mt. Michael. The headwind discouraged any solo moves, but Kaos tried to send a guy anyway. He dangled for about half a mile, but we were all together as we made the turn back onto the finishing straight. Olympia tried to get away twice, but he got blown back both times.

The finish line waited a mile up the road, and a big stinger of a hill lay between us and the end. That incline had put me in the red when I climbed it toward the end of the previous day's TT, so I was pretty convinced I'd get dropped halfway up the damn thing.

The TT winner and the Olympia guy both put in big efforts before the base of the hill, so the field strung out and gave me plenty of room to maneuver. My heart rate soared up around 180--higher than I'd seen it all year--but my legs felt like elasticized iron. My vision was acute and piercing. Things around me slowed down. My perceptual acuity accelerated.

When a guy from South Dakota launched up the left side of the road about halfway up the hill, I jumped hard onto his wheel, but my momentum sent me shooting right past him, and I found myself in the wind, off the front, 20 meters from the summit of the hill. I shifted and punched it as hard as I could, and when I crested the hill and saw the line 300 meters below me, I shifted again and hit the afterburners. I glanced behind me to find where the sprint would pass me by...but no one had my wheel. I'd shed the pack with my own acceleration, and I had time to throw my hands in the air and whoop as I crossed the line for the win.

I don't know that I've enjoyed racing more with a bunch of strangers. My win at Dunnigan Hills with the Davis Bike Club offered a different sort of gratification, because seven teammates attacked relentlessly to help me save matches for the sprint. But these Omaha guys are class acts, too. I did a lot more solo work, but the since this flood-altered Nebraska road race course was almost entirely flat, it played right into my strengths. I simply had to follow wheels, cover doomed attacks,  and save as much energy as I could for the sprint.

I stood around and accepted congratulations from the other guys in my field. It was the first time this season that I didn't feel like quitting the sport after a race, and going from last in the previous day's crit to first in the road race was immensely gratifying. All the texts I got from my Rocknasium brothers back in Davis also gave me a huge thrill.

An added benefit was that Jerry Arnold also won his category, so the Elkhorn Valley Cycling Club and Team Type 1 took four state championships on the day.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Grappling with victory, part 1

It's the damnedest thing: failure is easier to write about than success.

Maybe it's also easier to handle?

Failure gets habitual.  So does the habit of writing about it. I've drafted many versions of the "got dropped off the back of X bike race" stories. I've also spun a lot of yarns about why my dissertation isn't finished, why I'm living in Omaha after seven years in Davis, why my personal life is such a challenge. Yada yada yada.

See, one has to let go of that shit, no? Otherwise, it festers. Guys who clench their ennui or despair to their hearts drop dead of heart attacks.

So I write. Most of it ends up in a huge computer file marked "Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here." Okay, the real title is Local Roots: The Romantic Origins of Agrarian Rhetoric, but the process of researching this book is turning into to a Sisyphean nightmare one might find in Hades. 

It's a lot like trying to stuff my linebacker's physique into a cyclist's body: ultimately futile. No matter how hard I pedal up the damn hill, I'm always going to get left behind. Always. Even if I lost another 10 pounds, I'd still weigh 180, over 20 pounds more than the best climbers around here. And I'd still have a weak back and an average lung capacity.

When I open the archive of 18th-century agricultural writing, I have to wade through hundreds of pages about sheep breeding and clover rotations, hoping to find just one nugget of ideological production that I can write about. I wallow through hours of drudgery in the hopes of achieving just one brief flash of metaphorical insight.

And most of the time, I wonder if all that work ain't futile, too. What if all this reading yields no new insight into the work of the Romantic Poets? What if my ideas never help us see a way through the ecological crisis of our century? What if all my teaching is for naught?  What if my daughter's autism will never allow her to function happily in the world?  What if my grandmother went to death not knowing that I loved her?  What if my marriage is doomed to perpetual disappointment and misunderstanding?

Richard Hugo used a dying mining town called Philipsburg, Montana as a metaphorical questioning of his own mediocre life:
Isn't this your life? That ancient kiss
still burning out your eyes? Isn't this defeat
so accurate, the church bell simply seems
a pure announcement: ring and no one comes?
Don't empty houses ring? Are magnesium
and scorn sufficient to support a town,
not just Philipsburg, but towns
of towering blondes, good jazz and booze
the world will never let you have
until the town you came from dies inside?
 Defeat is accurate. And when it happens again and again, it seems to become the only imaginable outcome.

So what happens when you try to kill the town you came from but life conspires to bring you back? (Cue the theme from Welcome Back, Kotter.) I worked through most of my twenties to get out of Omaha, and I labored for much of my thirties to ensure I'd never have to return. But right now, my life here is necessary: my wife gets to teach, my kids are in a good school, our house is comfortable, I have some time to write, I've met some cool folks, I'm not pumping gas, I'm not digging ditches. I'm not scrounging through trash cans on Market Street or fighting like a wildcat for a cardboard box to sleep in. There but for the grace of God go I. But undergoing this Sort of Homecoming often makes me wonder if the world will ever let me have the blondes, booze, and jazz that represent a life of adventure, knowledge, and accomplishment. Not until the "town you come from dies inside." 

Yet I have choices. One of mine has been to keep up with my bike training, to keep trying to climb the hill. I hope that the bike is a metaphor for everything else; if I can just succeed in that one small area of my life, the synecdoche might turn universal. Maybe I can translate those habits of striving perseverance on the bike into skills I can use while flipping the pages of the books and hitting the keys on the computer.

Richard Hugo answers his own question in the next stanza:
Say no to yourself. The old man, twenty
when the jail was built, still laughs
although his lips collapse. Someday soon,
he says, I'll go to sleep and not wake up.
You tell him no. You're talking to yourself.
The car that brought you here still runs.
The money you buy lunch with,
no matter where it's mined, is silver
and the girl who serves your food
is slender and her red hair lights the wall.
The car that brought me here doesn't run anymore--but I bought a replacement. And while I certainly miss many of the slender, red-haired girls, some of them are still around.

*     *      *
So I raced three events last weekend; a flat, 10.5 mile time trial, a hilly, technical criterium, and a flat road race. The trilogy was part of the Omaha Cycling Weekend, a really great event sponsored by Alegent Health / Team Kaos. The TT ran along the top of a ridgeline above the Elkhorn River, and it was staged on the grounds of Mt. Michael benedictine school for boys. Again, I was reminded of the pastoral beauty of a Nebraska summer: rolling hills of pasture and grassland, cornfields, riparian stands of cottonwoods. It all seems prettier on the bike--even when you're pinned on the rivet at 27 miles an hour, trying not to puke out your nose. 

I told a teammate that it was great to hurt like that--in my legs and lungs, not in my back. I didn't hold anything back, and I was able to get my heart rate up above 170 and keep it there for the first time in 10 months. I was elated while riding the course for 23 minutes. I finished fifth out of nine riders in my category, only 20 seconds behind the guy who took second. I missed the podium by 6 seconds. Close, but no cigar, huh? 

The crit that afternoon was a disaster: I narrowly avoided what would have been a catastrophic crash when Sydney Brown and another rider both blew tires in a tight corner. She kept it upright, but the resulting domino effect sent me bouncing off course and into a hay bale. I didn't crash, per se, so the officials refused me a free lap. I sat in and finished a lap down. (Poor Sydney suffered some pretty bad injuries the next day, so let's all wish her a speedy recovery)

I went home and tried to recover in time for the road race on Sunday morning. That race, boys, and girls, deserves its own story. More to follow.