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.


  1. You should have gotten a free lap. Hosed. Hosed, I say.

  2. Maybe it is because you work better offensively than defensively.

    You rose through the lower ranks quickly; but the higher you get and the more you achieve, the goals become bigger and further apart.

    Once you win, you switch to defending that position...which as you're eluding to is a position you're not used to.

    We both need something to work toward, to be able to measure progress, but it sounds like what my dad calls "Car Chasing Disease".

    You chase after something like a dog after a passing car. Once the car stops, the dog has no idea what the hell to do with it.

    My two cents.