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.