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