Highly Irregular

This is an unusual sight. I’m sitting in a bustling Starbucks by I-25 and out the window a bunny rabbit just hopped across the patio. And now I can’t see him any more.

20141105_160621A few weeks ago I rode up the Apex trail in the wind and got something in my eye and all night it itched. The Latin word for tears: lacrimas. To shed tears: lacrimas profundere. Like the word profound, which is clearly a derivative. Pro means in front of or on behalf of. I think fundere means to fill or produce.

It’s been a while since I thought about Latin. In high school, I loved Latin. Amo (I love), amas (you love), amat (he/she/it loves).

Speaking of matters of the heart, last week I went to see a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis for a persistent irregular heartbeat. He called them “extra beats.”

Turns out I have a thickened heart muscle along my left ventricle, The Latinate term for it is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. The abbreviation is HCM.

Profundere indeed.

At Starbucks, a very skinny man in a leather jacket (though the leather looks fake) keeps getting up and walking outside. He steps around the patio in a small circle, then returns to his café table. He sits facing the window. He’s alone, has the thin look of a smoker. He must be waiting for someone. (Probably Godot.)

My eye keeps weeping slowly and it itches, but I am not sad.

20141105_170258As usual, the ride up Apex was difficult, arduous, and therefore redemptive. My throat was ragged by the end, with all the huffing and puffing.

Best of all, I didn’t die of sudden heart failure! (Sardonic laughter here.)

Which is a possible outcome of HCM. Luckily, the doctor—the world-leading specialist in such things—said I have a very mild form of the disease.

Holy crud, I have a “disease.”

By “mild” he means that I don’t display any of the dangerous markers, which are:

  • dangerous arrhythmia on my EKG (though it is abnormal);
  • my blood pressure doesn’t drop dangerously when I undergo a cardiac stress test;
  • the valve between my left atrium and ventricle doesn’t get stuck in the open position;
  • I don’t lose consciousness suddenly.

I’d be lying if I said that I don’t think about my mortality and HCM. When I’m riding. Or driving. Or falling asleep. Or all the damn time.

When my heart rate is maxxed out (173 beats per minute, give or take), and I’m struggling to climb, climb, climb, a steep section of trail for example, and I’m sucking wind, I feel my heart thumping away, and wonder if it’s going to betray me.

And then I think it’s me—it’s My Heart, and boy, has it endured a lot. It’s been a good heart, it’s kept on, kept on, kept on no matter what I’ve put it through. All the hard work, the emotional dramas. I should not think of it as something separate, as antagonist, betrayer.

I should be nice to my heart.

Who wants a free venti chai? a barista asks, and there’s a polite but mad scramble. Some guy gets there first and then he’s off to embrace his Monday with a free drink.

I am 48 years old. At Apex, my riding buddy Ed and I climbed over 3,000 vertical feet in 10 miles of riding. I cleared some very technical sections. I didn’t crash, didn’t lose any blood. I’ve already biffed way too much this summer. Probably because I’ve been so distracted by the heart thing.

20141105_170307Funny thing is: when I’m working out and my heart rate is elevated, it pumps smoothly and there are no extra beats. The doc said that was because there’s no time to toss in an extra beat when it’s beating fast. As if the heart is thinking about it. As if it’s sentient (from the Latin, sentire, to feel).

As if it wants to make me nervous by beating extra times, but then I really get it going and it can’t do that. Silly, mischievous heart.

The doc said the extra beats are benign. In the thickened muscle there’s probably some scar tissue, which can throw off the heart’s electrical impulses.

My heart has scars. (Oh boy, doesn’t it.)

Some nights as I lay me down to sleep my heart goes haywire with extra beats, and it thumps so powerfully my entire chest shudders and my neck flushes with blood that backs up, since the atrial valve closes off too quickly and pumps nothing, an empty chamber. The blood that should be in the atrium gets backed up, and that’s why I feel it in the veins of my neck.

Benign, he says. (From the Latin benignus, literally “well born.” How snooty.)

If I had a bad case of HCM, the doc would have recommend I get an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) installed, under the skin of my chest, right below my left collarbone. Then, if I ever got a dangerous arrhythmia, it would shock my heart back into shape. Like an internal version of those paddles you see on those medical TV shows, when the doc rubs them together and shouts “clear” and the patient’s body is shocked and spasms violently.

Fun, right?

I have to go. I have to go to work. My latte is finito. The traffic on the highway should have cleared by now. I stand up and sense my heart, that thing that most people hardly ever think about.

It thrums a few extra beats beat and I feel woozy for just a second, and then it catches and goes back to normal. Or as regular as it’s going to get. And I appreciate that.

Here’s a Shakespeare sonnet that suddenly holds new meaning for me….

SONNET 109
—William Shapespeare

O, never say that I was false of heart,
Though absence seemed my flame to qualify.
As easy might I from my self depart
As from my soul which in thy breast doth lie.
That is my home of love; if I have ranged,
Like him that travels I return again,
Just to the time, not with the time exchanged,
So that myself bring water for my stain.
Never believe though in my nature reigned
All frailties that besiege all kinds of blood,
That it could so preposterously be stained
To leave for nothing all thy sum of good;
For nothing this wide universe I call
Save thou, my rose, in it thou art my all.

# # #

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What I’ve Been Up To

I’ve been up to lots, but not riding much.

Here’s an attempt to give you a visual sense of what I’ve been working on, thinking about, and obsessing over, lately.

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Amen, brother. Tonight is Daylight Savings, and I’m so ready to get out there.

In the meantime, I’ve been squirreled away in the basement, riding on my trainer,  watching this:

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Breaking Bad. Woah.

While I’ve been watching that, I’ve been dreaming at night about this:

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And working to understand this, because I’ll be doing one of these:

LifeStudies

And writing poems for another Wonderbound performance, too.

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Perhaps it would be good to close with this:

Epilogue
by Robert Lowell

Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme–
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?
I hear the noise of my own voice:
The painter’s vision is not a lens,
it trembles to caress the light.

But sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
All’s misalliance.
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.

from Life Studies

 

Yoga Christmas, With Sloth

It’s December, which means that it’s the time of the year where I totally feel like a fat, lazy, bland slob.

I’ve been eating too much chocolate, too many cookies. And not working out at all.

I’m reminded of my undergrad lit teacher, quoting Sloth, one of the seven deadly sins, in Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus: “Hey ho, I am Sloth.”

This line is supposed to be said in a lackadaisical manner, in the midst of a big sigh, and perhaps while lounging and eating chocolate. (Who brings this stuff into the house? It’s everywhere!) And perhaps, in contemporary fashion, while watching, on TV:

a. Survivor (Ah well, Tyson won. Snore.)
b. NHL Hockey (Hey ho, go Avs. Yawn.)
c. A nature show (The icecaps are melting? Ooh, that’s unfortunate.) Or maybe a car show. (Fixing up them old cars, how shiny are they? Takes a big bite of chocolate.)

‘Tis the season for human hibernation.

I guess I don’t like eating my way through the entire Hershey’s and Ghirardelli catalog, because this past week I joined Breathe Studio, which combines spin classes and yoga.

I took my first class on Thursday. Let me just say: I suck at yoga. I’m the worst yoga tryer in American history.

All the other limber folks were bending and folding like Gumby dolls, and me—well, let’s just say the my middle name isn’t Limber. It’s Joseph.

And let me just say: when I bend over the try to touch my toes, I get to a place just under my kneecaps, and that’s all I got.

But hey (ho)! At least I got some exercise in, and got those creaky joints to bend and flex to their rather limited, um, limits. I embraced my history of sloth, and began to beat it down(ward) like a (bad) dog.

At the end of the yoga session, lying flat on my back—in Savasana, I am told—I was breathing deep as light from Colfax Avenue flashed and slid across the ceiling in shards and circles, squares and trapezoids. The gold and silver bands filled me with a sense of ease and joy, and there was no slothfulness in me at all, anymore.

Here’s a lovely poem by Nate Klug that incorporates beauty and yoga—and a bicycle.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

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Rain, and Change

The rains have come and gone, and now all that’s left is the aftermath. What have we lost?
In many ways, after this summer of 2013, we will never be the same. From wildfires to floods, nothing gold can stay, as Frost said so well.

When my wife and I first moved to Denver, in 1997, we had no idea how that Mother Nature had such power, such fury. Growing up in Buffalo, I’d survived lots and lots of snow, but there’s something eerie about the power of nature in the summer. But there’s also something impressive about the frontier spirit here in Colorado, how people wait out the storm, and then they get back to work. There’s no quit out here.

Our first August here, a tremendous storm overtook downtown Denver, and from our second-floor downtown loft, we watched as Arapahoe Street turned from roadway into swirling, rushing river, filled with hail and junk. We thought the city would be decimated. We thought it was the end times. We were supposed to teach a writing workshop that night, and decided that he had to cancel. We called all the students to let them know. However, one guy, a crusty local, laughed at us, saying, it’ll be sunny and the roads’ll be clear in a couple hours. Ah, you easterners, he chuckled.

He was right. The banks of hail melted. The water disappeared. The sun blazed in a blue sky. By 5:30 PM, it was as if nothing had happened.

The rain of this past week might be gone soon, but the destruction will be with us for a long, long time. And I hope that everyone is safe, and that they recover quickly and with little grief. I also hope that my favorite biking trails—and the roads to get there—are still reasonably intact. Though I’m fairly certain that the trails I knew will never be the same. I guess that’s one of the uncanny things about biking for many years—the trials you know so well are dynamic, everchanging. Some sections get easier, some get more difficult. (Cue the riding-as-metaphor-for-life music….)

Here’s a poem I wrote back in 1997, after that first shocking storm.

WHEN IT DISOBEYS

it brings a storm that discovers
a man-made river-bed in concrete
and asphalt, leaves women and men
clinging to rooftop chimneys,
their cold hands trembling in its midst, then
it brings the hail—white, killing,
obnoxious white when there
should be more rain—first pea
then quarter then softball
sized, full of hubris,
stony pellets coursing
through streets, a swirling
river of rain and downed trees and things
it has dismantled. Will it not
avoid stinging the innocent faces,
the defeated shoulders—
will it not give up the mindless idea
that it can last in August?
It is relentless, abiding by precepts
which are not laws
but ideas of laws, things
children copy down in school:
Planets in their ellipses,
the moon’s granite face
waning and waxing,
cosmic dust on a calm night—
meteors burning the night,
seen for a second, then gone,
like the faraway shouts
and moans when the sky
clears and a rainbow comes.

# # #

Here’s a pic I took on Monday, riding the Hog Back, about 15 minutes before the front edge of the storm rolled in.

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Friends and Fourteeners

These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands,
they are not original with me,
If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to nothing,
If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are nothing,
If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing.
This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is,
This the common air that bathes the globe.
–Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

 

Just a few weeks ago, in late July, I climbed my first fourteener. (For those flatlanders, a fourteener is a mountain in the Rockies that’s more than 14,000 feet above sea level. Colorado has 53 of them.)

I did this with a gang of my best friends from high school: Bob, John, Matt, and Nate. I hadn’t seen some of them in a very long time–almost 10 years. They’d all flown out from back east for an all-guys long weekend, replete with all things dude-like. (I could describe this more, but you probably don’t want to know all the sordid and olfactory details.)

I must say: it was wonderful to see them, to spend time with them, to talk with them, to listen to them. Each guy is brilliant in his own way. Each is insightful, wise, ambitious, philosophical. I admire each one—a doctor, a lawyer, a sociologist, a historian—more than they could ever know.

Over the years, I’d forgotten how much their friendship means to me, and how lucky I was to have them in my life when I was young, when I was confused and searching. I’d forgotten how grateful I am for their camaraderie, for their compassion.

Alas, I grow misty-eyed and sentimental. (What else is new.)

Back to the mountain: both John and Matt went to College of the Holy Cross in Worchester MA, and so we’d decided we’d try and climb Mount of the Holy Cross, near Vail.

Going up was a slow and difficult slog—five miles, 5,600 vertical (11.5 miles total). My friends—all from back east and therefore really feeling the altitude—did impressively. Everyone made it up close to 13,000 ft.

John and I somehow forged our way along a high ridge, and then we scrambled up a boulder field. The only way I could keep going was to keep my eyes focused on the next rock in front of me. (I don’t like heights, or exposure, much.)

And then, suddenly, there was no more climbing to be had.

It’s difficult to express the feeling that washes over you when this happens. It’s a little bit of relief, a bit of shock, a bit of pure joy. Step by step, you keep going and then, without any fanfare, you’re at the top. At a stupefyingly gorgeous vantage point that hard work has carried you to.

Yes, this an appropriate metaphor. Isn’t it nice that we get these vantage points, where our perspective opens out to the full view, and we know something new about this strange experience of living, of I think/climb/ride/walk/crawl, therefore I am?

As I stood there, at 14,005 above sea level, it wasn’t much of a surprise to me that these friends would get me to such a place. They’ve always been nudging me toward greater heights. And for that I am forever grateful.

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View from the top, looking west.

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Matt, a man among boys and boulders.

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A view of the ridge, summit, and couloir.

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John, standing tall.

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The view south.

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The dudes. And the minivan. The poor, abused minivan.

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Me and my socks.