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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Spring and Robert Lowell

Ah, Spring! Lovely warm, green, vibrant spring.

I’m very glad that the earth, as it always does, has swung back around and our hemisphere has begun to lean again toward the sun, bringing us the myriad lessons of rebirth.

And yes, a rebirth of riding, too, since I rode very little this winter. There were a few short bursts on the indoor trainer (while watching Breaking Bad on Netflix), but alas, the sound was poor and I couldn’t really hear the dialogue, and so never truly lost myself in the episodes. And riding in the basement without some sort of engaging—and audible—distraction was too much to bear.

I’m still pretty out of shape. I’m still recovering from a dizzying set of recent events—loads of work, ballet collaborations, readings and talks, finishing off a book, etc. All wonderful things, to be sure, but they were all very labor and energy intensive.

Which is to say that, as great as they were, they made it easy to neglect the physical avocation that keeps me sane, i.e. biking.

My buddy Ed and I are going to Moab next weekend, and I hope I can get my legs ready, without totally burning them out. And I hope my bike holds out, too, as it’s been wonky and creaky lately. (Time for a homemade, in-garage tune-up! One more thing I love to do, but it takes a lot of free time, since I am slow and not real great at it, and tend to drop small bolts and stuff, and then have to crawl around to find it among the dust and muck.)

But I can’t complain. Such is life. The renewal, and endless tasks, the beauty and wonder of it all. I’m a very lucky man, and I’m very grateful for everything I’ve got goin’ on.

Speaking of feeling grateful—Robert Lowell’s poem “Home After Three Months Away” perfectly captures that sense of falling back into one’s life after a long absence. In his case, the time was three months in a mental hospital recovering from a manic break.

My breaks are much milder, and not (so) literal. But the poem’s happiness at being present in one’s life rings very, very true. The faster life chugs past, the more you must—you must!—slow down. You must remain present in the moment, and stop thinking or worrying about tomorrow, or whatever it is that consumes your ability to be here.

Something I’ve been trying hard to do, so that my heart stays sane.

Here’s that poem by Lowell, followed by some images from a recent ride on a cold, gray day–and one from a sunny day, too.

Happy spring to you, and yours.

 

Home After Three Months Away
—Robert Lowell

Gone now the baby’s nurse,
a lioness who ruled the roost
and made the Mother cry.
She used to tie
gobbets of porkrind in bowknots of gauze–
three months they hung like soggy toast
on our eight foot magnolia tree,
and helped the English sparrows
weather a Boston winter.

Three months, three months!
Is Richard now himself again?
Dimpled with exaltation,
my daughter holds her levee in the tub.
Our noses rub,
each of us pats a stringy lock of hair–
they tell me nothing’s gone.
Though I am forty-one,
not forty now, the time I put away
was child’s play. After thirteen weeks
my child still dabs her cheeks
to start me shaving. When
we dress her in her sky-blue corduroy,
she changes to a boy,
and floats my shaving brush
and washcloth in the flush. . . .
Dearest I cannot loiter here
in lather like a polar bear.

Recuperating, I neither spin nor toil.
Three stories down below,
a choreman tends our coffin’s length of soil,
and seven horizontal tulips blow.
Just twelve months ago,
these flowers were pedigreed
imported Dutchmen; no no one need
distinguish them from weed.
Bushed by the late spring snow,
they cannot meet
another year’s snowballing enervation.

I keep no rank nor station.
Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small.

Photo Effects

Mood shot.

 

 

 

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Time to climb.

 

 

 

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That’s Ed. Or at least his legs. His really-in-shape-climb-a-wall legs.

 

 

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:

BB

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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Cold, With Swan

I just finished up teaching a class on Mary Oliver, who is one of a handful of poets who make a living from writing. Her work is spare, simple, and melodic. Like another handful of poets, I’d say that she’s as much a philosopher as a poet, and therefore her work is primarily natural and spiritual. She asks lots of big questions, and isn’t too concerned about the answers, almost like a contemporary American monk might.

Whatever a contemporary American monk might be–I’ll leave that definition up to you.

I admire her poems and I appreciate them, but I’m not totally in love with all of her work. I don’t mean that in a negative way. She’s an amazing writer. And perhaps the lessons she embraces are the ones I need to embrace, too, and I’m reticent about doing so. Who knows?

End of self-analysis session.

Many of her poems involve walks through a natural landscape–most often around the environs of Provincetown. She draws inspiration and a deep sense of communion from those woods and sandy dunes, much like I draw inspiration from the landscape where mountain biking takes me. She asks questions, much like the questions that occur to me when I’m riding.

As she writes: “What is it you plan to do with your one precious life?” in “The Summer Day.

Maybe that makes me a mountain-biking monk-philosopher. (Make sure your robe doesn’t get caught in the chain.)

Here’s a good example of a quintessential Oliver poem–ending with more questions than answers.

THE SWAN

Across the wide waters
something comes
floating—a slim
and delicate

ship, filled
with white flowers—
and it moves
on its miraculous muscles

as though time didn’t exist,
as though bringing such gifts
to the dry shore
was a happiness

almost beyond bearing.
And now it turns its dark eyes,
it rearranges
the clouds of its wings,

it trails
an elaborate webbed foot,
the color of charcoal.
Soon it will be here.

Oh, what shall I do
when that poppy-colored beak
rests in my hand?
Said Mrs. Blake of the poet:

I miss my husband’s company—
he is so often
in paradise.
Of course! the path to heaven

doesn’t lie down in flat miles.
It’s in the imagination
with which you perceive
this world,

and the gestures
with which you honor it.
Oh, what will I do, what will I say, when those
white wings
touch the shore?

Postscript: It’s been brutally cold here in Colorado–today’s high will be around 10 degrees–and my bike is in pieces. I need a new front shock. (Maybe Santa will bring me one?) The few times I’ve gotten in the saddle recently, I’ve been sticking to the roads.

Here’s an image from a recent ride, taken before the freeze set in.

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And a pic from later that day:

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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.

There Have Been Years

Every year I get to spend a week up in Grand Lake, Colorado, on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. And every year I sojourn back to two trails I like very much: the Grand Lake Metropolitan trail network, and the Gilsonite to Wolverine Trail, which courses through the remote Arapaho National forest.

One of the things I enjoy most about this is the almost eerie back-in-time quality about riding a trail only once a year, at the same time of year. Much is different about these routes; much is the same.

The Grand Lake trail network leads all the way to the headwaters of the Colorado River, and each year I’m eager to see how the river is running. A few years ago, after a very snowy winter, the River churned and wrestled its way past with great violence–and, what seemed to me, a deep self-confidence. As if it were saying something like, I am the Colorado River, Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

The past two years, however, the Colorado’s confidence has been shot. It’s more like a shy little creek than the tributary that carved out the Grand Canyon.

Just to show you, here are some images from this year.

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Yes, this is the mighty Colorado. Notice all the dead trees.

For images of the River in 2010 and 2011, visit a previous post here:
https://rockymtnbiker.com/2011/07/17/raging-river/.

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I thought the texture of this burned-out tree was pretty cool. Reminds me of Clyfford Still’s paintings.

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An above treeline meadow.

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Riding into the sky–on the Wolverine Trail.

The Gilsonite to Wolverine Trail hasn’t avoided the sad transformation that nature (and climate change) can wreak. Last year the trail was closed due to logging activities. This year, I hardly recognized the place—what used to be deep forest is now denuded open space. The number of felled Lodgepole Pines is staggering—they littered the landscape like some massive game of pick-up-sticks. And the mountainsides that haven’t been cut are now a deep gray, almost purple color, filled with dead trunks whose green needles long ago turned red, then fell. (This is, as you may know, due to Pine Beetle infestation.)

But once I got high enough—around 12,000 feet—it was as if I’d traveled back in time. The same thin ribbon of trail steeply gaining on an open meadow, the same rocky singletrack running along a ridge and up past treeline, the same snowfield and amazing view that fills me with a bliss that I can’t describe.

It’s funny, because this week I’d used sections of E.B. White’s classic essay, “Once More to the Lake” for a class I was teaching at the Lighthouse writer’s retreat. In the piece, White keeps suggesting that “there had been no years” when he visits a lake he use to frequent as a child. But then, gradually, his assertion begins to ring hollow, and he is forced to admit that yes, there have been years. It’s a beautiful essay about the endless forward hurtling of time, and the ways that things do change, and yes, how our children become us, and we become our parents—or to borrow a line from poet Sharon Olds:

…. It’s an old
story—the oldest we have on our planet—
the story of replacement.

Nothing ever stays the same, and watching that happen is beautiful, and a little bittersweet, too. That river isn’t going anywhere, nor are the mountains and meadows of those trails I’ve been returning to. But someday, I won’t return.

Now that’s something I don’t really want to think about. Maybe I’ll just look forward to next year.