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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Good Deal. Comes in Three Speeds.

Let me just say: I’m pretty sick of driving to and from work, five days a week, along the I-25 corridor. There’s the traffic, the lame FM radio that seems to play the same 15 songs over and over, the bad drivers, the jarring roads. Not to mention the significant car troubles we’ve endured lately slipping transmission (estimated replacement cost = $4,500); overheated car and shot ignition coils ($600); clogged catalytic converter ($1,200). And so on. Not to mention my vague discomfort at our gigantic carbon footprint, as the drive is around 22 miles each way. And the cost of gas–around $1,500 a year. (Cripes, that’s a lotta cash.)

So when I found a deal to sign up for half off a Denver Bike Sharing membership, I leapt.

So far, it’s been great. I take the bus, which picks me up just 50 yards from our front door, downtown and then I grab a red bikeshare bike, and ride the 4 miles or so to work. The bike’s only got three speeds, which has opened up a completely new and radical idea: to take my time, rolling along. To look around and notice my surroundings. To actually enjoy the journey.

Which has been so nice, I must say. It’s like discovering a rainbow in the sky every morning.

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Photo from Bike Share website.

The Far (April) Field

Spring has come! Time to reawaken! Time to get back on the trail!

I have to admit: it’s been too long. During these last cold months I’ve pretty much forgotten about trail riding. If I’ve been on a bike at all, it’s been on the road, commuting from the bus station to work. Or in the basement, on the stationary trainer. Which is exceptionally, infinitely boring, I’ve decided.

But April is just about here! Time for spring. Thank criminy.

April always carries me back to poet Theodore Roethke. His poem “The Far Field” isn’t technically a poem about spring—it’s about death, mostly, and the infinite. But it’s lovely and inspiring, deep-breathed and light. It’s also a poem of belief, where the speaker sets out, in a natural landscape, to express some very deep thoughts.

A few of my favorite sections:

I learned not to fear infinity,
The far field, the windy cliffs of forever,
The dying of time in the white light of tomorrow,
The wheel turning away from itself,
The sprawl of the wave,
The on-coming water….

I have come to a still, but not a deep center,
A point outside the glittering current;
My eyes stare at the bottom of a river,
At the irregular stones, iridescent sandgrains,
My mind moves in more than one place,
In a country half-land, half-water….

All finite things reveal infinitude:
The mountain with its singular bright shade
Like the blue shine on freshly frozen snow,
The after-light upon ice-burdened pines;
Odor of basswood on a mountain-slope,
A scent beloved of bees;
Silence of water above a sunken tree :
The pure serene of memory in one man, —
A ripple widening from a single stone
Winding around the waters of the world.

Soon, I’m going to be up on that mountain, not fearing anything.

Except maybe a brisk, quick endo.

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Rambling Existential Questions, Inspired by a Bike Show and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

eliotI really want to go to the North American Handmade Bike Show here in Denver this weekend, but then again, I’m not in the market for a new, handmade bike made of bamboo, ash, titanium, vibranium, or compressed coffee grounds. Plus, it’s $20 bucks just to get in! (That bothers me. I wish it didn’t. Here’s a clip from the Denver Post.)

Just thinking about such decisions–should I or shouldn’t I?–sometimes gets me into an existential funk. I often overthink things, and suddenly the decision is not about going to a bike show, for example, but about the kind of person I am. Am I a good American? (Buy! buy! buy!) What do I believe in? (Art and commerce, or hanging out at home doing nothing?) Do I believe in heaven and hell? (You die and you’re pretty much dead. Or: you go to heaven and float on clouds and eat all 70 virginal Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups each day, etc.)

Maybe there will be beautiful art at the show. Which makes me think of T.S. Eliot, of course.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

Right! maybe it’ll be like that. So why not dare to eat that peach?

Maybe I should allow myself to approach, as Eliot said in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,”an overwhelming question…”

Oh, do not ask, “What is it?” / Let us go and make our visit.

Okay! Heck, I might swing by, just to see the beauties and the beasts.

Speaking of beastly, seems like fat bikes are now all the rage–ever since I wrote about them in an earlier blog post. (To wit, another Post article.) Even so….

I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear my trousers rolled….

Yes, I do wear my trousers rolled, because I’ve been commuting via bike to the park-n-ride bus station and nobody likes to get their trousers caught in a chainring. Anything to avoid the long drive to and from Denver each day for work. Anything to avoid contributing the climate change, which has me suddenly very freaked out.

And how should I presume?

Well, after all the recent apocalyptic weather here in Colorado and elsewhere, I just can’t abide driving 24 miles to work, and then 24 miles back home again, every freaking day. So the bus it is, even though it’s almost $4 each way. (I grow old, I grow…. cheapskate-ish.)

I presume that’ll make a tiny bit of difference. Then again…

In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

See, how I endlessly question myself? Just go to the bike show, just ride to and from the bus station. Stop thinking all the time!
Sure, I am no prophet. So why not go, you and I, while the evening is spread out against the sky, for a nice, easy ride, then?

Maybe. As soon as the snow melts. As soon as this happens [month changed by me]:

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October [March] night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.