Finding the Line

I’m a poet and a rider, and the connections between the two activities are myriad. I enjoy discovering new links all the time. So when I saw this video, the concept of line came to me. The correct line that takes you along the trail (or in this case through the crazy hill town), and the line that sings with a completeness and musicality that flows and is beautiful all at the same time.

I once had a professor who put the necessary qualities of a poetic line very simply: a line of poetry should always have something interesting in it–whether a sound or rhythm, or an action or a thing. And the turn of the line should be in the right place, too, the place that builds interest or demarcates a point of tension–like a turn or a jump, or at a place that quantifies and regulates a beat–like a pedal stroke, or section of trail.

It’s simple to transfer these ideas to biking–especially while watching this video. There’s even a point where the line gets (end)stopped and the riders have to revise their flow. (Ah, don’t I know that process.)

Click on the image to watch. Enjoy!
Biker

All I want for Christmas

What do I want for Christmas?

That’s easy. World peace.

And then, I would really, really like a fatbike. One like this:

Image

(from gearjunkie.com)

A few weeks ago, while I was shouldering my mud-clogged mountain bike over a particularly muddy section of trail, a dude came rolling by on one of these. It seemed as if he were floating on air. Man, it would be fun to ride through the winter, through the snow and crud and mud, on one of these.

Just saying the word is fun: fatbike. Saying the phrase is fun, too: I’d like a fatbike. (Dig the rhyme?)

Time to start saving my pennies, maybe for next Christmas.

Speaking of winter, and the recent (non-happening) apocalypse, here’s a short, classic poem by Robert Frost.

FIRE AND ICE

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
a
a

Have a happy, safe, and wonderfully warm Christmas, everyone. Even if you’re out in the cold, on your fatbike.

Tree

Surviving the Cold

Finally it seems as if winter is here, and while I’m a bit bummed about the frigid air outside and the brutally dry air inside, I’m a bit relieved. After all, this summer seemed, well, apocalyptic in its heat, and in the fires that raged all over the state.

Riding can still be had–snow is still lacking–but it’d be a pretty damn cold outing. (Just thinking of this makes my feet twinge with imaginary frostbite.)

This also makes me recall a great poem by Mark Strand. Like many of Strand’s poems, there’s a dreamlike quality that lightens the poem, even though its eventual resting place can be seen as something a bit grim. (After all, what is colder than the eternal, sepulchral bed?)

Lines for Winter
for Ros Krauss

Tell yourself
as it gets cold and gray falls from the air
that you will go on
walking, hearing
the same tune no matter where
you find yourself—
inside the dome of dark
or under the cracking white
of the moon’s gaze in a valley of snow.
Tonight as it gets cold
tell yourself
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going. And you will be able
for once to lie down under the small fire
of winter stars.
And if it happens that you cannot
go on or turn back
and you find yourself
where you will be at the end,
tell yourself
in that final flowing of cold through your limbs
that you love what you are.

These lines remind me of the famous dictum of Rilke–“You must change your life”–and yet what Strand argues for is not change, but a determined forging ahead. Perhaps Strand is actually echoing Frost’s line, “I have miles to go before I sleep.” But there is something of Rilke here, I think, in the command of “tell yourself… that you love what you are” even if what you are is fluid, protean, ever-changing.

Strand’s movement is metaphorical in the same way that biking is metaphorical, too–sometimes you just can’t turn back, and the only way out of the woods is forward. The tune your bones play is the exertion of keeping on (to borrow Bob Dylan’s phrase).

And there it is again. The lesson I keep uncovering over and over: endure!

Now for some images of a recent awesome–and cold–ride.

20121130_165905

Downtown Denver, from the top of Green Mountain.

20121130_165921

My riding buddy Ed, after climbing to the top.

Postcards From November

I wish postcards were still a part of our written culture. There’s something whimsical and nostalgic about them, something poetic in their paucity of words and dependence on images, and the fact that they are both private and public in their message.

(An aside: I remember, a long time ago, buying a postcard that had a pretty generic beach image, along with some pre-printed handwriting that read: “So are you still having those erotic dreams about your mailman?” I found this especially funny because my dad was mail carrier–for 35 years–before he retired.)

Well, here’s my attempt at some e-postcards.I hope you find the images beautiful and memorable (as I do), and maybe even a little nostalgic, as the sun sets on 2012.

Oh, and just for fun, here are a few postcard/epistolary poems:

 

The Armstrong Affair

As a long-time rider—almost 15 years now, how did that happen?—I love watching the Tour de France each July, which, naturally, has made me a huge fan of Lance Armstrong. After all that’s happened recently, It’s safe to say that Lance has had a pretty lousy month, and I’m saddened by it—all of it—and feel compelled to say something.

No matter what he’s done, I think his story is inspirational. His monomania is fascinating to me. His ability to suffer is legendary. I wish I could endure like that. Before he won his first Tour, I remember reading about his battle with cancer. I also remember a friend, a cyclist himself, saying something like this: if Lance survives and recovers he will end up being the best rider in the world, maybe the best ever. My friend also said that, when he was young and just starting out, Lanvce’s VO2 max was tested, and it was among the highest scores ever recorded.

And then, I watched him in those early tours—and I especially remember one ride, in the rain, in 1999, when he broke away from the peloton and decimated the field.

Did he cheat? Sure seems like it. Seems like the entire Postal Service team did. (My dad was a mail carrier, for 35 years and for that reason, those years of organized cheating bother me even more. They’re soiling my father’s good name, somehow. He had to do the work every day, and he never cheated or failed to complete his rounds.)

You could rationalize and say, heck, everyone was cheating, and he still beat them, which means he still deserved those wins. As Bill O’Reilly writes,

It’s all ugly. The whole sport is ugly. If the Union Cycliste Internationale, cycling’s governing body, upholds the penalty, do you realize that 14 of the last 17 TdF winners would be expunged? And what will they do with them? In five of Armstrong’s seven wins, the second-place finishers were implicated in doping scandals of their own. One year—2003—you have to fish down to fifth place to find somebody clean.

That’s going pretty far down the ladder to find someone who’s supposedly deserving. And I suppose if Lance never tested positive, it meant that he kept his doping within acceptable limits, no? Which means—again, a vast rationalization—that his doping stayed within a predetermined range considered “normal” by the powers that be.

This is total conjecture, but Lance is probably on prescribed testosterone at the very least, considering his type of cancer—testicular—and the amount of chemo he received.

I can keep rationalizing all day like this, but at the end of the day it still feels sad.  What do you do when your hero is suddenly exposed as a liar and a cheat? What makes me most angry is some of the testimony—especially David Zabriske’s—who testified that he was bullied into doping. That’s just wrong—to do that to a young, eager guy.

I guess haven’t completely figured out what I think or feel yet. I mean, what difference does it make? We don’t always have to take a side, and defend it with all our will (see: recent politics).

I still felt very moved watching him win those seven Tours. Cancer took my mother, too young, at 53, and my sister is a survivor, and her journey has been incredibly moving to me, as was his. Armstrong’s work with Livestrong is important and lasting.

No one can say that he didn’t want to win, badly, that he didn’t suffer as much, or more, than anyone else.

Now to leave you with a peaceful, hopeful image.

In Memoriam

I know this about myself: I am obsessed with death.

As I was saying to some writer-friends earlier this summer, aren’t all writers obsessed with death? It is, after all, the complete and final denouement to all stories—the story of our character’s lives, own lives, and the lives of those who’ve gone before us.

I know. I’m awfully morbid.

The unstoppable grind of time certainly plays a role in deepening my obsession. In the past ten years, I’ve lost my dear grandparents, an adored aunt, and other loved ones who took part in raising me.

Predictably, death has leapt across from that generation and is now beginning to worm a slow and methodical path through my generation, and I’m not feeling very happy about that. I’m a little freaked out, and now, often when I’m driving on the highway, a bit of panic rises up in my chest as all these yeahoos careen around me like aggressive and/or drunken idiots. I grip the wheel tight and think: these dumbasses are going to kill me.

I often embrace my own mortality while mountain biking, too. Please see exhibits A and B.

“Rage, rage, against the dying of the light,” poet Dylan Thomas implores. Yet we know that such rage will burn itself out, and the grim reaper will eventually come knocking on our door. “Nothing gold can stay,” said Robert Frost.

I know! I’m a sick freak. I’m sorry. Please, though: read on.

I usually write here about biking and how it circumscribes life in general, but before I was a rider, I was a runner. In a way, running is more primal, requiring no equipment or machines, and uses one’s own body as the only machine for locomotion.

Now, my running friends—those teammates I’ve suffered with, those young men who blazed through the streets, the fields, the woods, and around the track with me—are dying.

First there was Dave R., who was a nerdy but nice and very determined guy who used to slip in behind me during NCAA track races and let me pace him. And then, as I tired, he’d bolt past me without even a cursory glance back or a nod of thanks or encouragement. It used to drive me absolutely nuts. But in the end, he made me run faster because I damn well wanted him to pull me along, like I did for him.

Once, we were traveling to an away meet and the team bus left him at a truck stop and he had to chase it down, pounding on the door to be let in. In my mind I joked that he’d probably thought about drafting behind the bus for a while, but thought better of it.

Anyway, about ten years ago, I was looking through the alumni magazine when I saw his name in the “In Memoriam” column. I don’t know what happened, but I knew he was gone. (Turns out it was a plane crash.)

A year ago I learned that Mike, a guy from my grammar school that my classmates and I all adored, had passed away. That was a true shock, as he was the Golden Boy, the true athlete, the football star. His obit said he battled leukemia tenaciously for six years. That’s exactly how I remember him: tenacious. And ruthless. In his way of seizing the day, every day.

Not even his strength and beauty could avoid the end that will come to us all.

(I know! I’m bringing you down. I am very sorry, but I can’t help it. Please continue.)

And then just about a month ago, Mark, younger brother of a classmate in junior high, left this earth.

Sure, that last phrase is a bit over-dramatic, but how else can I describe it? Passed away seems so trite, and saying he died sounds crass. They do leave this earth; their spirit, their voice, their personality, disappears. I can only pray that we do end up going someplace else, but I don’t know.

I can still hear Mark’s voice, similar to Erich’s. I remember hanging around their house, playing wiffle ball in their back yard, or goofing around with their brood of Siamese cats, some of them with crooked but gorgeous blue eyes. The three brothers were all talented runners—gutsy, smart, and fast. The eldest ran on his tippy toes, his head held high, as if he were prancing. The others—Erich and Mark, ran head down, a deep furrow to their brows. Mark wore glasses, which gave him a slightly spacey look, though he could fly, just like his brothers.

I haven’t seen him in probably 30 years, but still it’s sad to lose someone like that, a fellow runner. The pain and effort we all shared, cruising around a track in a pack, our legs striding as one. Pushing ourselves as far as our young bodies could go, all for the sake of the team, for the need to test our own limits.

The awards and personal bests and championships fade away, and we grow slow, slower. And even if we no longer run, the bonds we built through miles and miles of effort remain. Such a brotherhood refuses to be broken.

I remember studying this poem in high school, and I suppose I never fully comprehended its meanings, but now I think I do. I hear it’s quiet, somber voice, it’s movement up and down–both in imagery, carrying the winner in joy, and then the casket in grief, toward burial, and in musical tone, with low, sonorous “o” sounds and the higher, aspiring “u” sounds.

I share this poem in memory of Dave, Mike, and Mark.

To an Athlete Dying Young
By A. E. Housman

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.

Chains

Yesterday, while riding up a trail called Mayhem Gulch at Centennial Cone (great names, aren’t they?—but that’s another story), I think I (brilliantly, amazingly) developed a new kind of essay: a chain.

Riding is good for such deep, creative musing.

Anyway, a chain essay is a linked series (duh), connected by an idea, image, or concept. And the ending has to loop back to the beginning somehow.

This new form is perfect for writing about riding, of course.

Other forms I know about: lyric, braided, collage, hermit crab.

Speaking of marine animals, I’m not a big fan of the band Phish, but I fondly remember teaching freshman comp back in the early 1990s, when about half of my students wanted to write the following essay: “Why Phish is the Greatest Band Ever.”

A collage(ish) memory: lots of slackerish types, slouched in cheap stacking office chairs. Lots of corduroy and long hair. Chunky black boots. The dudes and gals abide by Grunge. Rain, in Boston. Slush. Carrying around a large stack of papers to grade in a soft leather briefcase. The Internet wasn’t ubiquitous yet.  (Man, that’s so weird to realize.)

Listening to KBCO while driving to work the other day, as Brett Saunders chatted with Trey Anastasio, he of Phish fame, I got a big kick out of Trey talking about biking in Central Park. Especially how some riders look and act like they’re world class athletes, with the fancy gear they wear, and how they blast by, yelling things like, “on your left” or “get the frick out of the fast lane!”

http://www.glidemagazine.com/hiddentrack/audio-trey-anastasio-interview-on-kbco/

And here’s a note on the woman who placed fourth in the Olympic road race—the one that probably flies by Trey every morning in Central Park, the one he talks about:

http://summergames.ap.org/article/flat-tire-kicks-olds-medal-stand-cycling

Things were looking good for her—she was in the lead pack—until an unfortunate flat dropped her back. Though she still finished in seventh place.

http://velonews.competitor.com/2012/07/news/shelly-olds-rues-bad-luck-that-saw-her-flat-out-of-winning-break-at-2012-london-olympics-road-race_232277

Here’s a Youtube video of Trey performing his song about cycling slowly, “Let It Lie.” With the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

I got two flats while riding home from work the other day. I had to call my wife to come pick me up ( I only had one tube).  And then I thought I lost my wallet somewhere out on the trail home, maybe fallen out of my jersey as I tried to fix the flats. So I called and canceled all my credit cards. And then two days later, my wife found my wallet, stuck between our bedspread and the bedframe.

All because of the flat tires. It makes me want to scream.

Here’s that biking song, which is quite pretty, and unlike grunge, has no screaming in it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BXxdfRDqGXk

Speaking of video, and the Olympics, I just loved watching the mountain bike race. There are some wicked technical sections on that course. These guys are no slouches.

http://www.nbcolympics.com/video/cycling/mens-cross-country.html

Yesterday, like I said, I rode Centennial Cone, around 18 miles worth. I’d only ridden it once before. Which made it awesome—a loopy singletrack that’s new and fresh and tasty, with steep, exposed sections, rambling forest loops. Just about everything you could ask for. Kind of like a race course.

Olympian

There are many exciting elements to this summer’s Olympics, but for me the one thing that stands above all others is sprinter Oscar Pistorius.

I know there’s been some controversy and the conversation continues as to whether his cheetah blades give him an unfair advantage. I don’t understand how anyone can think that, though I am not a biomechanics expert. As my wife said while watched one of his races, “If you’re running against him and think he’s got an advantage, then you should train harder and run faster.”

Truth is, the guy can fly, and I found his qualifying run in the semifinals of the 400 meter run incredibly inspiring.

Watching him race, I know that any complaints I might have–about pretty much anything–are not worthy.

That’s what makes the Olympics unique to the global human experience–getting to see athletes push themselves to new heights, to see them strive to overcome whatever obstacles lay before them, to watch them seize their innate potential for greatness, and to manifest it, if they can.

This sounds like a trite and overdone commercial for some product, but a question lingers in my mind as I ponder all this: how can I be great today?

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