Friday, March 31, 2017

The Texas RAAM 400 / Riding the mile you have right now

Texas Race Across America Course Map
Back in September, to prep my bike for a 24 hour race, I put a little piece of silver duct tape on the bridge of my aerobars and wrote “Be present” on it with a Sharpie. The words have long since worn off, but the piece of tape is still a reminder for me in an ultradistance bike race to focus on how I’m riding at the moment and block everything else out. That mantra turned out to be extremely useful in the Texas Race Across America (RAAM) 400, a 389 mile race around the Texas Hill Country that I did the weekend of March 25th and 26, 2017.

In 2016 I did the 214-mile race self-supported, which meant that I carried everything I needed and stopped at gas stations to resupply myself. I was very pleased with how the race went, but the morning after as Margaret and I got up and had a leisurely breakfast, I remembered that most of the 400-mile racers were still out there chugging along through the night, and, in the words of Shakespeare, “I held my manhood cheap.” I resolved to prepare myself and recruit a support crew for the longer race in the coming year.

To officially complete the 400 mile race, one must finish in less than thirty-two hours. Since I knew the course was very tough, with well over 20,000 feet of climbing, I decided that a reasonable goal for me would be thirty hours. I knew that some of the big guns like Andrew Willis would finish in under twenty-four hours. I believed that David Baxter would also finish way ahead of me and I knew that my placing at the finish would be totally dependent on who else showed up. My competition, then, was totally against myself and my goal, and not against anyone else.

For nearly six months every pedal stroke of my training on the bike pointed to this 400-mile race and I arrived at the start line at 5 a.m. Saturday morning physically and mentally honed. I managed to recruit my wife, Margaret, and our older son, J.D. to support me using our Toyota Tacoma truck as the follow vehicle. In the darkness, they would follow me directly, keeping me bathed in their headlights, ready to pull up alongside and hand full water bottles and food out of the window. Per race rules, after 7 a.m., they would leapfrog past me, pulling over where they had room to do so, and getting out to hand off whatever I needed as I passed.

The view from the support vehicle
Margaret and J.D. had several responsibilities as support crew. In addition to preparing and handing up food and drink, they were responsible for calling in the time stations to race headquarters as we passed them, and helping me navigate the course with the aid of an eight-page cue sheet. Supporting a rider like this, especially with a two-person crew, is busy, tedious work which allows for little or no rest. The driver can do nothing but drive, and the focus required to stay forty feet behind a rider going fifteen mph through the night is excruciatingly mind-numbing. The crewmember riding shotgun is constantly prepping the next round of food or drink, confirming navigation and looking for the next turn, organizing the vehicle, communicating with race headquarters, and anticipating what the rider will need.

We started the race individually at one-minute intervals and within the first ten miles I found myself being passed by other riders who seemed to fly by. “Vaya con Dios,” I whispered, certain that it would be foolish for me to vary from my planned pace to try to keep up with them and believing that I´d later pass some of them back as the miles wore on.

Within an hour of the start, still before 6 a.m., once we turned off of highway 281, we were plunged into inky darkness on the narrow farm and ranch roads. One place where the follow vehicle headlights and even your own bike headlight doesn´t help you is turning into a corner, so I negotiated those very cautiously, wary of the little piles of gravel that can take out your front wheel. Another place where the vehicle lights momentarily can’t help you is where the road dips down into low spots that cross one of the thousands of creeks that populate the Texas Hill Country.

The treacherous low water crossings of the Hill Country are best crossed on foot since they tend to be covered in slick greenish blackish algae, a point that was emphasized by Fred Boethling, one of the race directors. That didn’t stop some of the riders from flying into them (accidentally or otherwise), which resulted in horrific road rash for my friend, José Bermúdez, and a race-ending broken derailleur hanger for another self-supported rider who had traveled all the way from Colorado to compete.

My support crew was not totally responsible for navigation. I found my way mostly by the course map I had downloaded on my Garmin 810, a bike computer the screens of which I could thumb through as I rode along to see a map; various readouts of my speed, distance, and power; and a profile of the course elevation with a little blue dot showing my current location. The Garmin would chirp at me and inform me when I needed to turn, and also let me know when I had missed a turn and gone off course.  

Some place after the first hundred miles I started looking at the course elevation profile screen more. If I saw that the next couple of miles were uphill, I´d shift into an easier gear and increase my rpm to avoid overtaxing my legs. If I saw a long downhill coming, I´d get into a big gear, try to get a little bit aerodynamic and take advantage of the free speed. As I neared Vanderpool at about the 150 mile point, though, the slope of the elevation profile went almost wall-like off the upper right corner of the screen. I chuckled and said to myself, “Well, this will be tough.” It was. The hills starting near Vanderpool were steep enough to create the sensation that my front wheel wanted to come off the ground as I granny-geared up the climb. I was soon to see more of those green walls on the elevation profile (which did NOT elicit chuckles) near Leakey at the 175 mile point, which was to become a critical psychological moment in the race for me. 
Getting into the warm part of the day west of Boerne, TX
For me, to let my mind wander off of the task at hand of just riding my current mile sends me mentally to one of two dangerous places: to the finish or to a distance/pain algebra problem. The less problematic fantasy is about finishing, coming across the line and having that medal hung around my neck, seeing my goal time achieved, hugging my family, eating a nice sit-down meal with clean hands, and regaling gape-mouthed friends for months after with stories of my achievement (which truly is a fantasy since non-endurance athletes rightfully care absolutely nothing about your ride). The problem with the finishing fantasy is that you must always at some point mentally snap back to the present, and the letdown of realizing you´ve still got 200+ miles to go after you’ve been daydreaming can be soul-crushing. You may even be a little tempted to abandon the race and just fast forward to all that comfort you were lusting after. But the more perilous mind-wandering phenomenon is the distance/pain algebra problem. The interior monologue of the distance/pain algebra problem goes like this, “Well, I’m only 175 miles into a 400 mile bike race. If my legs and my shoulders and my butt are hurting this much now, less than halfway in, then the pain at the 350 mile point will be proportional to . . . hmmm, let’s see . . . solve for X . . .  well, that will be just too excruciating. And even then I’ll still have fifty miles to go. I’ll never make it.” And you’ll be mentally destroyed by anxiety over assumed future pain.

The truth is, if you take the right actions, much of your increasing discomfort may not be linear and it may be managed, reduced or even banished. If you’ve trained properly what you’re feeling in your legs at 175 miles at is not muscular failure, but a lack of calories, hydration or electrolytes that are only as far away as a wave to the support vehicle. Saddle discomfort can be relieved by more chamois cream, an adjustment in the shorts, saddle, or position. So act. Don’t just sit there miserable, fantasizing about being done or devastating your morale with distance/pain algebra. 
Riding past the omnipresent and iconic bluebonnets

Ultraracing is about managing problems when reality crashes into the ideal. Ideally, we would be able to gut out thirty hours of racing with no sleep, but as we approached Mountain Home at about 2 a.m., I was getting too sleepy and made the decision to take a nap. It was getting cold and we were all at a low point. Margaret took one of the coolers out of the back seat so J.D. could get in the truck and we slept for twenty minutes, which turned out to be a huge boost that got us through the rest of the night. It was soon after we got going again that I ran into several very cold places, prompting me to grit my teeth and groan out loud. I immediately had to stop and get all my warm clothes on again. Looking back at the temperature profile on the Garmin, we hit lows of 41 near Mountain Home in the wee hours of the morning, which felt brutally cold after having hit highs of 97 in the hills near Leakey the afternoon before.

The dark night of the soul near Mountain Home
My need to focus on the now sometimes pushed me to do ridiculous things. In addition to thinking about the mile I was riding at the time, I compromised and allowed myself to think about getting to the next town if it were only ten to fifteen miles away. At one point, where I was nearly 300 miles in and within fourteen miles of reaching the town of Doss, my sleep-deprived mind arrived at the solution of composing a preposterous country song that went something like, “I’m ridin’ to Doss . . . on my carbon fiber hoss . . . I wish I could stop and floss . . . “

Soon after seven a.m. we saw our second sunrise of the race. As usual, my energy and positivity rose in proportion to the increasing daylight and I could tell that Margaret and J.D. were feeling better too. They went into leapfrog mode and at one point I could see them up ahead standing by the road near the truck, her in the safety vest and him in the bright yellow shirt I loaned them. In the shimmering distance, she looked tall and regal and he looked tall and athletic. At that moment I was immensely proud of and thankful for them. We could smell the barn. More animals, both wild and domestic, came into activity at daylight also. At one point my addled brain registered that a skunk was waddling across the road in front of me. When he realized I was passing him, he stopped and lifted his tail, locked and loaded to spray me as my crew looked on, horrified. He thought better of it, though, and I rode on unsprayed. Through the course of the race we saw, in addition to two skunks, jackrabbits, bison, antelope, wild hogs, turkeys, a roadrunner, foxes, and about a thousand deer. I was not chased by a single loose dog.

When you have less than three miles to the finish, FM 2147 turns right onto 281, a major four-lane highway. The lanes are wide there, but there is little to no shoulder. Since it was daylight, the follow vehicle couldn’t be behind me. I rode as far to the right as I could so that vehicles in that lane had room to easily get by me on that Sunday morning. Still, within a mile of getting on 281, one driver got behind me and laid on his/her horn and another passed me and held his arm with extended middle finger out the window at me for a solid eight seconds. Welcome to Texas™. Drive Friendly™. That was my victory lap.
The finish line in Marble Falls, TX
With my crew, J.D. and Margaret

Still, I’m immensely thankful for the whole experience: to God for the health, safety and opportunity to train and race, to my family for supporting me not only during the race but all those weekends spent doing long rides, to my coach José Bermúdez for the training and encouragement, and to the race directors of RAAM for their labor of love.

And I´m thankful for the lesson of savoring the moment, valuing what I´m doing right now without letting anxiety about the future steal my joy. 

Monday, July 25, 2016

Dolce / Language Regression, A Little Understanding of Michelangelo's Genius, and the Social Contract

Vei dei bardi (Street of the Poets), near Ponte Vecchio
I had good days and bad days in the classroom this week, and experienced a phenomenon known as language regression, something that I remember happened to me when I was in a Spanish immersion program. When you’re rapidly learning a new language as an adult, it is common to reach a point in which your struggle to take on board the new things you’re learning causes you to make mistakes in areas you’ve previously learned (and thought you’d mastered), giving you the impression that you’re actually getting worse, which is extremely frustrating. I caught myself thinking a couple of times this week, “Well, this is just a really bad day. I’m not speaking any more Italian in here today.” But within about thirty seconds I would tell myself, “Hey, dummy, if you don’t speak badly today then you’re just postponing your chance to get better.” And I dusted myself off and kept going.

We had a couple of afternoon classes on art this week, and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know more about Michelangelo. I want to tell you briefly a couple of things I’ve discovered about a couple of his most well-known works, La Pietà and David.
La Pietà - Michelangelo - 1497-1500
He did La Pietà early in his career, when he was about 25. When you see it, you’re struck by how lifelike it is. This is one of the many depictions in Renaissance religious art of “the deposition,” the moment when Christ was taken down from the cross. In la Pietà, Christ’s flesh and skin and muscles look so real you have to remind yourself that these are actually carved from marble. Michelangelo studied cadavers and had extensive knowledge about how the muscles, tendons, veins and skin really looked and he went for maximum realism in his work. But the longer you look at and study the beautiful work, you start to pick up some things that are not realistic. Mary appears to be impossibly young. Their heads are just about level with Jesus’ body arrayed across Mary’s lap, so she is actually much larger than Jesus and if they were both standing she would tower over him. Mary supports Jesus’ upper body with only her right hand, a very difficult feat given the angle of her upper body and the weight of the lifeless body of Christ. The nail wounds in Jesus’ hands and feet, as well as the spear wound in his side, are very small, minimal, and almost imperceptible. All these factors make Michelangelo more of an artist than a technician. He is intentional in these apparent lacks of realism. Mary’s youth reflects her purity and chastity and the minimization of Christ’s wounds are the result of a decision to deemphasize the brutality of the crucifixion in order to emphasize the calm, restful satisfaction in having completed the post painful part of the redemptive work.  
David - Michelangelo - 1501-1504
The David was originally commissioned to go on top of a building and that’s why it’s so large, over seventeen feet tall. It was deemed too good to go way on top of a building, so it is displayed at ground level. Even after you see the copy of the statue in the Piazza Signoria, the real David statue is incredibly impactful when you see it in person. The muscles and veins and symmetry of the body gives you the impression that he will load and fire his slingshot while you are watching. But upon careful examination you can tell that the right arm and hand are impossibly hyper-developed, conveying the empowerment of God in his battle against the Giant. A few other notable David statues had been done before Michelangelo’s, but they tended to show David posing with Goliath’s head after he had defeated and killed him. Michelangelo’s David is pre-battle, and David’s calm but determined focus in the moment before he kills the giant is, to me, a remarkable commentary on faith. Again, in the same way that the poet plays with the relationship between signifier and signified in language to establish her or his own rules of language (Juliet is not really the sun, but Shakespeare makes it so), Michelangelo bends the laws of physics in both the Pietà and the David for poetic effect.

Something that occurred to me today looking at the works is the fact that because Michelangelo’s ability to faithfully, breathtakingly depict the human form in marble is so perfect, you as the viewer accept the reality of the whole presentation: that Mary really looked that young at 47 or 48 years of age, that she could really support Christ’s lifeless body like that, that she could have the look of calm resignation on her face instead of abject sorrow, that David’s right arm and hand really looked like that, and that he was totally fearless as he loaded his slingshot. The technique strikes me as incredibly subtle, sophisticated and effective. The overwhelming truth of the accuracy of the depiction of the human form makes you excuse the parts of the work that are, well, only poetically true.

When classes ended on Friday I went and rented a bike again to go out and train and sightsee. The bike was really nice, a Colgnago c50 with smooth-shifting Campagnolo Chorus shifters and Mavic Cosmic Carbone wheels. The only problem was that it had a full-grown 53/39 crankset and an 11-25 freewheel cassette, definitely not good gearing for an old heavy guy (maybe not real good for anyone) on the hills around Tuscany. I spent a lot of time in my absolute easiest gear just grinding myself into muscle failure on the steepest hills on Friday and Saturday. On Sunday I looked for the flattest route I could find, which paralleled the Arno River for several miles until I turned inland and ground myself into oblivion going up one of the last hills toward Pontassieve. I only rode about half the miles I had intended, but I did wear myself out pretty well, had no accidents or flats, and saw some really beautiful countryside.
I took it really easy on the downhills, many of them so steep I feared for my ability to stop my bike. To have an accident back home where I can grab the cell and call a family member to come get me and go to a hospital where my insurance will work is one thing, but to have a serious accident here would be an unmitigated disaster, even though I’m sure the quality of medical care is probably every bit as good or better.

I sometimes feel safer riding a bike here than walking, especially when I have to cross the street. There are crosswalks here, but only about 30% of the cars will stop for you, even when you’re standing right in the crosswalk showing signs of wanting to cross. It’s like a game of chicken: "Does he see me? Does he not see me? Is he slowing down? Will he stop if I just step on out there?" And because not all the cars stop, some of the ones that do stop risk getting rear-ended by cars galloping up behind them with no intention of stopping for some poor sap in the crosswalk. As a pedestrian, since you don’t feel any real consistent protection in the crosswalk, you’ll cross anywhere it seems marginally and temporarily safe, which results in less predictability for drivers. There are rules here that seem to be universally ignored. I live near a traffic circle with cool little butcher shops, delicatessens, and pastry shops lining the street. People driving home will just pull their cars over at the edge of the traffic circle and get out and go buy what they need. Some afternoons cars will be illegally parked three deep so that drivers trying to exit the circle have to zig zag through an obstacle course. Of course, no traffic enforcement or police in sight.

Another disconnect between the ideal and the real: Firenze has a really advanced garbage disposal system where you’re encouraged (required, really) to sort out your recycling from your wet kitchen garbage (which I think is a great idea). At the corner there are containers to dispose of your glass, your paper, your plastic, your organic waste, and your wet trash that you can’t (or won’t) separate. The final category, the undifferentiated trash, is the only container with a lock on it. Every homeowner in the neighborhood is theoretically issued a key to the undifferentiated trash, which has a fairly small opening on it. There may be a limited number of uses per key, I don’t know, because I’ve been here nearly six weeks now and the owners haven’t given me a key to the trash. They tell me they’ve asked for it and it hasn’t been issued to them by the city government. So I sort the trash as best I can and lay my undifferentiated trash next to the locked dumpster, which is every bit as bad as it sounds. Well, I’m not the only one who does that, because there are typically dozens of bags of undifferentiated trash next to the container. So, in a nice neighborhood in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, next to a color-coded system of small dumpsters that probably cost millions of dollars city-wide, lie piles of trash for days on end because local government can’t or won’t issue the keys to the homeowners. The trash, like the three-deep illegal parking, like the drivers who won’t stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk, are stark examples of breakdowns in the social contract, which I know happens in all countries to one degree or another. Shoot, there are very few crosswalks at all where I live, even in places that badly need them, and I’m pretty sure Bubba in his Dodge Ram will run you over there, too.  

Interestingly, the city of Firenze has taken a hard line in enforcing at least one law. To crack down on scofflaws who ride the city buses without paying, ticket checkers routinely board the bus and check to see if you have a validated bus ticket, which costs a little over one Euro (little more than a dollar) per trip. I generally get checked twice a week and I’ve even been checked by two different crews on the same trip. If they catch you riding the bus without a ticket, it’s a pretty serious fine: about 250 Euros (probably $270). I have no problem with the need to have a bus ticket. These are nice buses and they provide a valuable service and we who use them should pay for their operation. But who do they catch in these checks? Tourists, according to my unscientific observation. About 90% of the people they catch riding the bus without a validated ticket (that I've seen, anyway) are tourists who can’t figure out the system for buying a bus ticket (or don’t know there is a system) and just decide to climb on and hope for the best.

So that’s how it goes, even in the birthplace of the Renaissance: impunity for insiders and punishment for outsiders.     


Sunday, July 17, 2016

Formaggio e frutta / Adventures with the GPS in Italian

This week featured an out and back work trip to the beautiful city of Urbino on the other side of the Apennine mountains, some bike training, and "international problem solving."

After a frustrating plateau for a little while, I believe my speaking ability hit a little upswing this week. I’m able to conduct business around town (and in my 90 minute meeting in Urbino) in Italian, and routine phrases are coming out smoother and less mistake-ridden. Since Margaret went back to the States on Tuesday, it's less fun here, but the upside is that I’m able to surround myself with more Italian language and that’s bound to help.

The purpose of my trip to Urbino was to check out a Study Abroad opportunity for our voice music majors at Ouachita Baptist University. I reserved a car online, this time near downtown and not out by the airport (saved myself 3 bus rides) and left class early on the 13th to go pick up the car and drive the three hours over the mountains to make a 4 pm meeting in Urbino. The infinitive verb “to reserve” in Italian is prenotare, but in fact, a reservation in most parts of Italy seems to me to be totally meaningless. I found the car rental place, walked in and told them I had a car reserved. I even had a confirmation number. Neither thing meant anything to this company. “Well, where’s your printed copy of your voucher?” the employee asked. Now, I’ve rented many cars over the past 30 years or so in places as far flung as Spain, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and even Italy twice before. I’ve never had to hand over a printed-off proof of reservation. To make a long story short, the rental process took longer than it took us to refinance the mortgage on our house in Miami. By the time I got the car, a Fiat 500, I knew I would barely make it to the meeting if everything went right. I plugged my phone into the car, pulled up the GPS for the instructions for how to get back to the apartment (I had to pick up something on the way out of town), and when I got going, the Google Maps voice commands were in Italian, which freaked me out for the first few turns. I was already frazzled trying to manage the unfamiliar car (it took me about 8 minutes to figure out how to roll down the window to insert the ticket in the machine to be let out of the parking garage). I eventually made the drive to the apartment, over the mountains to Urbino (sometimes driving up one-lane roads so steep I had to gear down to 1st), had an excellent meeting with the folks over there, and made it back to Firenze by a little after 9 pm. The last hurdle was figuring out how to work the gas pumps to refuel the car, which I finally did. I got home exhausted but content, feeling like I had just led the Raid on Entebbe.    

Part of the international experience (if you’re not being led around by a tour guide) is that just about everything, not just language but systematically everything, is different from what you’re used to. So you feel foolish and inadequate while you stand there looking at a machine (like the gas pump at this self-service station) like a pig looking at a wristwatch, but when you solve it you feel awesome except for your sweaty armpits. I’ve tried to improve my approach to problem solving here. I’ve tended to treat it like problem solving at Navy SCUBA School, where you would swim around on the bottom of the pool and the instructors would rip your mask off and take away your regulator and shut off your air and even steal your tanks if they could. You had as much time to solve your problem as your breath hold would allow. But international problem solving shouldn't be treated that way. Just be calm. Ask someone for help. Step out of line and watch someone else do it. Take your time. You’re not splitting the atom or delivering fire to mankind.   

Urbino is not as big as Firenze, but it is absolutely beautiful. It’s a college town, with students outnumbering residents 14,000 to 12,000. The cathedral, like several of the ones in Firenze, has a dome, which I’ve found out signified eternal life in the early Church. 
The school in Urbino teaches Italian language and voice to music students. They have language classes in the morning and voice lessons in the afternoon for three weeks. At the end of the program they give a concert in this beautiful street side venue believed to be the spot used for the backdrop for the Piero della Francesca painting “The Flagellation of Christ” from 1452.

Since Margaret is gone, I rented a road bike for some excursions and training around Tuscany. I reserved a bike online and even got confirmation from the manager that I was all set. When I arrived Friday afternoon, you guessed it, the guy working there was stunned to see me. He had no knowledge of my reservation, so, of course there was no bike ready. I told him I needed a 56 or 57 cm frame. He had no idea what size any of his bikes where. We pulled one down that looked like it would work. Just about everything that could have been out of adjustment on the bike was out of adjustment. Do you have a work stand we can put the bike on so I can adjust it? “No.” I knew I had some tools back at the apartment, so I took the bike and paid the guy and off I went. When I brought the bike back at the end of the weekend to turn it in, the original guy who took my reservation was there, and I told him about all the adjustments I had to make to the bike to make it rideable. He offered me a job. I told him he couldn't afford me and we had a good laugh. Some things you just have to laugh about. We're a long way from the land of "The customer is always right."

I would up using my cell phone’s GPS with the voice commands and riding with one earbud in so I could navigate the byzantine road network through the Chianti region. I had some great rides and saw some fabulous scenery,

but after a month off the bike I’m out of riding shape and my “bike seat contact region” has lost its toughness. Speaking of toughness, the riding here is very, very hilly. It seemed like it was just one steep hill after another, with the curviness of the narrow roads making it necessary to brake a lot on the downhills, robbing you of the momentum you paid so dearly for on the climbs. There are no shoulders but drivers are accustomed to sharing the road. It was harrowing to deal with cars passing so closely, but I got used to it by Sunday. And through about 125 miles through the countryside this weekend, how many dogs chased me? Not. A. Single. One. Oh, I saw and heard dogs, but they were inside fences.

I’m looking at you, Arkansas.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Week 4 in Firenze/ Insalata

Being back in a classroom for six weeks gives me a chance to re-live the student experience. This week I had a chance to think extensively about student engagement and correcting mistakes. The first time we ever had class with the lecturer on Italian music he asked me in front of the whole class why I was studying Italian. I don’t think he asked anyone else that question, which seemed (and seems) strange to me. It seemed like, “Explain yourself,” which I don’t generally feel compelled to do about just about anything. My answer, “Because I like the language,” probably didn’t qualify me as a sufficiently serious student for him, because since that day, he has never engaged me visually in the class while he is lecturing. It’s not like he’s reading from notes or something. He visually engages the other students, but he seems to be intentional in avoiding looking at me. I think I'll change seats to the middle of the class and ask some questions and see if that changes anything. And the next time someone asks me why I’m here studying Italian, I'll say, “I’ve always wanted to read the Divina Commedia in the original language.” 

Another aspect I had an opportunity to review was the correction of mistakes, which is crucial in language learning. I realized that my grammar prof, the guy I have for most of the school day, does a good job of correcting my mistakes in class. He will generally not interrupt me (unless I use a Spanish word thinking it's Italian), but will let me finish and then say something like, “Be careful in using this phrase” and he will sometimes write out the correct construction on the board. And tone of voice and facial expression is everything here. This is a critical point because the professor can’t just let students make grammatical or semantic mistakes and think they’re getting it right, but you don’t want to damage the student’s willingness to speak in class. It’s more than worrying about others’ feelings. It’s establishing an environment for effective learning, which may be the same thing.

Obviously, learning environments extend beyond the classroom. The bus stop, the grocery store, and the sidewalk café are all places to listen, watch and learn. One of those place here is the Bar/Tabachi, where you can buy everything from bus tickets to cigarettes to coffee.

They seem to be open about 20 hours a day with the same people working behind the counter. When I get to my bus stop, if the little marquee sign that shows arrival times tells me my bus is more than 6 minutes away, I sometimes walk three doors down to the nearest bar/tabachi for a coffee. If you just order “un caffè” in Tuscany (maybe anywhere in Italy) it will be espresso, which seems like a thimbleful of very concentrated coffee. My espresso is set before me and I open the little sugar package that it comes with and put in about 1/3 of the sugar. For the remaining five minutes until my bus comes, I stir and sip my espresso and look around at what my professor calls “La fauna,” the Italian people. Everyone is standing around the bar or possibly sitting on a stool if there is room, which there may not be since these places seem to be about eleven feet wide and 40 feet long. The place will be loud if there are more than two people in there. It seems like a lot of people in there know each other, and at least one Fiorentino will be accompanied by her/his leashed dog. I can catch stray words and broad subjects while conversation pours back and forth across the bar, but the words are too thick and fast for me to make out more than general meaning. The conversations between Italians seem to have a certain musicality that I always enjoy, and in class this week I found out why. Some differences in words are based on whether they have two consonants or one. Take “belo” and “bello,” for example. “Belo” is a real word in Italian, it’s the equivalent of the “bleat” that a sheep or goat makes. “Bello,” you probably already know, is some beautiful thing with a masculine gender. “Dona” is the 3rd person singular of the verb “donare” (to donate), but a woman is a “donna,” so when an Italian says “donna” it seems like they’re saying, “She’s some kinda woman” because in Italian, you have to linger on those two consonants, which for me, seems to exaggerate and dramatize the whole word. All the standard Italian gestures are employed to full effect in the social hotbox of the bar / tabachi. 

The barista’s hands will fly out and back to punctuate a sentence between cleaning and filling the small metal basket on the expresso machine. At least in Tuscany, Italians really do use the standard greetings we’re taught from the first day in Italian: “Salve,” “Ciao,” “Arrivederci,” and “Buongiorno” and friends will effusively greet and kiss each other on the street. They are also gracious, freely using the “Grazie” and “Prego” that you learn when you take your first steps into the language.   

Margaret and I did some serious touristing this week since this is her last weekend in Firenze. Saturday we toured a small museum with some works of Masaccio, an Italian painter who lived at the beginning of the 1400’s. He died at age 26, but is credited for helping to usher in the Renaissance with his perspectivism and realism. 
We later went to a beautiful castle near Poppi designed in the 1100’s by Arnolfo di Cambio, the same architect credited with designing the Palazzo Vecchio in Firenze. It was a great daytrip that required about 3 hours on a small bus/large van, but it pretty much wore us out. For a while I thought that driving in Italy just seemed dangerous to me but that Italians somehow just manage it safely, but I now think I’m wrong. Italians have a lot of wrecks on the narrow, twisting roads in the Tuscan hills, and you’ll see many, many cars with wrinkled fenders and dimpled doors. We had a couple of close calls in the van, and we even witnessed an incident of road rage between our driver and the driver of a sedan who cut us off and then totally stopped in front of us. I would rate an 8/10 for intensity and expressiveness.   

Earlier in the week, on Thursday, we went to the opera at a local church near the Arno River. The opera was kind of a small-scale, intimate production of Verdi’s La Traviata. We were all right up close to the performers, which was really special. These opera singers are like vocal athletes, and you get a real appreciation for their talent when you see and hear them up close. It was a hot day, though, and it continued to be hot in the evening. At the risk of sounding like a big spoiled gringo, I’ll tell you it was oppressively hot in this beautiful historic church where there’s no A/C and they’re not just going to set out a bunch of fans. I thought we would cool off after sitting there for a while, but nothing doing. Just out of curiosity I took off my Suunto watch and set it in the chair back in front of me for about ten minutes to get an accurate reading of the temperature. Midway through the second act it was still 84 degrees Fahrenheit . . . no air moving . . . all of us mashed into this church together. I really felt bad for the singers, who were dressed in period costumes. The baritone mopped his brow like a country preacher but the soprano, who was really physically expressive and sang more than anybody, never got beyond a kind of glow. Women really are the stronger gender. Some of my fellow opera-goers appeared to be from somewhere in Southeast Asia and even they were fanning themselves and looking at each other like, “You’ve got to be kidding.” I half-expected that IV’s would be administered during the intermission. Margaret and I bought a cold bottle of water and took turns holding it against our foreheads. Well, nobody said that culture was easy. The opera was still great and I will go again, but I might pack myself in ice first.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Secondo Piatto e contorno / In Praise of the Beautiful and the Mundane

The fresco near my bus stop that I didn't notice
my first 2 weeks here.
We got deep in grammar this week in class: the passato remoto verbal tense and the subjunctive mood. Passato remoto is a past tense that Italians rarely use when speaking, but it is used all the time in news articles, historical accounts and even children’s books. Subjunctive feels like an old friend, used very similarly to the way it is in Spanish. Conceptually, I understand both of these very well, but am not smooth with coming up with the correct conjugations of the verbs. What has made me happy this week has been that my comprehension and speaking ability, the two last language abilities to fall into place, are getting much stronger. Language experts have written that speaking will not come on line until comprehension starts to solidify and I believe this is true. Before coming to Italy I would listen to an Italian podcast that was largely incomprehensible, but listening to them this week, I was able to understand nearly all of them.

The short afternoon sessions at school, great exercises in themselves for listening comprehension, are on culture, history, art, etc., mostly centered on Firenze itself and this week I heard something that really made me stop and think. Firenze in the late 1400’s and 1500’s, under the sponsorship of the Medici family (most notably Cosimo and Lorenzo) became a great patron and protector of the arts.
Lorenzo Medici was not called "Il Magnifico" for his good looks
 One result was this beautiful city which has been described as an open-air museum. Most of the buildings are works of art in themselves. I’ll be waiting at the bus stop and just casually look up and see a fresco, faded but still beautiful, that must be many centuries old, on the wall of a building that now houses a coffee shop. People in charge at the time made a decision to make things not only practical, but as beautiful as they could. The Medici's had a financial interest in works of art, and used them to build social and economic capital, but they were also passionate art aficionados. And the Medici's, described as deeply Catholic, were also very free in their consideration of what beauty could be depicted. Botticelli painted nude representations of goddesses in addition to many Christian religious paintings. 

Botticelli's Birth of Venus 1480's
Michelangelo was famously intentional about painting and sculpting nude subjects, not for the viewer’s erotic excitement, but rather as a pure expression of the beauty of the human created in God’s image.
Michelangelo's David 1501-1504
And out of this environment under the decades-long protection of the Medici family (with the exception of an interruption led by an fundamentalist priest named Savonarola), artists and inventors and thinkers like Machiavelli, Botticelli, di Vinci, Michelangelo and Brunelleschi produced great works nearly simultaneously in Firenze and helped pull the world out of the Middle Ages.

And they left us with this beautiful city. I may spend the rest of my life trying to understand the individual human impact of being in a place where long-lasting, tasteful, beauty is so intentional and so built into just about every street and structure. I find it very calming and reassuring to be in it every day. It makes me glad that the Medicis were not cheese merchants.

Margaret and I chose this weekend to rent a car and get away to the coast. Lots of times since we’ve been here, as I’ve been hoofing around in the heat or waiting in the sun to get on a crowded bus, I’ve thought, “I sure will be glad when we rent a car and I can drive us around.” Well, we did rent one and I soon after thought to myself, as Lee Corso likes to say, “Not so fast, my friend.” Having your own wheels in Tuscany solves some problems and creates a lot more. Liability, navigation at high speeds, getting through toll booths, buying gas and parking were challenges that we had to work hard to overcome. Driving in Italy is just different and you can see the difference reflected in the geometry of personal space as you walk around the city. People are just accustomed to being very close to each other and that closeness is extended to vehicles on the road. As a result, it’s uncomfortable for us as we drive around thinking, “That scooter that just whipped around me is too close to me. That car that just whipped around me to fit itself into the safe following distance I was leaving between myself and the car in front of me is too close to me. That bus that just jammed its 30-foot self into this intersection is too close to all of us.” But you get used to it.

Figuring out all the systems: paying tolls, parking, operating the washers and driers at the laundromat, getting a shopping cart at the supermarket and operating the gas pumps is also a learning process. It’s not even a language thing. It’s a system thing. Most of the time there’s no language involved, just something like a metal leash that chains the shopping carts together, that it seems like everyone else but you can figure out. So, you either try to ask someone how to do it, or creepily watch over someone else's shoulder like a rhesus monkey as they do it, which is awkward and makes you feel stupid. But you take solace in the fact that once you’ve figured it out, it’s just one more thing you’ll know how to do next time.

One of the main things we wanted to do on our weekend getaway was to go to the beach, so this morning we got an early start and went out to Marina di Vecchiano.
I'm pretty sure that's a nerf dart and not a cigarette by Margaret's foot
We were hoping to beat the crowds, but we really didn’t. So you, dear reader, may be thinking, “Ah ha. The beach in Europe. Do tell.” Yes, there were a couple of topless women, but very few. And there were some dudes in Speedos, more than topless women, but they also seemed to be in the minority. It was crowded but pleasant, mostly families just enjoying the beach like anyone else in the world does. There were a lot of old folks, and, really just people of all ages, shapes and sizes. And it occurred to me that the beachgoing crowd there seemed to be a little more egalitarian than we are in the States. I think there are a lot of people who will just not go to the beach in the States, and many others who will only go to the beach wearing a giant t-shirt or cover-up, but that doesn’t seem to be the way it is for Italians (I estimate the crowd was 95% local folks). The attitude seemed to be, “Here I am, chillin’ at the beach. This is my body and I’m not going to cover it up much more than absolutely necessary. I’m OK with it.”

It strikes me as a very healthy attitude.

But don’t expect to see me in a Speedo at Lake DeGray, Arkansas.      

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Primo Piatto/ Language Athletes and an Unwanted Public Reading

This was a short school week since the celebration for the patron saint of Florence, San Giovanni, was on Friday. Friday night there were fireworks that we were able to see just over the top of Ponte Vecchio as a reward for muscling into a crowd of tourists and locals and holding our phones aloft while guarding our wallets from pickpockets. We also went to a beautiful concert of baroque music performed by a clavichord, flute and soprano. The concert was in the Santo Spirito church that overlooks one of the liveliest and less touristy piazzas in Florence. We always wondered why the front of the Santo Spirito church is so plain, but this week we discovered that Filippo Brunelleschi, the ingenious designer of the Duomo, was supposed to also build an elaborate façade of that church in the 1400’s and didn’t live long enough to do the project. The façade is left plain, apparently in homage to him. Occasionally, artists will design art that is projected on the front of the church at night.

This week we dug into tough grammar in my intermediate-advanced class. I understood more and more of what we worked on, but realized I still have a long way to go. We had a test over literature on Wednesday. I figured, “Hey, I’m here to participate in every possible thing and learn as much as I can” so I said, sure, I’ll take the test. On the afternoon of the test the school seemed to be empty. I went into the classroom where we had the culture and literature classes expecting a dozen or so students also preparing to take a written test. “You have to go to the office and sign up for the exam” I was told, so off I went to tell the secretary, Desiree, that I wanted to take the test. It turns out that the test was an oral exam (apparently the prof had announced it and I didn’t catch it) and there were only three of us, two Japanese girls and me, taking the test. I didn’t want to back out at that point since I had signed up, and I got smashed pretty flat, since my communications skills are still pretty rudimentary. Right now I can order a meal and ask about the bus with aplomb, but talk at length about renaissance Italian literature, not so much. I felt bad (ambushed, really), but I write it off to a learning experience. I remember feeling the same way early in my immersion experience in Spanish, being unable to communicate as well as I want to; not being able to speak any better than a small child. Jesus said we must accept the gospel with the faith of children, and I think language learning requires similar humility, the willingness to strip off your degrees, your professional and personal achievements and your stronger language(s) and take that naked walk of "incommunication."

After winning five NBA championship rings and a couple of Olympic gold medals, Michael Jordan subjected himself to a similar "stripping away" when he humbled himself to try to play major league baseball. He wound up in the minors, never playing beyond the AA level. I can imagine how he must have felt, riding the bus from game to game with the Birmingham Barons, willing to take several steps down the ladder to pursue a dream. His Achilles heel, his inability to hit the curve, kept him from ever being able to reach the majors and he eventually went back to basketball.

Thursday afternoon I sat down for a few minutes and talked to Muriel, a girl in my class from Chile. We immediately switched from Italian to Spanish, the more comfortable language for both of us. We talked for a good twenty minutes and it occurred to me that all of the complex constructions I more or less easily and smoothly used in Spanish with Muriel were totally out of reach for me when I was learning Spanish in the late 90’s. They took time and study and reading and practice, and I realized I will need to walk that same road with Italian to get to the same point. But I know how to get there. I’m a language athlete. The sport may be different, but I know how to train and complete. And no one will say, (like they didn’t say to Jordan), “Oh, you’re a Spanish professor, here’s an easy pitch you can hit over the fence.” They’ll throw me curves. And I, unlike Jordan, will get to the point where I can hit them. So the training continues.

Today Margaret and I solved the puzzle of the out-of-town bus system and traveled to Siena, a beautiful medieval city just about fifty miles from Florence. We saw beautiful cathedrals and fantastic architecture and breathtaking art and just enjoyed breaking another piece of the code of international travel together. I bought a skinny book in English on the history of Siena and was looking forward to reading it on the bus ride home. But the calm that I counted on for reading turned out to be illusory. The bus back to Florence was packed and we had the misfortune of sitting two rows up from a woman from Mississippi or Alabama. This well-heeled and well-cared for woman felt it appropriate to read out loud from a spiral notebook where she recorded, in excruciating detail, a journal of their trip that had started about ten days prior. Her friend was sitting right next to her, but this woman insisted on reading in a voice loud enough to make me think she intended for people in neighboring villages to hear as we passed. Only her own bowel movements escaped the faithful transcription of her activities. Everything else: the hour of waking, walking over a bridge, being picked up for transportation to the next tour, the food upon which she and her pampered friends dined, the bargains hunted for and procured, were faithfully recorded in longhand and now, proudly read for the edification of a busload of weary, sweaty people who alternately prayed to God that she would die of a stroke and thanked Him for every tunnel through we passed that darkened the bus too much for her to continue reading. She had been transported across an ocean to visit the Cradle of the Renaissance where humanity was pulled out of the Dark Ages, but her commentary was bereft of commentary on art, history and architecture, to make room for detailed overviews of how rubbery and tasteless the eggs at breakfast were, and where she got a good deal on a reversible genuine leather belt.

I guess we travel with different goals. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

Antipasto / Week 1 in Firenze

The first week of Italian classes is done, and so far, so good. We took a test on the first day that put me between intermediate and intermediate/advanced, and after trying the two classes, I opted for intermediate/advanced. My professor is absolutely outstanding. He seems to know exactly what non-native Italian speakers need to work on and he targets those parts of the grammar. Today we worked on relative pronouns (one of the hardest things I had to learn in Spanish, which is curiously more straightforward in Italian). Yesterday we worked on double object pronouns, which I found very tricky. So, we're way beyond learning how to ask for coffee. If we have a question or it's apparent that we're weak on a more elementary part of the grammar, he'll go over that, too. He goes to the trouble to write stuff out on the blackboard and diagram things instead of just talking about them. I write notes as fast as I can for the whole grammar class. His style is pretty old-school (like me, I think). He will ask you direct questions or have another student ask you a question and require you to speak in front of everybody, obviously nerve-wracking, but it makes you much more engaged. It's not that he wants to embarrass anyone, he just knows that unless we speak a lot we'll never get better at speaking. Our section is pretty small, with people from Chile, Finland, Japan, Brazil and Ukraine and one other student and me from the U.S. We have grammar from 9 a.m. to noon, then some kind of a lecture on Italian theater, literature, or culture from 12:15 to 1:45. The first week you waste a lot of energy figuring out when to catch the bus, where the bathrooms are, where to get coffee, etc. I've gotten lost a couple of times and had an adventure with the coffee machine the first day. I dropped in 40 cents, selected cappuccino, saw the little cup drop, heard the liquid pour into the cup and pulled the cup out when I heard it stop. Then, to my dismay and embarrassment, I heard more liquid being dispensed, this time into the little drain on the machine and not into the cup I prematurely held in my hand. After a few seconds of that I heard a little bell go off. I looked into my cup at what was 100% steamed milk with no coffee. Now I know to leave the cup in the machine until I hear the bell.  
I live on the other side of town from school. Riding the bus takes about 30 minutes and fast walking with no stops for gelato or espresso takes about 40 minutes. In the mornings the bus is packed with people amp'd up to get to work. Day before yesterday a man and woman who appeared to be in their 60s got into a shouting match about giving each other room. The only thing I clearly understood had to do with respect. One thing I like about Firenze is that the bicycle is totally integrated into the transportation infrastructure here. There are few bike lanes, but bikes just ride wherever they need to. Nearly all of them are old and clearly made for city commuting like this one: 
Note that the brakes are activated by bars that are linked together, not cables. It's single speed with a chainguard and big comfy seat. The bike is preferred by many folks for commuting to work and running errands. 
They just weave in and out of the lines of cars and buses. No one honks at them or tries to pressure them off the road; they are simply treated as another vehicle as legitimate and valuable as any other. Some cyclists, like this lady, just wear regular comfortable clothes, but the bike is not off-limits for guys like these 

who are styling and profiling (for Italian men, styling and profiling is a 24/7 enterprise).    

Well, Margaret and I are having a great time, trying to see all the non-touristy sights and enjoying Firenze very much. My Italian is getting better at a rapid rate, and I look forward to learning more. Alla prossima settimana! Ciao!