Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Good Old Days

I turned 47 this past week.

Typically this is the age where some men flip out, buy a corvette, try to trade their 46 year old wife in for two 23 year olds, etc. etc. But none of that for me. I’m 47 and I’m sure I look every dusty mile of it, but that’s OK. I don’t feel old.

One thing that has shifted my idea of old has been the cycling tribe I ride with. There are some dudes who ride with our group who have convinced me that, to a great degree, age is just a number. It’s just a matter of how you treat it.

A couple of summers ago, when I first started riding with these guys from the flagpole in front of the statue of Sully on the A&M campus out to Caldwell and back – about 55 miles, the distance seemed pretty daunting to me. So I’d load my bike in my truck, drive the 3 miles from the house to the campus, unload it, ride the 55 miles (where I’d get obliterated by the faster riders), then load my bike in the truck and drive it the 3 miles back home. After a couple of weeks of that, though, I discovered that a guy in our group (older than me) lived about 8 miles farther from campus than I did and he rode the whole thing. 12 miles to campus. 55 mile ride. 12 miles home. Always. And when I found that out, let me tell you, I held my manhood cheap, as Shakespeare would say.

There’s another cat in our group who is several years older than me who must be the toughest man alive – tougher than woodpecker lips. He typically rides 12,000 miles a year – which breaks down to about 250 miles a week. Think about how many miles you put on your car in a year. And these are not leisurely, marvel-at-the-bluebonnets miles, either. You can count on him to be up front in every paceline, in every breakaway, attacking at every opportunity until he wins or implodes. He’s always out there – 104 degrees or 30 degrees – and he never complains. Harder than Chinese arithmetic, this guy. Somebody like than either inspires you to train harder or makes you want to stay home and bake chocolate chip cookies and never see another bicycle.

This summer I joined the A&M cycling team – a club team that races around the state against other college club teams. And I really think I can ride well enough to help the team or I wouldn’t do it. But I confess the way I did it was a little underhanded. I sent an e-mail to the team president and told him I was a grad student and wanted to join the team. He answered my e-mail and gladly welcomed me and told me what I needed to do. When I went to the bike store where he works to give him my check for club dues he stuck his hand out and smiled. I told him who I was and watched as the wheels turned in his brain and he figured out that I was, in fact, the same guy who contacted him about being on the team, and not that guys’ father. The smile stayed on his face but the look in his eyes was one of, “this guy didn’t tell me he was older than Methuselah’s handbag.” But all those guys on the team have welcomed me and when the road racing season starts in the spring, I’ll compete for A&M in maroon and white gear, something I’ve wanted to so since 7th grade.

Gabriel García Márquez once posed the question, “Do we quit pursuing our dreams because we get old or do we get old when we stop pursuing our dreams?” I have the great blessing of being able to pursue my dreams, not only in cycling, but in several fields. So this birthday has not been an opportunity to pine for the “good old days” when I was younger.

Because the good old days are now.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Man-cation – Reshaping the safe, soft American male

When I read about the Shackleton expedition (read “The Endurance”) or the about the Lewis and Clark expedition (I recommend “Undaunted Courage”) I wonder if we as men are anywhere as tough, as resilient, as capable as our forefathers.

And then I see a video like this: , and the question is answered.

OK, my hat’s off to these guys for taking a “Thug life” video and turning it into something that’s family friendly and funny. I’ll not be too tough on them - all they’re doing is setting to rap and recording what is all too true.

The real blame falls on us guys when we allow ourselves to devolve into weak corporate drones who move meekly from air-conditioned house to air-conditioned car to air-conditioned office enchanted by the blackberry screen, the computer screen and the TV screen. As society constantly works to domesticate, sensitize, and emasculate us, we’re less and less capable of sounding Whitman’s barbaric YAWP over the rooftops of the world. We're being conditioned to look forward in the short term to the next televised football game and in the longer term to the next purchase of lawn care or home entertainment gear that we use under the supervision and permission of our wives.

Now, more than ever, in the right ways for the right reasons, we men need to turn back the tide of this deconstruction. The most important targets of this re-testosteronization after us must be our own sons.

When my boys reach 13 years old I take them on a trip. We go see and experience something different and do something difficult. When my older boy JD was 13 we went to Peru and hiked the Inca Trail to the ruins at Machu Picchu. It was cold and rainy much of the way and the trail crossed over a mountain pass at over 14,000 feet of elevation. Four years removed, we both view that trip as one of the greatest things we ever got to do.

A few weeks ago my younger son, Jackson, and I went to Colorado to hike part of the Colorado trail. The plan was to hike from Durango to Silverton (about 72 miles on the trail) and take the train back. We got rained on a lot, dealt with equipment failures, staggered up steep trails sucking in the thin air of 12,000 feet of elevation, and eventually had our hike cut short by repeated hailstorms. The learning experience value of hail starts to taper off sharply as the hailstones go from pea size to marble size. In addition to keeping us off the trail and getting us behind on our timeline, the hail and rain got Jackson hypothermic and we had to turn back to Durango. We did get in four good days of hiking, though, and were able to do some other side-trips like whitewater kayaking. I have no doubt that this will also be something we view as a great, great trip, even though we didn’t make it all the way to Silverton. Even Dirty Harry said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

I’m convinced that we, as men, need the experience of carrying a third of our body weight in a pack up a mountain. It’s a perspective-changer to wonder if we have enough food, where we’ll find drinking water next, and what animal made that noise in the bushes off the trail.

Let’s do a self rescue of our manhood. Let's teach ourselves and our boys that it's good to do something hard and even fail, learn something that challenges what you think you already know, and serve and love someone who can’t serve you back and doesn’t appreciate it.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Puerto Morelos - In Praise of the Road Less Traveled

A couple of weeks ago Margaret and I went on vacation at a beautiful resort about mid-way between two of the world’s best known vacation hot spots: Playa del Carmen and Cancun, Mexico. We had a great time and as I go through the pictures from the trip, some lessons-learned come to mind that I consider good advice for all future vacations. I know it’s a little presumptuous for me to assume you like what I like, but in the spirit of blogging, I’ll ask your indulgence and share them with you.

1. Flee from the hotel-arranged tours in the same way that the Apostle Paul tells us to flee from sin. In addition to being much more expensive, you’re going to spend a lot of time just waiting around for transportation. See, what they don’t tell you when you sign up is that the same bus that takes you to Chichen Itza, or wherever, also passes by about 20 other resorts and picks their people up, too. When you get there you’ll be herded around with all the other gringos, which you could stay in the U.S. and do for free. Instead of going to the standard tourist snorkel-centric theme park we went by ourselves about 10 miles up the highway to a neat little fishing village called Puerto Morelos. We did a tremendous snorkeling trip for a very affordable price (less than 1/4 of what the theme park would have charged us) and had a great time. Puerto Morelos is and has traditionally been a fishing village, not a tourist attraction, which makes it my kind of place. The water was beautiful, the food was excellent, and people were nice and not trying to hustle us everywhere we went.

2. Take public transportation where practical. We found out about a “Beach Express” bus that runs up and down the coast between Cancun and Playa del Carmen for a fraction of the cost of a taxi or the resort-arranged shuttle. The local folks use them. Let me tell you, the buses were new or nearly new, clean, people were well behaved and the drivers were helpful. You may think you’re more at risk as a tourist out there separated from the herd out in the countryside, but you’re not. See point number 3 below.

3. Minimize your time in the tourist “shopping” areas. We steered away from the shopping part of Cancun on this trip because we remembered how it was from a trip about 12 years ago. We did go down to Playa del Carmen and walk up and down Avenida Quinta for a while. Places like these are magnets for the pickpockets, the thieves, the hustlers and the drug dealers. I didn’t take any photos on Avenida Quinta because I’m pretty sure it would be impossible to take a picture without a t-shirt in the background featuring a marijuana leaf or a penis. Someone has convinced the vendors on that street that all the gringos came to Playa del Carmen directly from a Metallica concert, and this phenomenon is less flattering for us than it is for them. The worst and lowest life forms gravitate toward these little tourist gift shops which are instantly recognizable by the guy who looks like a recent parolee running his best spiel to try to get you to come in and buy something. I had a spirited discussion with one of these guys about who gets to call my wife “Honey”. In fairness, though, they’re only selling what we’ve demonstrated to them that we want to buy. Maybe we shouldn’t let just anybody get a passport because they know where the post office is.

4. Do some grocery store picnic dinners. One of the most fun, rewarding, instructive, and affordable things you can do on vacation outside the U.S. is to go to the grocery store where the locals shop (hint: not the Super Wal-Mart). Buy some fresh bread for dinner and some pan dulce for breakfast the following morning. Go to the deli and get some ham or turkey and some cheese you’ve never heard of and make sandwiches. Get the dinner beverage of your choice. Head home with your goodies and eat on the balcony of your room or out on the beach - somewhere nice where you can relax and watch people at your resort heading out to drop $50 a head on dinner. The pleasure you experience will be directly proportional to how frugal/cheap you are.

5. Try to eat where the locals eat. It will be nowhere near where the tourists eat and there won’t be any golden arches out front. The restaurants for the tourists are interspersed with the tourist shopping areas and they’ll have a desperate greeter out front who will say something clever like, “Your table is waiting, madam”. The tourist restaurants will be over-priced and will consist of what they think we like to eat. We found two good places to eat in Puerto Morelos - the first had really good ceviche, which is the ultimate hot weather beach restaurant dish. The second consisted of a tent over the sand where we sat on lawn furniture. We knew we were on the right track when the people in the restaurant looked at us like, “How’d they find this place?” We started asking questions about what kind of fish we could get when our waiter just said, “Here, I’ll show you” and went and got our fish right out of a Styrofoam cooler. They had been caught that afternoon. You don’t get that at Red Lobster.

I think much of the value of going on a trip outside the U.S. is to get a decent idea of what other cultures and countries are like. When you get an accurate view - not the Potemkin Village tourist view - of another country you have a chance to better understand your own. My favorite place to go on a trip is still Chile, though. They don’t do tourism. At all. For Chileans, “tourism” is what they do when they travel to south Florida or Cancun. Hey, maybe they’re the ones buying all the trashy stuff on Avenida Quinta. It can't be us, right?