Monday, December 26, 2011

The road ahead with Cervantes


I’ll start out by trying to excuse myself for my long absence from blogging. It’s been a pretty wild three-plus months, taking a full load of graduate classes, teaching two big sections of Spanish 202 and doing two symposium presentations (kind of like 2 extra research papers on top of my other responsibilities). In September I did a half-ironman distance triathlon and in early December I managed an OK half-marathon on pretty minimal training. I was also able to check some first-time lifetime blocks like doing my first mountain bike race with the A&M Cycling Team and my first cyclocross race, which probably deserves its own blog post. I also had my share of missed opportunities and boneheaded moves, but those are too numerous to list here. Margaret and I also spent our first semester with JD gone to college (which paid off with him making all A’s) and helped get Jackson through his first semester of high school.

To be sure, God has been good to the McGraw’s this year, which marks a turning point for me in a lot of ways, especially since this was my last semester of coursework in graduate school. In February I’ll take my preliminary exams, which is a battery of oral and written tests over the past 4 years of studies. Assuming I pass the exams OK, I’ll be considered “All But Dissertation” (ABD), which means all I’ll have left is to do my doctoral thesis to be a Pointy-head Doctor (PhD) in Hispanic Studies (a more academic-sounding way to say “Spanish”) . As I just wrote “All I’ll have left is to do my doctoral thesis” I threw up in my mouth a little bit, because the road to hell is paved with the bones of people who took all their coursework, then passed their exams and then, with “only” the dissertation remaining, never finished.

Yesterday, over Christmas dinner and dessert, some friends and family who live in the real world and have real grown-up jobs where they don’t let you wear shorts to work let me know that it seems like I’m really taking my sweet time finishing this graduate school thing. So here’s some attempt at an explanation of why the average time it takes to get a PhD (in liberal arts, anyway) is about seven years: By Texas state law, it takes a minimum of 96 graduate hours (including research on your thesis) to get a PhD. Since you can generally only take 9 hours per semester and maybe 3 hours the entire summer, you’re set up for a long slog through a degree plan that probably doesn’t give you much of a head start on your dissertation. And of course, since I didn’t come to the program with the expected skill set (a B.S. in Geography, an M.A. in Human Resources, and a 20 year Marine Corps career aren’t worth a bucket of warm spit to the Hispanic Studies Department at Texas A&M - or any Liberal Arts department in any university, I'm sure), I had to take 12 hours of upper-level undergraduate Spanish classes before even applying for admission to the graduate program.

The dissertation, on the other hand, has no real timeline. You’re done when you’re done, but in liberal arts it usually takes, best case, about 9 months to research and 9 months to write (source: my committee chair). The whole product, in either large chunks or small, has to be approved by all five members of the PhD committee, each of whom has about 1,000 other things to do besides perusing my chapters). The thing has to be finished by March and submitted to the University Thesis Office if you plan on graduating in May. It’s been explained to me by a prof in my department that a liberal arts thesis needs to be based on research over about 100 books and 200 journal articles. It should be between 250 - 350 pages and make some kind of new contribution to the field of study in which it is written. Mmm-hmmm.

So it’s a serious undertaking and that’s why I respect the achievements of the PhD’s in our department. It’s also why I don’t run around calling them by their first names unless they ask me to do so. We (grad students and professors) inhabit this academic aquarium and they’re the big fish and so far, I'm a little one until I finish the PhD.

So to anticipate the question, “So what are you going to do for your thesis, Mark?” I’d like to tell you a quick story: When the Marine Corps sent me to Guatemala to learn Spanish in 1997, we were all pretty concerned about terrorism (which was pretty stupid for anyone going to Guatemala at that time since being robbed at gunpoint was about 10,000 times more probable). We military guys didn’t wear uniforms or get haircuts down there, which oddly didn’t make us appear to be any less military. When I heard another military dude who, asked why he was down there learning Spanish, respond, “I always wanted to read Cervantes in the original language,” I thought that was pretty funny and I started saying it too, even though I only had a vague idea who Cervantes was.

A couple of years later, while serving in Chile, I was wandering around the Infantry School campus at ViƱa del Mar and I came across a statue of Miguel de Cervantes, the writer of Don Quixote. The statue commemorated his service as a Spanish Marine in the naval battle of Lepanto in 1571, where he was severely wounded by three gunshot wounds and lost the use of his left hand. I was impressed by the fact that Cervantes was both a Marine and a great writer, although I had never read Don Quixote.

In 2004, in my last year or so of active duty as a Marine officer, I was wandering through a bookstore in Miami and I happened across a commemorative 400th anniversary re-printing of Don Quixote. It is a great looking book that contains both volumes - all 1,106 pages, all in Spanish- and a whole bunch of footnotes and critical essays. I bought it for $11.95, no joke, which makes it sound like 70 years ago instead of 7. It was tough sledding, reading it in that old Spanish, but I was propelled forward by the discourses that Don Quixote himself made about the life and ethic of the knight, which he carefully connected to military service. See, when Don Quixote talked I heard a Marine talk. I served with many Quixotes in the modern Marine Corps: loyal, idealistic, romantic, impractical, and above all, considered by the rest of society to be a few sandwiches short of a picnic. So when I moved to College Station and eventually had the chance to go to graduate school and take a class on Don Quixote taught by Eduardo Urbina, a world-class Cervantes scholar who lives 2 doors down from me, the circle was closed.

My thesis will be on how nationalist, revolutionary, religious and political movements have taken the literary character of Don Quixote and appropriated him for their own propaganda and ideological purposes. It’ll be an attempt to see how we take art and apply it to real life, a view of literature’s practical impact outside of the literary world.

Don Quixote, by the world’s interpretation, was driven mad by reading too many books on chivalry and decided to strike out on adventures under the anachronistic identity of knight errant. When I was 14 years old I read Guadalcanal Diary and that book helped me decide to be a Marine, an idea that most of my high school classmates found laughable. Looking back on my Marine Corps career now I can honestly say I’m having the last laugh.

But now it’s another adventure and title: those of an academic. I will journey through four centuries of Quixote scholarship and touch the soul of another military writer now dead nearly four hundred years.

It is mission that could well be called quixotic.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Taking Him to College


Yesterday we moved our older son, JD, to San Antonio to start college. And you, gentle reader, might ask, “What? The progeny of two staunch Agro-Americans is not attending A&M?” Hey, we did what we could, naming him after A&M’s only Heisman winner and ensconcing him in maroon since birth. But he knows what he wants to study: film and A&M ain’t the place, apparently. There’s also the fact that he’s lived in College Station for the past five plus years and part of the specialness of going away to college is going away to college.

For Margaret and me, the move to college seems very final. In both of our cases, once we went to college we effectively established an alternate “home” several hours away. We were back for holidays and some of the summers, but there was always a lunar pull back to campus. As soon as we graduated from college we were across the country and across the world. So we know it's more than just, "He's only three and a half hours away and he'll be back at Thanksgiving." On the one hand, we know JD is a superb young man. He’s demonstrated good judgment in choosing his friends and in his extra-curricular activities. He’s careful. Even as a pre-schooler he would watch a group of kids playing for a while before deciding whether or not to join in. But we also know that for anyone going to college, a moment of inattentiveness driving on I-35, a bad decision in the classroom or at a party can forever alter one’s future. So we commend him to God and UTSA and do our best not to worry.

In preparation for his move Margaret made a lamp out of the parts of his old Jr. High band clarinet and refurbished a bookcase and attended to a couple thousand other details. She also packed up approximately - I’m not joking- eighty rolls of toilet paper, which we used as padding to wedge between the other stuff loaded in the bed of his truck. So he’ll have the option of having the cleanest behind at UTSA or he can roll every house in Alamo Heights. I’m just glad there was no threat of rain on the drive over there. A good downpour on all that toilet paper would have had us looking like a giant bale of cotton on wheels.

Looking in my rear-view mirror seeing him driving my - sorry- his truck over to San Antonio brought to mind an episode from one of many moves we made as a family. When he was barely two we moved from Quantico, VA to Jacksonville, NC. Margaret was driving her car ahead of us and JD and I were in my single cab Ford Ranger. JD was strapped into his little car seat facing backwards and we spent a lot of time just looking at each other. I remember being able to make him break out in peals of laughter just by making the frog’s “ribbit ribbit” sound over and over (he no longer responds in the same way). It doesn’t seem like that long ago, really. But the cornsilk hair of that two-year-old is now a serious brown buzz cut. He is tall and lean and athletic and he’s a good looking guy in spite of the new braces that he hates and he facebooks his friends about obscure alternative rock albums and camera angles and symbolism.

And on this day after dropping him off at an apartment complex and driving away, thinking about that painful, awkward goodbye, I am also remembering an epiphany I had one morning in 2009. Before daylight, a few days before he and I went to run the Chicago marathon, I went out for an easy jog before I had to get ready to go to campus. Nothing too taxing; it was just a few days before the race. All the hard training was done. About a mile into my run I passed under a streetlamp and as I did, a guy passed me on the same sidewalk going the other way. I just looked up and there he was, running towards me out of the inky predawn and into a little circle of lamplit pavement. As we were just about to pass each other my still-sleepy brain thought, “Hey, that guy runs like me and he kind of looks like me, too. And it was my son. And we shouted Hey in mutual surprise and twisted to look over our shoulders at each other while we kept running in opposite directions. It was surreal enough to make me wonder if it was a vision; that moment of seeing a thirty-year-younger version of myself passing me in an instant like a specter out of the darkness. I am your son, the specter said. I carry your name and your DNA and your eyes and your love and your story. Your God is my God and your blood surges through me. I will outlive any other work you achieve in this life. I am right by your side.

And then I am gone.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Dear Valued Customer

I guess I’m part of a very small minority that prefers the unvarnished truth over a slick, false marketing ploy. That’s why I love this commercial http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-RLqLx1iYI&feature=related Personally, I need a mobile home about like I need malaria, but my first impulse upon seeing this commercial was to go buy one from this guy just to thank him for making an honest sales pitch.

Goofy, juvenile telemarketing tricks are to be expected out of businesses, politicians and fundraisers. They appeal to the emotions of people who want to do the right thing and sometimes they’ll even leach off the legitimacy of respected institutions to call you up and squeeze some money out of you (I’m looking at you, State Troopers). Don’t you love it when you get something official-looking in the mail from the “Federal” this or the “National” that and when you open it, thinking it may have something to do with your social security or latest tax return, it turns out to be from some huckster trying to sell you insurance or a vehicle maintenance warranty that you don’t need?

But there have to be some institutions that would never do that, right? You would think so. But for me, one more institution eliminated itself from that “cut above” category this month. I got a card in the mail from the Texas A&M Association of Former Students telling me I urgently needed to update my personal information in the directory. The card didn’t direct me to the Former Students locator webpage or anything like that, but it had a phone number for me to call. It seemed a little odd to me since my information hasn’t changed in the going-on six years I’ve lived here, but this is A&M, my school, my alma mater. This looked important and I figured I had better make sure I’m up to speed. So imagine how stupid I felt when I called and, after verifying the info they had on me was correct, the “database information updater” shifted into a slick sales pitch to sell me a bound, commemorative copy of the Former Students directory, renew my membership in the association, and all other manner of goodies. Oh, no. A telemarketer disguised as Texas A&M. Et tu, TAMU? A cheap snake-oil salesman trick? The telemarketer even had mastered the technique of re-defining the expectations of normal social interaction; the one where the guy huffily behaves as if you’ve violated some basic code of civil behavior when you have the temerity to say, “I just called to answer the request to update my info.”

So the banner on the bottom of the Association of Former Students website that reads, “Excellence, Integrity, Leadership, Loyalty, Respect, and Selfless Service” is just a collection of maroon-colored electrons; a smokescreen for bait-and-switch chicanery. I don’t know when Texas A&M University turned into TAMU, Inc., but I had missed it. I’ve scraped that window sticker, though, and I’m moving on.

Dang. Next thing you know we’ll find out Santa Claus doesn’t really fly around the whole world on Christmas Eve.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Dilemma of Memorial Day

I think most people know this, but just so we’re straight let’s clarify that there’s a fundamental difference between Memorial Day in May and Veterans Day in November. The group that we honor on the Memorial Day holiday is deceased, while the Veterans Day group is still alive. This distinction poses a real marketing dilemma to local businesses since dead people can’t come in and buy stuff. So, the marketers and ad agencies pretend to be too stupid to understand the difference and continue to put out commercials that say things like, “We want to salute our veterans on this Memorial Day weekend, so come in and get 10% off on . . . “

I say “pretend” because although I do think Jon Hildebrand at Caldwell Country New and Pre-Owned Chevrolet is dumber than a bag of hammers, he’s not too stupid to do what many thousands of business managers and marketers do every Memorial Day: illogically appeal to people’s sense of patriotism in order to increase profits.

For people who have lost friends and family members in war, Memorial Day means much more than the opportunity to inflate second quarter sales. A few years ago I was invited to speak at a Memorial Day ceremony in Broward County, FL and I was so overwhelmed by the whole thing that I pretty much fell apart and could hardly deliver my remarks in an intelligible fashion. Dave Green, a friend of mine, had been killed in Iraq the year before. Dave and I had attended Amphibious Warfare School in Quantico together and then went to Camp Lejeune. He got out of the Marine Corps a couple of years later and then went back on active duty after 9/11. That fact, along with the remembrance of the millions of others who died (probably some survivor’s guilt, too) really hit me hard.

So, how do I propose we celebrate Memorial Day? I believe we should pause and remember the sacrifices of the fallen and keep their families in our thoughts and prayers. And that pause should be fairly brief. Then we should go for a bike ride or go to the lake or the pool or the ballgame and enjoy the weekend with our families. Because I guarantee you that’s what Dave Green would want to do more than anything else.

And if any business wants to really celebrate Memorial Day, I challenge them to either give all the money they make this weekend to a scholarship fund for the children of people who have lost their lives in the service or close up shop for three days to give their employees a chance to celebrate with their families. They should at least stop trying to cynically leverage tragic death and heroic sacrifice into an opportunity to make money.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Passing with Grace

Last month I did a duathlon out at Lake Bryan. All you students of Latin will correctly deduce that the duathlon includes two disciplines in the same event: running and cycling. This event started with a 5k run (3.1 miles), and then had a 20 km bike (12.4 miles), and then, just to keep the funmeter pegged, another 5 km run. In the course of the second run, with a little over a mile to go for the whole race, I passed a guy who looked to be in his early twenties. He had his tri-suit unzipped down around his waist and his socks betrayed some affiliation with the U.S. Navy. The guy, his powers of observation undiminished by his race effort, glanced over at me as I was passing him and said, “Ah, it doesn’t matter, you’re not in my age group.” Hmmm. Good sportsmanship and shortness of breath kept me from saying the things that I thought the rest of the way to the finish line; things like, “Really, homeboy? I’m not in your age group so it doesn’t matter? I’m more than twice your age and I’m decisively passing you on the run and you’re OK with that? I have tattoos older than you and I’m beating you like a rented mule and that’s what you say? It doesn’t matter? Those grapes are sour anyway?” As it turned out, by passing him I beat him for 4th overall (it was a small race), so it’s not like we were finishing 20,843rd and 20,844th in the Chicago Marathon.

So, is there a right way or a wrong way to pass someone or be passed by someone in a race? Is there a right or wrong thing to say? Oh, yes. I think so. First off, in the case of “Mr. Chill” in the previously mentioned example, he’s perfectly within his rights to not care how he runs against anyone outside of his age group. If it doesn’t matter to him that he just paid an entry fee to not race as hard as he could, that’s his business. I know pride is an antiquated concept. I might think it extinct if it were not for the people with whom I race bicycles. But for me to race as hard as I can, fully conscious of friends of mine (like Rich Werschel, who died of a massive heart attack working out) who can’t do this anymore, is a true blessing. So it does matter - to me. So if he can’t muster a “Good job, man” as he’s getting passed by someone, he needs to just shut his pie hole.

The opposite of “Mr. Chill” would be “Mr. Macho” who will blow himself up scrambling to try not to let a woman pass him. The phenomenon of being passed by a woman in a race even has its own verb: chicked. I.e, “I got chicked by Fred’s girlfriend about a mile into the bike.” I’m as competitive as anyone, but I can say I have long, long gotten over having any shame about getting chicked. My wife’s an athlete and I figured out a long time ago that if a woman is passing me, she trained harder and smarter and is willing to hurt more and, bless her heart, she deserves to beat me. Rarely do I do a road (running) race or a triathlon, though, where I don’t see “Mr. Macho” just about turn wrongside out to try to keep a woman from passing him. It’s uglier than a bowling shoe. We don’t have a proud history in this area, guys. Just do a search for “Katherine Switzer+Boston Marathon” and see attached photo.

So repeat after me: “Lookin’ strong,” “Great job,” “Keep it up,” “Way to go.”

There, you’ve got it.


Monday, May 2, 2011

Gran and B-Paw's 50th



Last June my brother Ben and I were in Kerrville, Texas chilling out getting ready for a bike race. I forget what we were talking about, but we got on the subject of what day it was. We realized that it was my parent’s wedding anniversary and that we hadn’t called them or anything, which made us feel a little thoughtless. But when it dawned on us that it may have been their 50th anniversary (we were having trouble with the math) we just about soiled ourselves. We quickly called them, wished them a happy anniversary and confirmed, much to our relief, that it was anniversary number 49, not 50. Dodged a bullet on that one.

During the ensuing year, my brothers and I went through several cycles of planning to try to align the planets that would get four nuclear families together in the same place at the same time and we finally settled on this past Easter weekend.

We all met at a really nice resort near Bastrop, TX and to sweeten the deal, my dad’s brother and sister also came and celebrated with us. Friday evening we ate BBQ and took the kids to the pool. My boys and my brothers’ kids make a perfect stair-step of seven kids from 17 down to 7 and they all play well together. When it got dark my dad and brothers and I celebrated the manly but unhealthy ritual of collective cigar-smoking. Stories were told - some of them true - and we retired to our rooms to prep for the next day’s events.

My brothers and I woke up dark and early to go out for a bike ride on the park road between two local state parks. The whole ride was only about 25 miles, but very hilly, and for some reason, maybe because we can never take it easy on each other, it occasionally turned into a race and we wore each other out pretty good. We got back to the resort in time to get cleaned up and go out and take pictures. We took family photos with multiple cameras with every conceivable combination of family members (“OK, now all the people who like ranch dressing”) and eventually got all the kids to look like they were having a good time and got some nice shots.

For the next event we went to a meeting room where we did a program to honor my parents. It was mostly planned by my youngest brother, Andy. The idea was that several of us would get up and tell our parents what they’ve meant and mean to us. I guess I had an inkling that it would be an emotional deal, but I had no idea it would turn into such a cry-fest. When you try to pack a half-century of family life into a couple of hours of commemoration, though, you better count on it being very emotional.

We started off with my son, J.D. singing and playing guitar. He did a couple of Avett Brothers songs: January Wedding and St. Joseph’s and did an excellent job. I got up and read a poem I wrote for them. I didn’t look up much as I was reading so I’d have a better chance of holding it together. When I finished and looked around the room, though, there were some teary eyes and quivering chins along with mine. My middle brother, Ben, did a little bit of a combination sermon and speech honoring my parents and he used the perfect combination of gravity and levity and knocked it out of the park. My youngest brother, Andy, showed a slide show with family photos that covered about eighty years. We all sent him photos and he catalogued and organized them all chronologically and set them to music; a huge undertaking. The slide show was really like seeing our lives flash before our eyes. As new pictures popped up we said the names of people out loud as if we were calling to them to wave at us from the screen decades away.

Then Andy surprised us by announcing that he was going to put his nine years of perfect attendance in church choir to good use by singing a song to my parents. Well, when a friend or family member says, “OK, y’all, I’m gonna sing now,” you kind of grit your teeth and get ready for some karaoke-like slaughtering of a song you used to like. He went and pulled the music up on his I-phone and stuck it into the speakers and commenced to singing. And let me tell you, the boy can sing. As Jerry Clower would have said, “He forevermore shelled down the corn – shucked it right on down to the cob.” How do you not know your own brother has a great singing voice? Beats me, but he took us all by surprise.

We went and ate lunch and packed up and headed back to our respective homes. The celebration passed too quickly, but what was said and sung and celebrated will stay with us for a long time.

Some lasting impressions I took away from the weekend:

-All the things my folks did for us and for each other over the past fifty years are staggering. They were (and are) attentive, supportive parents. They were present at so many events all our lives including driving halfway across the country and flying halfway across the world to come see us do things. We owe them more than we could ever repay.

-I have some uber-talented brothers who married tremendous gals and are raising great families.

- I am grateful for the continued health of my parents and their commitment to each other.

-I’m very happy Margaret and the boys were there for the whole thing. One of our planning options fell on a week when our boys were going to be gone on a trip and we were able to change that and now I can’t imagine it any other way. I think the whole weekend helped my sons get their minds around the idea that they’re not just themselves and they’re not just products of their two parents. They’re part of long lines of people who have a great story. So they’ll be a little more aware when they go off to college and high school in the fall they’re not just out there on their own. There’ll be a cloud of witnesses and a family history that follows them.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Race Weekend Purgatory


And we’re waiting for Carlberg’s cake

at the deli counter in the Wichita Falls Super-Walmart

The leg I had shifted all my weight onto starts to tremble

And 40-weight tiredness drips down my body


The lady behind the counter bites her lip and

grips the tube of yellow sugary frosting

Her partner’s white hairnet cartoon cloud frames the disclaimer

“We ain’t no cake decorators”


A skittle smeared child rolls on the tiled floor nearby

Three times his haggard mama tells him to get up

The carmel colored floor looks like a good place for a nap

and my eyelids pause closed in the middle of a blink


I fantasize about a shower and wonder

Am I coated with sand?

Am I the only one who can smell

my salty funk of a hard day of racing?


Or does it radiate from my pits

and announce my presence

like an offensive cloud

of unbathed radioactivity?


Zane and I

Suspended in the purgatory

between today’s road race and time trial

and tomorrow’s crit


A pain sandwich with yellow frosting

Friday, April 1, 2011

Holy Toledo








Under severe discomfort the mind plays some odd games with itself. I was conscious of that fact as I approached the halfway point of the 40 mile bike portion of the Holy Toledo Triathlon last Sunday. The race was small enough to count the number of people ahead of me, giving me a chance to quantify how I was doing so far. But the voice in my head assumed the character of “Count von Count,” the muppet vampire from Sesame Street with the mania for counting everything. “One. One triathlete. Bah ha ha ha. Two. Two triathletes. Bah ha ha ha.” and so forth, until I determined I was in 11th place halfway through the bike. Bah ha ha ha. So like the soldier’s black humor, my technique for dealing with the pain and stress was to turn the event into absurd play, which is the only way to approach the Holy Toledo. Just check out the race website at http://holytoledotri.com/ if you don’t believe me.

The swim had been first. The water temp was judged to be 68, about 8 degrees warmer than the year before, but still cold enough to speed up my breathing so much that my normal bilateral breathing technique was tossed in favor of breathing every stroke on one side. The mile swim seemed to take forever, but I came out of the water only about a minute behind my brother Andy, and a couple of minutes ahead of my middle brother Ben, which was as well as I hoped for. I peeled out of my sleeveless wetsuit and got out on the bike.

Anyone who says all of Louisiana is flat hasn’t been to the Cypress Bend Park and resort next to Toledo Bend Lake near Many, Louisiana. The first and last 5 miles of the 40 mile bike course has several really tough hills. First, little short steep ones and then big long steep ones. My tri-bike has a 34 tooth small chainring on the front and a 23 tooth easiest gear on the back, and I needed every tooth of it to creep up the hills. On more than one occasion, I saw people getting off their bikes and pushing them up the worst of the hills. That’ll do a number on your average speed, huh? The intervening 30 miles of the bike course, though, is flat and wind-swept up to and back from Zwolle (rhymes with Tamale). I pushed pretty hard for the first ¾ of the bike leg, passed a few people, and then backed off the effort a little bit to get ready for the 10 mile “run”.

The 10 mile run starts out reasonably enough. You come up out of the lake area where the bikes are staged, do a loop of a gravel road and then run on pavement for less than a mile before a green arrow painted on the road directs you onto a narrow roller-coaster path of broken rocks and clay through a briar thicket that runs under a powerline. Most of the run’s trauma is inflicted on this path which comprises from about mile 2.75 to mile 8 (except for the paved hills up to the golf resort). This part of the run includes the aptly-named “pit of less joy” and the “pit of despair” and if you finish the run without bleeding anywhere you will be accused of being too careful. Being eaten by feral hogs is one of the run hazards enumerated in the pre-race brief, and the trail is so steep and the footing so tenuous that I was forced to walk a lot of it, even adopting the shameful “push down on your thighs with your hands” technique. I shouted and received encouragement from fellow death-marchers until I came out of the thicket and back onto pavement and eventually down the long hill back to the finish line. Finishers are awarded a dog-tag with SURVIVOR stamped on it, and that “medal” is as cherished as any trophy ever earned.

As has been my experience with most Louisiana triathlons, the vibe is fun, friendly and laid-back and the beer, cold drinks and abundant hot food comprise the race’s 4th event. Bobo, the diabolical race director, and Brad Coldwell, the swim coordinator, should be canonized in the Pantheon of Triathlon for putting together a race that gets back to the roots of the sport, when tough things were done (far from striped-shirted Barney Fife race officials, self-appointed governing bodies and glossy magazine coverage) just to see who could hang. The whole weekend was great. My Dad and brothers and I had a great time together, laughed a lot and enjoyed each other’s company.

And the Holy Toledo Tri is tremendous. Any triathlon where the post-race checklist includes being checked for ticks has to be classified as something special.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Neoprene Swim Cap and the Sword of Damocles


I write this post as I rapidly approach the CRSP (Critical Range of Spousal Patience). I'm starting to get those looks that say, "You're really pushing it, buddy." After several weekends of missing family time trying to race bicycles against people half my age, I'm in the final stages of preparing to do the Holy Toledo Triathlon in Many, Louisiana this Sunday with my brothers. I don't mean brothers in the sense of other dudes with whom I share "bromance". I mean my full-on brothers, Ben and Andy.

The Holy Toledo is a 1 mile swim, 40 mile (not km) bike, and 10 mile (not km) run over a really, stupidly hard course. I did this race last year. The water was 65 degrees and it was windy enough to have whitecaps on the lake and for bikes staged in the transition area to be blown down on top of carefully placed running shoes and race numbers. The water was so flippin cold I thought about quitting about 100 yards into the swim. The shock to my head and face was so severe that I couldn't get my breathing under control. But I thought, "I didn't drive all this way from Texas and camp out next to drunk bass fishermen and pee in this wetsuit I borrowed from Dan Trott just to give up like a big wiener-dog." Hey, you use what motivational techniques work for you, and I'll use what works for me.

So I actually had a real good swim and finished the race in decent shape, except I was so cold I didn't feel my toes until about halfway into the run. Well, this year I not only have my very own wetsuit to pee in, but I also have this very functional and roguishly handsome neoprene swim cap to keep my head warmer during the swim. What appears to convey immense dorkitude is actually a tremendous weapon of swimming comfort. And I've also recruited two other victims, er, I mean, competitors. I want to point out that my brothers are both younger than I am. There. The excuse is already out there.

This year's race promises to be as windy and cold as always. Maybe with some rain thrown in. The race wizard, Bobo, seems to have this Saruman-like capability to summon crappy weather on race day to accompany the nastiest hills in the Gret Stet of Louisiana. But it's going to be a good time even though the race hangs over my head like the Sword of Damocles. My Dad is bringing over the camper so we can enjoy toasty camping goodness and not sleep on the ground the night before the race.

I'll soon be home for a full weekend, honey. Pretty soon.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Tunis-Roubaix

No one in the Men’s “C” group looked back or missed a pedal stroke when we heard the stomach-churning sounds of lycra-encased flesh and a carbon fiber bicycle hitting gravel at speed. It was too early for sentimentality. We were on the first of four eleven-mile laps of a collegiate road race. There were still many tactical moves to be played, much gravel to churn through, and endless pain to be meted out and endured over the next two hours. This was Tunis-Roubaix, the Texas A&M Cycling Team-sponsored event famous for sending unsuspecting riders down tennis ball-sized gravel roads (I believe this year’s course was actually much, much tamer than in years past). What wasn’t tame was the weather: about 52 degrees with a 17 knot north wind gusting to 25 and intermittent rain.

I took my own advice after the UT races last week and stayed at or near the front for the first lap and a quarter. But when a couple of guys took off the front on the long stretch down I and Gn road with the tailwind blasting behind us, I didn’t react quickly enough. The couple of guys in front of me materialized into 8 in a lead group and I couldn’t catch them. The course soon turned us back into the wind and I was looking for a wheel to suck and losing ground to the lead group. I eventually joined a small group with Austin Marshall from our team, Ian from UT, a dude from U of H bundled up like he was doing Itidarod, and occasionally, the spaceman from Texas State with the old-school bike, green tennies and platform pedals. By the final lap Ian from UT had flatted, the U of H guy was smoked, and Austin and I worked as a group of 2 to trudge through the wind. I finished 8th in the 44 mile road race feeling like I had been eaten by a billy goat and crapped over a cliff, but a little smarter and maybe a little stronger. I’ve got to get to where I can more rapidly get up to a higher speed (sounds like a very basic concept of “racing” doesn’t it?). At least this time I didn’t take the corners like Grandma Moses.

Best sights of the morning:

-Looking around seeing about 125 people shivering in the cold wind before the races started. Most people had a look on their faces like they’d rather be wading naked through fiberglass insulation.

-The real bossy guy from OU who wanted to tell everybody else how to ride flatting at the beginning of the second lap.

-My hero Willie Allen riding up to participate in the alumni division in his A&M jersey from the Pleistocene epoch. He rode up to me as giddy as a new cheerleader brandishing his race number. It was 666. I attached his numbers to the few remaining patches of material that would take a pin. And he rode like hell. Like always.

The 12 mile time trial in the afternoon was also grueling. Winds were up to 30 knots by the time we were going out at :30 second intervals. We had the tremendous tailwind in the first half of the out-and-back course before rounding a cone and bouncing off what could best be described as a “wind trampoline”. In the time trial it’s illegal to draft behind another rider, so you’re on your own against the wind and left to sort through your own discomfort and self doubt if things aren’t going well. I got 14th out of 31 riders in the C’s, which was not as good as I hoped for.

A few things kept it from all being too serious:

-One of our guys riding the time trial in BMX gear, complete with face-shielded helmet.

-Somebody competing on a mountain bike wearing a big sleeveless t-shirt that billowed behind him like the mizzen mast on a schooner.

-The elaborate warm-up routine of one of my teammates which includes an hour on the trainer at 130 rpm, pre-race tunes, bike yoga, lighting candles, incantations and offerings of incense to Eddy Merckx.

That night we had an alumni dinner catered by Johnny Carinos – a really nice event that included a display of old A&M Cycling team gear and jerseys. John Young, the father of one of our team guys, Pierce, brought in a lot of his old stuff from the late 70’s to show us. It was great to get to talk to him, see the pictures and hear the stories.

All in all, a great, unforgettable Saturday.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Don't Weaponize My Classroom

Cut and pasted below is the text of an e-mail I sent to Dr. Antonio Cepeda, Dean of Faculties at Texas A&M
_____________________________________________________

Dr. Cepeda,

Pursuant to Dr. Moreiras' e-mail below, please consider my comments with respect to the pending legislation which would allow concealed handguns to be carried on campus:

I am a graduate student in the Department of Hispanic Studies. As part of my graduate assistantship I also teach Spanish classes to undergraduate students. As both a teacher and student, then, I am directly and personally impacted by the pending legislation to direct universities to allow concealed handguns on campus. I strongly oppose the proposed legislation.

Before returning to A&M in 2007 I served for twenty years as an active duty Marine Corps officer. I retired as a Lieutenant Colonel in 2005. My career as an infantry officer included service in combat and multiple overseas assignments where I carried a handgun as part of my duties. I completed several weapons training programs during my service in the Marine Corps, including the High Risk Personnel Course in Quantico, Virginia, a course specifically oriented toward applying deadly force with a handgun. I qualified as a pistol expert (the highest qualification level) every year I was required to re-qualify except one. I provide all this information to support the proposition that I am not anti-handgun, per se.

I am, however, strongly anti-handgun-on-campus for two principal reasons: the insufficiency of the licensing program and the relatively high probability of a of a negligent discharge (if the legislation were passed) versus the low probability of a homicidal gunman on a shooting rampage.

First, the ten-day concealed handgun licensing course, per the Texas Concealed Handgun Laws for 2009-2010, only allows for ten to fifteen total hours of instruction on a total of four subjects; one of which includes laws relating to weapons and the use of deadly force. (source

- http://www.txdps.state.tx.us/InternetForms/Forms/CHL-16.pdf). This is a woefully insufficient amount of time to work through all the possible scenarios for when deadly force may or may not be legally appropriate on a college campus.

Secondly, the likelihood of a shooting rampage in the classroom seems very low since there have been only two shooting situations on a University campus in our nation's history where the loss of life could have possibly been reduced by the presence of a bystander armed with a handgun. The much more likely scenario in the classroom would be a negligent discharge. As the linked video of a DEA agent negligently shooting himself during a school demonstration shows,

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MeGD7r6s-zU) even a presumably highly trained professional can accidentally fire a weapon that he or she assumes to be unloaded.

I ask that my classroom not be weaponized. I cannot think of any single element which would more profoundly and completely damage the collegiality of the classroom environment. We need to continue to be diligent in identifying emotionally disturbed people in the classroom, getting them the help they need, and when necessary, removing them from the campus. I firmly believe that the proposed legislation to allow concealed handguns on campus is not only unnecessary, but would, in fact, do great harm to the university.

Respectfully,

Mark McGraw

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Horns and Hoochie Mamas

Last night (Jan 31st) my podnah Garry Gibson gave us his Aggie basketball tix so my dad and I could go see the beatdown that the hated Horns put on our beloved Aggies. My dad even drove over from Louisiana to see his grandson play an eighth – grade basketball game in the afternoon and then see the Aggies at night. At least Jackson’s team won and he got to play long enough to throw in a nice little teardrop runner near the end of the game.

The Aggie Game. It wasn’t too long ago that basketball at A&M was a sham of a joke of a travesty and almost nobody came to the games. Now you’d have to say we’re pretty dang good. We’ve grown a strong basketball program that has gone pretty deep in the NCAA tournament each of the last several years. It didn’t feel like it last night, though. We went out and laid an egg on ESPN’s “Big Monday” with over 13,000 fans in the stands. We (ranked 16th in the nation before the game) got beaten like a rented mule by the hated Horns (ranked #3 and probably better than that) by 20 points and it wasn’t even that close.

The Dancers. Being a full-on dude with the dude-like gift of being able to appreciate feminine beauty, I pretty much like the Aggie Dance Team (also known as the Hoochie Mama Dancers at my house). It’s obvious that they put a lot of time and effort into –ahem- performing and, since I’m quite sure Baylor coach Scott Drew is still telling recruits with a straight face and Baptist love in his heart that A&M is still an all-male, all-military school, it’s good that we have beautiful girls wearing maroon lycra on the endlines of the basketball court to counter that old myth. If I had a daughter, though, I’d be more than a little uncomfortable with the idea of having her on the dance team. Paying for dance lessons since she’s five years old comes down to that? Some of the dance moves they do would make your grandma swallow her snuff. Local strippers have been e-mailing the administration asking that they tone it down. Is there a move or a grind or a thrust they won’t do?

The Students. There was a great host of white-clad Agro-American students on hand last night. They did the yells on cue and sang loud and sawed varsity’s horns off like always. The mobile cameras go around during time outs and get close ups of the students and I was glad to see that they (we?) still have fun even when the team’s getting their brains beat out. The most entertaining thing at the game since the fat shirtless guy behind the basket graduated or failed out may be the occasional male student who does a pretty credible job of dancing in the aisle of the student section in synch with the Hoochie Mamas during time outs.

The Horns fans. There were a few fans there from the other school – one big goofy one sat a couple of rows from us. Because he didn’t look like a country clubber, I highly doubt that he graduated or even attended the school which shall not be named. I think he’s probably an air-conditioner repairman from Calvert who became a bandwagon jumper Horn fan when his ex-fiance married an Aggie. So abounding with joy was he at the proceedings of the basketball game that he was practically soiling is 42 x 34 Lee jeans. I thought it was encouraging that of all of the possibly 40 Aggie fans that he tried to bait into some confrontation, no one said anything to him. They won. They can celebrate. And they can even be jerks about it (as I’m sure a lot of us are when we win over there).

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Warped wood, salvaged bicycles, and "can" and "can't" people




Earlier this year my wife and I awoke at 5 a.m. to the stroke-inducing sounds of heated, pressurized water splashing on the floor of our laundry room. Our hot water heater had bit the dust. We called the plumber and mopped and sopped large quantities of water and had the hot water heater replaced and thought it was the end of it. But little did we know, the water had seeped under the floor and gotten to the wood floor of our bedroom. And before you can say “absorbent and yellow and porous is he” our floor swelled up (or “got swoll” in the parlance of the street) and warped like Lady Gaga’s fashion sense.

My wife had the idea to try to salvage some of the wood and do something with it, which made very little sense to me. But I’ve been married long enough to know what not to make a big deal over and I gladly kept the least warped wood in the garage until Margaret’s dad could get it.

My father in law, David Spence, is a sho-nuf woodworking craftsman. He has built stuff for us that you can’t believe, including Morris chairs and really nice tables. If he can’t do it with wood it can’t be done. He had the idea to turn the left-over wood into serving trays, which really turned out nice. They look great on the front as you can see in the picture, but the craftsmanship on the back is just as impressive.

The D-D pieces are for David and Dorothy and together they make an S for Spence. The screws that put the handles on are countersunk so they don’t stick out and you’ve got hanging hardware mounted so you can store it on the wall when your wife is not using it to bring you breakfast in bed. The son-of-a-guns are heavy, too, and would make fine weapons. In fact, the big Korean guy from the old James Bond movie who used to decapitate people with his hat has placed an order for a half-dozen. Margaret's dad even made a headboard out of some of the wood and we used the little end-pieces to burn in the firepit on the patio. All in all, a great use for wood that would have been on its way to the dump if it were not for the keen eye of my wife and her dad’s skill.

I have no woodworking skills, but I do know a little about bikes. This summer I rescued this 1993 road bike from somebody who wanted to get rid of it, cleaned it up and adjusted it and swapped out a couple of components. The bike is a 1993 model and I’m pretty sure the tires were original when I got it this summer. When I took the tires off to replace the tubes, the mummified rim tape just disintegrated in my hands. I replaced all that stuff at very low cost and this bike has made a great commuter bike this year. Mountain bikers and fixie riders fear my lethal kick on Welsh street and the bike (“School Baby” is her name) has even completed the gravel-intensive “Bridges without number” ride of Brazos and Grimes counties. So I’ve gotten a lot of use and satisfaction out of a bike that would otherwise be sitting in someone’s garage.

The ability to see a thing and envision what it can be is valuable, but the ability to see a person and envision what they can be is even more so. There were several instances of Jesus doing this. He saw each of the disciples, Zaccheus, the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, the people he healed; not as what they were, but what they had the potential to be. And he engaged them, healed them, taught them, spent time with them and gave them space to participate in something huge.

I had occasion this week to think about people who saw potential in me and told me I could do something and people who saw my limitations and told me I couldn’t do something. I owe a lot to both groups. I had lunch today with one of my profs who is going to pass my book on to a publishing company. He’s the very same guy I told a little over two years ago that I was thinking about writing a book. I had this impulse to write a book, but didn’t know how and wasn’t sure I could do it and was telling him this half-hoping he’d say, “Look, you’re just getting into grad school. You need to focus on your studies and think like an academic professional.” Instead, when I said, “I’m thinking about writing a book” he said without hesitation, “You can do it. Just write about what you know and write a little every day and you can do it.” I could go on and on talking about the parents and teachers and coaches and Marines I’ve known who pulled me aside at the right moment and told me, “You have some great abilities in this area. You can achieve great things.”

But I’ve also had people tell me straight up that I couldn’t do things and they’ve been just as motivating. Some people laughed in my face in high school when I told them I’d be a Marine. People in the Marine Corps told me I’d never be able to go to Airborne School or get into Recon. When I was about to go to language training, my boss, a Colonel, told me I’d never be able to learn enough Spanish to do more than order a meal. When we lived in Miami and I wanted to enroll in a translation and interpretation class I was told I didn’t speak Spanish well enough to be in the class and I had to appeal to the next level of administration to get in the class. In my first semester in grad school at A&M, a professor told me I wasn’t scholarly and didn’t have what it took to be successful in the program. I was able to prove all, all of those suckers wrong. Flat wrong. Bad wrong. But make no mistake, I needed that, too. The sting of those comments was like motivation in rocket fuel form.

For all the people who will tell you to your face that you can’t do something, there must be three times that number thinking it who are just too diplomatic to say it. Since there are more “can’t” people than “can” people, I’m going to resolve to be one of those encouragers, one who tells people they have the capacity and potential to do something great. Because we all do.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

I'm back

I reached a point this semester where I had to put myself on a blog-atical and a Facebook diet. It was worth it, though, because I was able to get a bunch of really significant academic stuff accomplished this semester (kinda what you’d expect of a PhD student and I won’t bore you with it) and was also able to complete a couple of personal writing projects. The first is the Spanish to English translation of a novel my friend Jose Palacios wrote in 2009. The second is my own novel I’ve been working on for a couple of years. Both projects are going to a publisher who has shown interest in publishing them (Jose’s novel in Spanish has already been published once in Colombia and another publisher, Alfaguara, is going to publish it again).

I’m cautiously optimistic about my book. It’s a first person narrative about a guy who does surveillance for narco-traffickers in Peru. I don’t normally write stories from the point of view of narco-traffickers, but I had a bunch of disparate narratives that I had worked on and liked but that didn’t really work together. This surveillance guy was an invention to tie all these other stories together and what happens to him is what keeps you reading to the end (I hope). I came to grips with a lot of this stuff via a graduate English class I had last spring on Creative Writing. The biggest part of the course is “workshopping” what you’ve written by handing it out to the other people in the class. They take it home and come back and give you verbal feedback in front of the prof and the other students. It’s somewhat traumatic when eight other people tell you your twenty pages of creative work is crappy, but, more often than not, they also have helpful suggestions that, in my case, shaped the book into something that may be publishable.

When you’ve put a lot of yourself into something and you’re very close to it you can’t have real accurate perspective about it, so I’ll have to see if the final book is really any good. I’ve been a pretty fair writer for a while, but this novel was a tough project. It's a lot like building a house. You may be a good decorator or a great cabinet maker or an electrician, but that don’t mean you can build no house. To build a house you have to know everything from the blue prints to the home site preparation all the way to the best roof to put on. And if you put it all together and build it and the bathroom’s in the wrong place, too bad. As for the writing, you may be a fine writer, but if you can’t hook all the characters together correctly and have a really solid, interesting premise and build in the right amount of conflict and construct a plot that works you won’t have a novel. And I struggled with all those things.

All the writing and studying have put a crimp in my workout program and that, combined with the great holiday food now have me swoll up like a tick on Dracula. Only my cycling shape is somewhat up to snuff for winter. So I need to get it in gear and get serious for bike racing season and the Holy Toledo Triathlon in late March. Monday will be the A&M Cycling Team MLK Day Century (100 mi.) Ride - some of the best fun you can have with your pants on. And the next day it’s back to the academic grind, too.