Saturday, October 20, 2012

Our Dope

Back in April I blogged about Lance Armstrong and how I respected him for continuing to compete at a high level in triathlons after retiring from cycling.

Not that a huge number of people read this blog, but I was tempted to go back and delete the post after this week’s news that all of Lance’s corporate sponsors were dropping him and he was stepping down as president of Livestrong. 

I decided not to delete the post because I still stand by most of what I said.  I didn’t make any reference to doping in that April post.  I didn’t think he doped, but I wasn’t sure, and the post was not about doping anyway.  But it’s now abundantly clear that Lance not only doped, but he was the honcho of the doping ring that propelled him and his team, U.S. Postal (backed by millions of taxpayer dollars) to the front of European cycling.  It’s also apparent that he vindictively trashed and destroyed the reputations and livelihoods of people close to him who dared to publicly state that he doped. 

Most of us pulled for Lance because he was such a great story:  a kid from Plano, the son of a hard-working single mom, a guy who beat cancer and cheated death, a guy who went to Europe and represented the U.S. on one of the biggest sports stages in the world and then founded an organization to help cancer victims.  So, in a sense, we made Lance.  No, I’m not saying we made Lance dope.  But we made Lance.  We constructed him and propped him up and celebrated him because he scratched us where we itched and filled our need to see a brash Texas guy go over and stick it to the Frenchies seven times.  

We needed the story.  And now that much of the story seems to be fiction we feel the need to trash him and cast him off the way Nike and Trek and Radio Shack and Anheuser-Busch and Honey Waffle Stinger and a bunch of other people have discarded him.  But let’s ask ourselves if Nike didn’t make a buttload of cash off of Lance; the Lance that was propelled by drugs.  Do you think Nike will be giving any of that money back?  Do you think Trek will; now that they know without a doubt that it was the EPO-injected Lance that was winning the tour on their bikes, give back some of the hundreds of millions of dollars they made off of him?  Wouldn't it be right for these big corporations to kick in some serious money to drug testing technology or athlete education or clean racer development?  If they are doing it I’d like to hear about it. 

Let’s not fool ourselves, especially if we’re cyclists.  The guy was immensely talented and he trained insanely hard and possessed exceptional mental toughness.  He was up there among the top 3 pro triathletes at races he did when he was 16 years old.  He got a lot of people off the couch and on a bike.  Lance made cycling more popular, accepted and mainstream in the U.S.  The massive number of people who went out and threw a leg over a bike because he inspired them probably made bikes and bike technology more affordable.  He and his foundation have helped an untold number of cancer victims.  So I’m not ready to jump on the Hate-on-Lance bandwagon because he was doing what apparently a high percentage of pro cyclists have been doing. 

The whole Lance disaster should make us examine why we tend to celebrate the guy, the team or the coach who is willing to do anything, legal or ethical or not, to win.  We celebrate them without asking too many questions.  Maybe they’re our dope.  

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Monkey Off My Back (a capuchin maybe)

Ok, it´s not the whole gorilla, not a chimpanzee and probably not a rhesus monkey, but I got a small one off my back this morning.  I sent the first chapter of my dissertation (four more to go) to my committee.  I haven´t gotten feedback from them yet and I know when I do it won´t be, "This is perfect, you shouldn´t change a thing."  Nevertheless, I feel pretty good about it.  Overcoming the inertia of the blank page is the hardest part and I think I´m now in a groove of good systematic reading, digging and writing.  The first chapter, which came out to 50 pages including 9 images and the bibliography, covers the reception of Don Quixote by Spanish speaking readers over the first 200 years of its existence.  

Interesting things I found out were the following:  

-A whole bunch of really smart people don´t entirely agree on exactly what makes Don Quixote the first novel.  After all, there were already a whole bunch of books out (La Celestina, Lazarillo, Guzmán de Alfarache) that had plots, multiple voices and narrators, etc.  The Quixote was different because of how Cervantes played with the concepts of reality and fiction and how we view and consider written works like history and scripture.  You can still see the reality - fiction play in movies like Shutter Island and Inception.  Cervantes started all that in 1604.  One scholar said that what makes the Quixote the first novel was how it showed how one man built his personhood in the face of a modernity that threatened (and still threatens) to make us all anonymous cogs in a huge industrial machine.  We become interested not just in what will happen to Don Quixote next, but we also get to see his interior development, which is still what separates a good novel from a crappy one.   

-The Spanish publishing industry was a goat-rope when the first Quixote was published.  There were hundreds and hundreds of early errors that were compounded by subsequent editions.  You see, the Spanish Inquisition was very hard-core about the ideological content of books in the 1500-1700´s, going so far as to scoop up a bunch of French and Flemish print shop workers for Lutheranism because they possessed "heretical" material and burning them at the stake or sentencing them to years of service rowing in warships, which was just a long, slow death.  They were very lax on basic systematic operation, though, and a lot of print shop workers were completely untrained. So that´s what religious extremism can do for the running of your national industries.   

-We mostly think of Don Quixote through the images of him we´ve seen, but for the first 50 years of the book´s history it was not illustrated.  Almost immediately after the non-illustrated editions were published, though, people were showing up dressed as Don Quixote at carnivals, parades and celebrations in Spain and Spanish America.  They were replicating what they had read, not what they had seen in an image, which speaks to a basic human desire to view, create and interpret images.  Cervantes tied a lot of the imagery in the book to the carnivalesque, which pushes our buttons because we like to invert social roles more than we realize.  He also tied the imagery to the existing religious iconography, which in the Catholic parts of the world was really significant.  How we react to images and what they represent - what they tie to in other parts of our brains and our own experiences is really fascinating.  

Anyway, I´ve got a bunch of compositions and mid-term exams to grade, but I wanted to mark this point with a blog entry, to commemorate in a small way this milestone that makes me think that the whole dissertation by June is doable, even if I look like St. Jerome (see attached image) by the time I´m done.  

Nothing to do but to do it.    

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A Tuesday Cycling Ghazal

FM 166 from Tunis 

So what got you out of bed and put you on this road?
 There’s nothing pretty on this trashmarred road

Except the barelegged animal peloton
of locos churning down this heattarred road

Collective rolling vigil for a miracle of tire survival
A flat-free four hours on this glassshard road

Depending on the kindness of strange rednecks
 trucks rumble by inches away on this paintbarred road

Rocks, potholes, animal bones and crappy diapers
 jar teeth and sensibilities on this tractorscarred road

 The peloton is off the Mark and the beast rides away
and I backbow my penitence down this blackhard road. 


Mark McGraw   2009

Friday, August 17, 2012

Cool Hand Luke and the Futility of a Plastic Jesus

My son the film connoisseur and I were talking about movies a couple of weeks ago and I mentioned Cool Hand Luke (1967) because we had just seen Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  So I got a copy of Cool Hand Luke and we watched it.  For me, it was the first time in maybe twenty years that I had seen it.  This time, though, I was struck by all the symbolism and deep meaning embedded in the movie.  I guess graduate school does that for you.  You see just about anything and feel compelled to deconstruct it. I was really struck by how the film uses Paul Newman´s character, Luke, as a post-modern Christ figure to make a strong statement about religion and society. 

Religion is soaked into the fabric of this movie that is set in a North Florida prison work gang.  A young Dennis Hopper plays the mentally challenged Babalugats, and we see him early in the film on his knees babbling in unintelligible prayer just before climbing into his bunk for the night.  He concludes by inverting his interlocked hands to view his fingers in the last line of the child´s rhyme “This is the church, this is the steeple, open the doors and see all the people.”  The inmates who are musically inclined usually play and sing hymns and church songs.  Dragline, played by George Kennedy, who won an Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, explains his crimes to Luke and pauses to point and look skyward saying loudly, “But I loved my neighbor” and mumbling, “and his wife.” 
The prison bunkhouse rules, explained by Carr the floorwalker, happen to be ten in number, and are punished with draconian certainty by a night in “the box,” an outhouse-sized structure away from the rest of the inmates. Strother Martin plays the sadistic Captain in charge of the prison, and in the small incarcerated universe he represents the authority of Almighty God, occasionally coming off of his porch rocker to smite a wayward inmate with special punishment.  The inmates in their humanity are incapable of observing The Law to the letter on a consistent basis.  They fight in the shower, although Carr clearly tells them that any “grab-assin´ or fightin’” will earn them a night in the box.  Similarly, several inmates are still walking around the bunkhouse when they are required to be in their bunks when second bell sounds.  Leg irons and chains can be seen and heard on the inmates who have previously attempted an escape. 

Into this environment comes Luke, a Korean War hero condemned to serve two years for using a pipe cutter to remove the heads from parking meters in his small town.  He immediately shows a marked distaste for the laws of the prison, both the official ones propagated by the authorities and the informal ones enforced by the older inmates against the “new meat.”  Soon the messianic imagery is attached to Luke, who offers himself up to be savagely beaten by the inmates´ enforcer (who later becomes his best friend) Dragline.  His act of “propitiation” for the other men is to eat fifty hard boiled eggs in an hour.  In literature the egg often represents the soul and, as Roger Ebert has pointed out, the inmates were fifty in number.  Unlike the original Christ, Cool Hand Luke seems to have the earthly mission of proving God´s absence, silence or uselessness.  When the whole work gang is caught outside in a lightning storm, Luke stands out in the open, shouts at God and asks for proof of His existence, eventually concluding that he was doing nothing but standing alone in the rain.  When he receives news that his sick mother has died, Luke picks up his banjo and sings the “Plastic Jesus” song that parodies the relic veneration in some Christian denominations.  Cool Hand Luke´s gospel is one of personal freedom, to trust and look out for and please oneself.  This ethic of individualism is ultimately made clear when Luke bellows at his fawning comrades, “Stop feedin´ off me!”  His miracle of eating the fifty eggs, unlike Christ´s multiplication of the loaves and fishes to feed the 5,000, only feeds himself. 

Several episodes involving Luke are evocative of crucifixion and burial.  Upon completion of Luke’s eating of the eggs, we see a top-down shot of him sweaty and exhausted, stripped to his boxer shorts, lying on a table on his back with his arms straight out and his legs crossed.  Early in the film, when we see another inmate locked into the box, an old lock is used.  When Luke is locked in the box late in the film, though, a wooden crossbeam is fitted into two upright supports across the door.  Luke seems to finally be broken by two of the guards when, after being starved for four days in the box and then forced to finish a brutal workday in the heat, he is forced to dig, then fill, then re-dig a ditch in the prison yard while the rest of the prisoners enjoy their Saturday off.  The other prisoners attempt to motivate him with music from the bunkhouse and when he gets neck deep in the hole he has dug for the second time, the song changes to “Ain´t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down.”  We then realize that he is digging a perfect grave-sized hole and all doubt about the metaphorical use of the task is erased when one of the guards kicks Luke down into the bottom of the pit and he assumes a perfect corpse position in his exhaustion.  Luke is finally broken in this episode and begs the “bosses” not to hit him anymore under the stunned silence of the rest of the inmates.  He is then allowed to go back to the bunkhouse where his disciples all turn their backs on him.  Their messiah turns out to be as human as any of them and his apparent weakness shocks them into a loss of faith. 

When Luke later escapes for a third time, though, a final Gethsemane awaits him in a dark, empty, dilapidated church.   Luke prays for God´s guidance and is instead unwittingly betrayed by his friend, Dragline and shot by one of the bosses who waits outside.  The movie´s message seems to be that God doesn´t exist, or if He does, He is the ultimate “hard case” who can´t be bothered to answer prayers for justice or to relieve human suffering.
The most famous line of the movie is “What we have here is failure to communicate” and the Captain´s words mean more than he intends.  The movie does show a situation of communication breakdown: between men and between God and man.  It could be that what should have always been a message of liberation and redemption has been lost in a rules-based church-society duality.  If prohibitions are all Christianity offers people, no wonder so many people opt for a life´s mission of pleasing themselves.

It may be time to refocus the message.  Luke 4: 16 - 21     

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Where Sexy Was Before it Was Brought Back

My mom and dad gave us a box of old photos when we visited this weekend and this one really blew me away.  This is me in the swim to bike transition at the Final Conflict Half-Ironman in Slidell, LA in September of 1985. 

I’m not sure what’s funniest in this photo, me at 160 lbs with brown hair or my bike and all the assorted gear I was using.  If the picture looks like that of a guy just getting ready to go for a bike ride it’s because there was little or no tri-specific gear in those days, at least not that I could get my hands on.  If you did a short race you did it in a speedo or tri-shorts.  In the case of a half-ironman (1.2 mi. swim, 56 mi. bike, 13.1 mi. run) most of us changed for each event.

This was my first “real” triathlon.  I had done a couple of sprint distance races that summer, but this one was a biggie.  When I called my mom and told her what a triathlon was and that I was going to do one, she asked how far the distances were.  When I told her, she said, “You can’t do that!  The human body is not made to do that!”  I said, “Of course the human body is made to do that!  Haven’t you heard about those African tribesmen who run for days and days to run down wildebeests?”  She said, “Well, you were born in Fort Worth, Texas.”
We swam in the Pearl River, biked up to Bogalusa, LA and back and ran out and back along the highway we had biked on.  I remember it being tough.  I don’t remember my finish time, but it was good enough to place well in my age group.  I’ve got a plaque in the attic somewhere. I'm almost positive I ran the whole run.  It didn't occur to me that it was OK to walk if you got tired during a 5 1/2 hour race.  I was 22 years old.  I didn't know what hurt yet.  

The bike leaning against my thighs was my first road bike: a Bianchi steel (of course) 21 inch frame with all the reflectors still on it.  I bought this bike new for $275 from the shop that was located where the V-bar is now on College Main.  Check out the steel toe clips, huge cateye cyclometer, zefal frame pump and wheels with about 57 spokes with 1 1/8” tires with schrader valves.  As you can see by the bikes still racked around me, mine was pretty much state of the art.  A bike was a bike – there was no triathlon or aero or Time Trial anything for the bike then. 

I had no real plan or technique for getting through the transition from swim to bike quickly.  I put my bike shorts on over my speedo (a mistake I never repeated) and you can see I’ve got my leather and crochet bike gloves already strapped to my handlebars.  My borrowed helmet was the now-outlawed Skid Lid (I never wore a helmet back in those days unless required by a race).  It’s on the ground in front of me (that was in the golden age of triathlon before a big goofy official would come over and disqualify you for having unracked your bike without first putting on and buckling your helmet).

I’m putting on the big ol’ ski glasses I borrowed from David Spence (future brother in law).  I liked them because they had the big bendy arms that go around the backs of your ears.  I took off the little leather flaps off the sides that guaranteed you to get the perfect raccoon face tan when you went skiing.

This was before governing bodies like Tri-Fed and USAT highjacked the sport and before the World Triathlon Corporation stole and trademarked the term “Ironman” so they could make a bunch of money off of it and put it financially out of reach for the average person.   

Basically, nothing’s the same as it was.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Breaking Bad* - The Friction between Determinism and Free Will

I've never been one to get real geeked out about a TV series.  I didn’t really follow the Sopranos, 24 or Mad Men.  But Breaking Bad captured my imagination from the first episode.  As a writer, I was amazed by how good the premise is and how well the storyline set up some real high stakes drama.  If you’re unfamiliar with the show, it’s about Walter White (Brian Cranston; played the dad on Malcolm in the Middle), a high school chemistry teacher struggling to support his family on his public school salary who finds out he’s got terminal lung cancer.  He decides to put his chemistry expertise to use by manufacturing methamphetamines to make enough money to pay for his kids’ college educations and pay off the mortgage on his house before he dies.  He forms an alliance with a former “F” student of his, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), to start manufacturing meth and making fat stacks of cash.  The brainiac fifty-year-old school teacher and the dropout meth-head make a natural Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, which sets up some great dialogue, misunderstandings and built-in tension. 

After missing the first couple of seasons Margaret and I caught a couple of episodes and then went back and caught up on the whole series on DVD.  The fourth season is about to be made available (June 5th I think) and then the fifth (and supposedly final) season starts in mid-July.  I was fascinated by the show from the very first episode because it's so well done.  Even the minor characters who initially seem to be stock characters like the DEA agent and the scumbag lawyer turn out to be really complex, interesting and entertaining.  And just when you think, “OK, I know what’s going to happen here,” the show’s creator and writers really shock you.  What I didn't like about it was that it initially seemed to be a big commercial for determinism.  Determinism is the theory that would have us believe that we don’t really make decisions; they’re all pre-set for us by our situations and conditions.  A deterministic thinker would say, “See, Walter White has no choice but to cook meth.  His low salary, crappy health plan, family situation and terminal disease make the decision inevitable.” 

Like most theories, determinism has points in its favor.  For example, I do believe that, to a certain degree, there are some real boundaries on what you can and can’t accomplish based on where you are and what’s around you.  If you’re born into a Bora Indian tribe on the Amazon River and live with them until you’re thirty, you’re not going to play the cello like Yoyo Ma.  Sorry, your environment just didn’t set you up for that.  Conversely, for me to be born white, male and healthy in a loving and economically stable family in the United States has made the range of opportunities for me just about unlimited (it bummed me out, though, when I was nine years old and realized I’d never play for the Harlem Globetrotters).  But I also made some decisions by my own free will, like joining the Marine Corps and staying in for twenty years, learning Spanish and pursuing assignments to Latin America, decisions which were in no way inevitable or unavoidable.  
The more you follow Breaking Bad, though, the more you see the protagonist making some decisions that pull him further and further into the lethal vortex of the drug business.  Aristotle’s Poetics (written about 330 b.c. I think), maybe the first essay on literary theory, talks about how literature (theater or epic poetry in his day) mimics real life to give the spectator/reader/hearer the opportunity to see a believably real-life character in something approximating a real-life scenario so that we can see the effects of their moral decisions and wonder how we would act in a similar situation, and the show is so believable you can’t help but hang on just about every turn of every episode.  

To be sure, you can’t just start making meth and selling it without generating some serious trouble with both good guys and bad guys and trouble comes looking for Walter and Jesse as soon as they start manufacturing.  Many of the problems that they face just come with the territory of their initial bad decision.  But if you pay close attention to Walter White, you see him make decisions that keep him in the game – a game in which, up until the end of the fourth season, only Walter, Jesse and one hired gun are still standing.   Walter’s decision to make a time-critical meth delivery instead of taking his wife to the hospital to give birth to their daughter is one such point of no return.  His reaction when he finds out his cancer is in remission (in addition to some other things he says and does) reveals the strong presence of what Freud called the “Death Drive” in Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

I know it wouldn’t make much of a series if Walt just rolled over and quit, but I believe the show latches onto some key points of real life.  When I worked in Miami at SOUTHCOM we were concerned about these Central American gangs like Mara Salvatrucha and Calle 18.  They were not only generating an incredible amount of violence in Central America, but would move to Washington, DC or Los Angeles and be just as active and violent.  Prison in the U.S. wasn’t a deterrent for these guys: it was like giving them a scholarship to Gang University.  In trying to figure out what drove these guys to do what they did (the typical template was to follow the money to the criminals) we eventually found out that they weren't in it for the money.  They slept on a mattress on the floor in crack houses and wore the same clothes for days on end.  And when the high-level guys stopped shaving their heads and stopped getting all tatted up they became extremely hard to find and track, because most of them eschewed the indicators of wealth.  They didn’t care about the money; they wanted to matter; they wanted to be somebody important; they wanted to have power, or at the very least, to never be powerless again.  And when you think back to one of the first episodes where Walter White is working a second job at a car wash down on his hands and knees scrubbing the tires on a Corvette while being photographed and taunted by one of his students, you get the picture.  Walter White wants respect.  Don’t we all? 
The poster for season five of Breaking Bad gives me the distinct impression that Walter White is going to expand his campaign for respect in the drug world.  And I’ll be real surprised if he comes out alive at the other end of it. 


*Breaking Bad is not a family show.  I wouldn’t recommend it for kids under 14.  

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

tercera salida / Madrid

Well, I’m in the homestretch of the trip to Madrid and I’m pretty satisfied with how everything has gone. I haven’t wasted any time and haven’t spent too much money.  I’ve gotten a lot of research done and figured out how the transportation systems work - at least in and around Madrid.  I’ve never been a big-city guy, but I like Madrid.  There’s a lot to see and do and it seems like there are little plazas with cafés around every corner.  If you get tired of walking around, just fall backwards and you’ll probably land in a chair and soon be attended by a waiter or waitress in an open-air café.  The buildings, except for the big main street “Gran Vía,” are ancient compared to what we’re used to in Texas.  Not medieval like Toledo, but still, hundreds of years old.  Once you get off the main streets where the tourists are, Madrid has a lot of character and charm and seems much more like I thought Spain would be.
One thing that’s been funny on this trip is that people here with whom I interact seem to think I’m from Spain.  I pretty much look like everybody else here (every other guy in his late 40’s, I mean), and I don’t speak anything but Spanish here.  So I’ll be talking to someone and after a little while they’ll say, “Wait, you’re not from here?”  That’s funny to me because I don’t speak Spanish anything like a Spaniard.  I’ll never say “gracias” like they do here, which comes out “grathias” in the peninsular Spanish, even if I tried.  In Latin America the word “OK” is pretty permissible, and I say it a lot when I should say “bien” or “muy bien.”  It’s even written “Hokey” if you see it in print in Latin American Spanish.  But they don’t say OK here, they say “Vale,” (pronounced like “VAH-leh”) about five times in every sentence.  There are a thousand other differences that separate Latin American Spanish from peninsular Spanish.  The Madrid accent is growing on me, though, and I think it sounds pretty slick.  Yesterday I was walking down the street and from the other side of the street I heard a guy talking and I knew immediately he was from the Caribbean: Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico, probably.  The sound was just rounder.
My personal biorhythms still make it feel like it’s midnight when I wake up to start the day here, so I need a little more coffee than the average Madrileño.  My technique now is to order a café con leche and a café cortado.  I drink some of the café con leche to make room and then I dump the cortado into the space left at the top of the café con leche and drink that.  When they make the coffees and bring them out they´re like, “OK, here’s the café con leche. Now who’s the cortado for?”  I tell them they’re both for me and they look at me like I’m the biggest coffee glutton they’ve ever seen.  I’m almost tempted to give them one of those annoying “in my country . . . ” explanations. 

I managed to hit the three big museums here:  Reina Sofía, Thyssen, and El Prado.  Margaret has conditioned me to always ask for a discount if I have one coming, so I was able to get into the Thyssen for half price and the Reina Sofía for free with my university ID.  The girl at the window at the Thyssen looked at me like, “Sure, you’re a college student.”  But she gave me my discount.  I saw some great art by some of the biggest names.  Still trying to digest it all.  The biggest lesson learned from all of that was that those great painters really produced a lot.  They didn’t just crank out a couple of paintings in their spare time.  You could tell they spent pretty much all day every day painting.  For years.  So, in addition to being gifted they worked hard.  That’s how they became great. 

I’ve visited two military libraries, one university library and the Mamá Grande: La Biblioteca Nacional (the National Library).  Miguel, my classmate who lives in Madrid told me that not too long ago people went into the Biblioteca Nacional and stole a bunch of rare books and documents.  They’d go in there with dental floss and, when they weren’t being watched, use it to saw through the pages of ancient books to sell them on the black market.  It was a serious financial loss and more important, a loss of national patrimony, not to mention a black eye for the people in charge of the library.  In a country with 25% unemployment, you can bet that the people who work at the library now aren’t taking any chances.  They’re not going to risk getting fired for cutting you slack.  So, like the Registrar’s Office at Texas A&M, they operate under the assumption that you are a charlatan, a fake, a cheater and a thief.  For starters, I had to get a letter from my department at A&M stating that I was a grad student in the homestretch of my program and show proof of my permanent address to be granted the status of “Investigador.”  The whole thing is understandably extremely bureaucratic, so much so that the employees don’t even know all the procedures once you get in there.  The librarian in the Sala Cervantes will send you to an office to buy a card that allows you to make copies, but it’ll be the wrong copy office (reprografía).  The security guard at the front door will tell you that you can bring your laptop into the area where you get your permanent ID card issued, but the guard at the next checkpoint tells you that you can’t bring in your laptop until you’ve gotten your permanent ID issued.  All you can do is smile and nod your head and say thanks.  Well, you can get mad at them but it won’t help anything.  And remember, I’ve tried to operate under the patience and kindness model, which should make my sons happy since they’ve been embarrassed seeing me blow up at bureaucratic obstacles on trips   Eventually you get to see your books and materials and make your copies.  My big fear was that I’d come over here and not get access to the library or that one of these small military libraries would be closed due to budget shortfalls.  Those problems have not come to pass and I can honestly say the research has been a home run.  I’ve come across some books and images that were exactly what I needed.  And I was able to put some ideas together that will be major parts of my doctoral thesis, so the trip has been well worth it.   

Gotta come back with the fam, though.  

Oh, and the patience and kindness grade - solid A.  

Friday, May 18, 2012

Segunda salida / Ciudad Real

I’ve been staying in Madrid at a small hotel near the street “Gran Via” just a few blocks from Puerta del Sol.  The room is tiny compared to most U.S. hotels, but the price was good and everything works so I’m very satisfied.  The rough equivalent of Puerta del Sol would be Times Square in New York, so, as you can imagine, it’s crowded and expensive.  There are tons of tourists here and none stand out more than the Americans.  My countrymen are easily identified because they are loud, hesitant to take the bus or subway and don’t speak any Spanish.  One morning leaving the hotel I heard a woman ask the lady at the front desk if she would call a cab for her.  Then, almost as an afterthought, she shrieked, “But is it safe?” 

That’s us.
We want to see the world - or it could be that we mostly want to be able to come home and say, "We went to 'fill-in-name-of-exotic-place-here'"), but we want it on our own conditions and according to our own convenience and we want it to be totally safe, even if it’s guaranteed by the poor desk clerk who’s been up all night.  And a lot of our fears are engendered by our own government and institutions.  When I got ready to travel I was required to fill out an online form and file it with the Study Abroad office at A&M.  The questions and information on the form made it evident that the university believes two things: 
1.  That I (not just me but all students with the temerity to leave the country) am a booger-eating moron incapable of even leaving my house, much less the country, and 
2.  That travelling anywhere outside of the U.S. is highly dangerous, even deadly.

So why are we this way?  I think it's the sense of cultural superiority that's ingrained into us as early as kindergarten, maybe earlier.  I'm not immune to it or free from it, either.  But when you're in someone else's country you have to constantly be aware of it, beat it back into its cage and suppress it.  You have to travel with a sense of humility and willingness to find out what things they do better than the way you do them.  I think you also have to ask yourself if the image they have of us is better or worse for having interacted with you.

My first 2 days of research were at the University of Castilla La Mancha at the Ciudad Real campus.  They have a section of the literature department that focuses on Quixote images - both the illustrations and engravings from the editions of the book itself and the popular and cultural iconography that followed.  I found maybe twenty-five different political cartoons of one personality or another on horseback tilting at a windmill of some sort.  The ability to do that in a cartoon testifies to the universality of Don Quixote and provides a good case study on how metaphor works, even visually.  That’s going to be a big part of my thesis, so I ain’t gonna write about it here (you’re off the hook). 

On Tuesday I took the train from Madrid to Ciudad Real and stayed in a hotel in Ciudad Real for a night.  I took the subway from my hotel down to the train station, but I had to sort out the short range train station (not the subway) from the medium-range train station.  It took a little while but I figured it out.  There’s always a sense of dislocation in an unfamiliar place and one has to feel one’s way through the procedures and systems.  I’ve been on trains and subways before, but not this train.  I had to ask someone how to get to the “Aves” (the Birds), the fast trains, instead of the local trains.  Once I got on the correct train, I didn’t realize the seats were assigned.  The boarding pass had a space on it that read “Plaza” to tell you what seat you were assigned which would have read “Asiento” anywhere else I’ve been in the Spanish-speaking world.  So I got kicked out of the seat I first sat in by the rightful ticket holder.  The one I was really assigned to was occupied by someone with a group that I didn’t feel like trying to break up.  So I wound up sitting in one of the throwup seats (backwards facing) with the sun beating down on it.  When foreigners seem clueless and make silly mistakes or seem out of place when they come to the states it’s more than just a question of language.  It’s more due to the unfamiliarity of a completely different system. 
Speaking of high-speed trains, they’re great.  I’d love it if we had high-speed trains from College Station to Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston.  But if you took a train to Houston, what would you do then?  Houston doesn’t have an extensive public transpo system with buses and a subway.  Texas is built for the individual driving his or her car - or pickup truck if you’re not a wuss.  You don’t take public transportation unless you’re poor and you don’t walk or ride a bike unless you’re a kid younger than sixteen.

Anyway, the folks at Ciudad Real were great to me.  The skids were greased by the relationship that my committee chair, Eduardo Urbina, has with the people there.  The main guy that took care of me, Oscar, took me with him to lunch, dinner and the coffee breaks.  Most people here don’t eat any breakfast to speak of - maybe a piece of bread with coffee.  Coffee’s where it gets a little complicated.  You need to know what you’re asking for.  You can’t just go up there and say, “café.”  Café solo is an expresso.  Café con leche is some coffee with a lot of milk.  But you have to specify if you want the milk they add to be warm or cold or a mix of both.  If you want an expresso with a little milk you order a cortado.  If you want a lot of milk with a tiny bit of coffee you order a leche manchada (literally "stained milk").  Nobody really eats breakfast more extensive than a piece of toast.  Although I don't discount the possibility of someone among the three million in Madrid whuppin up some Huevos Rancheros for breakfast here, it seems to me that IHOP or Waffle House wouldn’t make it in Spain (or Chile).  It's just not in the culture to eat a big breakfast.  You take a coffee break at about 11 in the morning or so, you eat lunch at about 2:30, and supper no earlier than 9 pm.  The supper, properly done, lasts until about 11:30 pm.  It doesn’t take that long to eat, you just take your time and talk to each other for two and a half hours, even after you’re done eating.  None of this chowing down and getting up to go watch TV.    

Yesterday I did research at a guy’s house in Toledo.  He has a private collection -really impressive- and I saw some great stuff there.  Today I did research at a military library in Toledo.  I was told that people would be slow and uncooperative here, but it hasn’t been the case so far.  Even these cats at the military library who don’t know Eduardo Urbina and don’t know me from Adam knocked themselves out to help me.  Let’s hope the hospitality holds up.
Kindness and patience grade for the last 2 days: A-

Monday, May 14, 2012

the first adventure / la primera salida

The statue of Cervantes, Don Q, and Sancho in the Plaza de España
I confess that I wasn’t thinking about Mother’s Day when I planned my trip to Spain to do research for my dissertation.  So Mother’s Day celebrating with the main moms in my life consisted of about an hour and a half celebration breakfast at home with Margaret and the boys and a call to my mom from the road.  But I get some good-guy points back because I was thinking about getting back from the trip in time for our 24th anniversary.  

I got to Houston Intercontinental Sunday morning in time to go through my usual nervous overseas flight travel routine for about an hour:  touch my passport, pull out my boarding pass, look at it.  Check the time.  Touch my passport again.  I’ve traveled to and worked in 35 countries, but overseas travel is like camping: if you haven’t done it in a while you forget little things.  My Orvis jacket has so many flippin’ pockets in it that it’s stressing me out because  I keep losing stuff in it.  Slowly, though, all my old tricks of the trade are coming back to me.  Ear plugs, antihistamine, money-to-stow and money-to-show, keeping your bag against your leg when you have to put it down so you can feel it and don’t have to see it. Don't go to the ATM by yourself at night.  Don't eat yellow snow (OK, that one's not for Spain in May).  
There’s a lot riding on this trip - all the scholarship money I was able to get together is going towards funding research of texts, documents and images at four big libraries in and around Madrid.  But I’m resolved to not stress about it; not to worry about getting robbed or losing something important, not to anguish over not finding the one magic book or image that will make my dissertation great.  My friends from Spain and that have been to Spain have told me a few things about being in Madrid:  don’t expect people to be friendly, don’t expect anybody to be in a hurry to help you out, be patient.  My ex-classmate, Miguel Zárate, who is from Madrid and now lives in Madrid, told me the words please and thank you are not spoken in Madrid (Zárate is my friend for life because when we had a class together on Medieval Spanish Literature my very first semester in the Masters program he told me I spoke Spanish “como la puta madre” which means to mean really, really well - the google translate is flat wrong - don't even look it up, this is a family friendly blog). 

I’m trying my best to use “gracias” and “por favor” as much as possible because a little bit of courtesy is just nice, you know?  In fact, I’m going to grade myself on patience and kindness every day, because sometimes I need it when I’m trying to work my way through unfamiliar systems and institutions overseas. . . . 

OK, I need more patience and kindness all the time.  

Speaking of good manners, it’s recently occurred to me to think about how we’ve come to say “thank you” in the U.S. in the last few years.   Have you noticed how inflated “thanks” has become?  The standard is now “Thank you so much.” 
                As in: “Professor, what page is the prompt for the next composition on?”

                “Page 233.”

                “Thank you so much.”  

My “thanks” just seems so inadequate and undersized.  But I’m thinking about getting with the program and unilaterally raising the bar to “Thank you ever so much” or “Bless you my brother/sister.  May your tribe increase.”

So since arriving to the Madrid airport this morning after flying all day and half the night, clearing immigration and customs, getting Euros (the money, not the people) out of an ATM machine (you don't get speedo-clad Germans out of a machine, you get them at Cancún), buying a metro pass, figuring out which metro to take to my hotel and finding my hotel,  I’ve checked in, walked around Madrid a bunch and taken a few pictures (like a numbskull I left the very specific cable that goes with my digital camera at home so pictures will have to be uploaded when I get home - the picture above I pulled off the internet - lame, I know).  My main mission today was to get oriented on where the nearest subway stations are for several lines so I can make it to the train station to go to Ciudad Real tomorrow.  My secondary mission was to stay awake so I can fall asleep tonight and get my sleep schedule on track.  

The only bummer of the whole thing so far is that I'm by myself.  It would be great to have Margaret and the boys here, but the timing and the budget wouldn't handle it.  So this will have to be a reconnaissance for a later trip for all of us.  Jackson, my 15-year old son, who is deathly, hyperventilatingly afraid of wasps and possums wants me to take him to Pamplona to run with the bulls.  So we'll need to plan that.  

And the patience and kindness grades thus far?  Strong A's.  

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Tragedy of "I was happy and I didn't know it"

As people are finishing up their final exams and many friends of mine are graduating or rolling on to the next phase of their careers, I’m seeing a lot of facebook posts from my fellow students that say things like, “One more final exam and it’s no more exams ever for me,” “one more week and then I move on to ___ phase of my studies where I’ll never have to do _____ again,” or “_____ days until I’m a _____.”  

I think it’s perfectly reasonable to celebrate the end of finals and to commemorate the end of an academic career.  What’s dangerous, though, is to believe that when you get through the phase you’re currently in and move on to the next thing, suddenly everything will be like riding a cotton candy bicycle while being tickled by buttercups.  Sure, you’ll be done with final exams when you move on from college, but trust me, you’ll run headlong into a dozen more things that suck even worse.  I wonder how many college students get out to their first job in the real world and ask themselves questions like, “Hey where are all the young, cool people?”,  “You mean I have to be in here at 8 a.m. every day?”  and “What do you mean I can’t wear Tempo shorts to work?” (

Jim Ganceres and I worked together in Iquitos, Perú in 1998.  We were driving around town one evening and we passed by a restaurant we hadn’t seen before called “Los Chingones.”  Well, I’m not going to get into what it means (don’t bother looking for it on Google Translate), but it’s a distinctly Mexican word and down on the Amazon River in Perú we were a long, long way from real Mexican food.  So Master Sergeant Ganceres, very proud of his Mexican heritage and a big fan of Mexican food, said, “Oh, we’re eating there tonight.”  We went into this place and it was a real hole in the wall, and a hole in the wall in the Peruvian Amazon is not the end of the world but you can see it from there.  Poorly lighted, dirty, not many people.  But it was “Los Chingones” so we had to eat there.  Well you can guess what happened.  His meal made him sick as a dog.  He was down hard with the “Amazon Weight Loss Plan” for about a week (thank God I ordered something different).   Was he tricked by his own expectations?  Even after he saw that the place was filthy and not many people where eating there?  There were hundreds of good restaurants in that town so it’s not like the decision was made in extremis.  

How many times do we let our expectations of the next-great-thing-that’s-got-to-be-better-than-this-sucky-thing cause us to make, and then stick with, a poor decision?  I hope nobody I know is walking into a bad job or place to live just because they were in a hurry to latch onto the first thing (or the best-paying thing) coming out of college.  Sometimes you do that and it can’t be helped.  But a lot of times it can be avoided if you’re careful and you manage your expectations.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m a little over a year from graduating (again) and there’s just about no place on the planet earth I have written off as a possible place to look for employment as an adjunct or associate professor.  We'll entertain just about any possibility and we’ll go wherever it looks like the job, quality of life, location, etc. is favorable.  But we’re not going to move to a place and a circumstance that matches up with someone else’s expectations or answers some imaginary template. 

 I guess it was about ten years ago when I visited Paraguay.  I saw some bumper stickers down there that had the name of a former dictator and then below the name the sticker said, “Yo era feliz y no lo sabía” which means “I was happy and I didn’t know it.”  This is not a commercial for dictatorship – far from it –but to me the phrase is tragic: to look back and see that you wasted a chance to be joyful in whatever your place and circumstances were is to realize you’ve squandered happiness, maybe years of it.  I knew Marines my whole career whose two best duty stations were always the previous one and the next place they were going.  Every place except where they were: that was the place to be.  As a result they were perpetually unhappy.   

So I’ve resolved to make the place and the circumstance I’m in now the best place I’ve ever been.  I’m aware that the church where I’m currently a member may be the best church I’m ever in.  I may never have better friends than I have right now.  I may never ride bikes with a better group of people than the one I ride with now.  I may never live in as nice a house with neighbors as friendly and helpful.  My kids may never again be as close to me.  My wife and I have our health and each other and neither are guaranteed to us tomorrow.    

Don’t catch yourself wishing for the good ol’ days.  Make now the good ol’ days.  

Friday, May 4, 2012

The 2012 season. Where We Went. What We Saw

Even when I was in junior high already knew I was going to A&M.  I had a poster of Aggie bonfire on the wall in my room.  I’d put a 33 1/3 rpm record of the Aggie Band on my little record player (cassette tapes were still the stuff of science fiction) and work out with my little plastic-coated, concrete-filled weight set and dream of playing football someday for the Aggies.

Corny but true.  

But it turns out that 5-11, 205 lb. offensive linemen don’t play D1 college football, even in the early 80’s.  So to put on maroon and white gear and compete for A&M in collegiate cycling this past two years has been like God handed me a pass for one of life’s great do-overs.  I don’t even care that it’s a club sport and, instead of a stadium full of fans, we race in front of a few parents and pissed off motorists.   

I had hopes of doing real well racing in the Men’s C category this year – at least better than last year.  But statistically, it was not to be.  In four of the seven road races I finished in exactly 13th place.  The points for individual rankings in the “C” category extend down to - you guessed it - 12th place.  There were entire weekends where I travelled, raced my guts out all weekend and came home with 0 points, the exact same number as the Joes who didn’t even make the trip.   When one studies literature one learns to pay attention to numerology to extract messages and themes.  And for me, the message was, “Hey, Mark, doing collegiate cycling full-bore has been OK for you this season, but don’t kid yourself.  Don’t think there’s some great future in this for you.  You’re not 21.  You’re not a guy free from family responsibilities.  An occasional race?  Great.  But every weekend, all weekend?  Not great.  Not for you.”       
On a personal level, though, I can take solace in the fact that the C’s were a much stronger, faster group this year than last year.  And I can honestly say I got better, faster, safer and more capable on the bike this season.  I can even sprint some now, which is harder than it sounds.  To sprint you put your hands in the drops and get your butt up off the seat and try to just about twist the handlebars off.  You’re really racing with your whole body and pushing yourself as hard as you can go and this is at the end of the race when you’re totally smoked.   I also got better at getting around corners at speed, which is a critical skill for criteriums.  I never thought I’d be able to stay at the front of a criterium averaging nearly 25 mph for the whole race, but I did that this year.  Last year just the thought of racing a crit would dump a huge load of adrenaline into my bloodstream, but this year?  Time for the crit? Aight, let’s race.   

The road season took a heavy toll on all of us in many respects.  To race the season and do a couple of pre-season prep races ate up seven out of nine weekends between Feb 25th and April 22nd.    On the out-of-town weekends you leave early Friday afternoon, race twice on Saturday and once on Sunday and get home late Sunday night exhausted with a bike to clean, laundry to do, and schoolwork to be done.  The race that we hosted and I helped organize March 3rd and 4th was a huge process that I started working on about eight months before the event.  The physical toll was not light, either.  We started the team’s training for road season with a 100-mile ride on MLK Day.  We managed to have a huge wreck just outside of Lake Somerville that resulted in two broken collarbones, a facial laceration and various skinned up body parts.  During the season’s races we had mishaps that resulted in one concussion and two people skinned up from wrecking in the gravel, one dislocated collarbone and one broken scapula. 
So what did we all get out of this?  Well, we were forced to do things that made us uncomfortable for the good of the team, something I think is more and more rare.  We sometimes had to race in a way that blew ourselves up but made a faster teammate more successful.  We had to get our faces out of our smart phones and surrender our own agendas to the collective will, which is significant because college is, in essence, a selfish enterprise.  I get admitted to school, I choose my major, take my classes, make my grades, get my degree, probably meet my spouse and get my job.                              
People did things that impressed and surprised me.  A couple of guys who were in the background for most of the season rode like superheroes at the conference championships.  When Cale Maupin started to dig for the final sprint at the LSU road race I confess that I sat up and watched him instead of putting my head down and digging, too.  It was so great to see that I turned into a spectator.  We did a crit in a driving rain in Oklahoma and nobody backed down or sat in the van with their lip stuck out.  We were promised some pretty bad weather up in Wichita Falls but nobody said, “No, I’m not going, the weather’s going to be bad and I’ve seen the video of the rainy crit up there from two years ago ( ).  We woke up in Baton Rouge on the morning of the road race to a downpour of biblical proportions and everybody just got on the van and didn’t complain (actually, nobody said a word – it was quiet as church on that van). 

Equally remarkable to me is how well I was accepted and embraced by my teammates.  You know, college is a special, magical time and it isn’t made more special by having some crusty old dude hanging around who is as old as your dad.   But my teammates have become my great friends.  Proof of that good vibe is the fact that I was able to baptize several with nicknames that caught on:  “Bobby Jindal” Ehrmann, Chris “The Man with No Tan” Roscoe, Brett “Zhil-bear” Gilbert, Nicole “The Critter” Sharp, Andrew “Hannibal” Lechner (although Austin Throop also nicknamed him “Tres Leches” which is really good), “Austin Powers” Throop, “Zane Grey” Lybrand and my personal favorite: Shawn “Biggie” Small.  I even gave nicknames to people from other teams: John “The Governor” Connolly and “Famous” Amos Zimmermann from UT and “Mean Girls” (the MSU Women’s team). 

So, of course I plan to race again next year, which, unless something goes dreadfully wrong with my dissertation, will really be my last season.  I just won’t race as much.  There’s just no way.  I turn 49 this summer, which would make my racing age 50 in 2013 (your racing age is how old you are on Dec 31 of that calendar year).  That means next year I’ll be able to race collegiate and compete in the Senior Games. 

Now that’s the bomb. . . and groovy, too.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

What you have to respect about Lance

So the guy won the Tour de France seven times. And he beat testicular cancer. I’m impressed. But now he’s really got my attention. Lance Armstrong is back as a professional triathlete, a sport where he first set the world on fire as a 16-year-old. Not content to sit back and eat himself into a food coma after he won his record-setting seventh Tour de France in 2005 (which would be quite a temptation after years of watching your weight down to the ounce), Lance went and ran the New York Marathon. The year after, dissatisfied with his finishing time, he went back and ran it ten minutes faster. After that he decided he’d go back and do the Tour de France again, which committed him to a couple of years of prep, pro racing and, of course, the tour. He got third place in 2009, an enormous accomplishment in his late 30’s among nearly 200 of the best riders in the world. The following year, though, the odds caught up to him and all the crashes he miraculously missed during those seven TdF wins happened to him in one season and he retired from pro cycling after the 2010 tour.

Wouldn’t it make sense for him to just hang it up, relax, oversee Livestrong and be a chilled out 40-something-year-old? No, not Lance. He’s back in triathlon and he’s doing it to win. In February he did an Ironman 70.3 (that’s what we used to call a Half-Ironman before the license to the word “Ironman” was sold to corporate interests) in Panama, and last weekend he did the Ironman 70.3 in Galveston, finishing seventh. Think of the risks he’s incurring: not the risk of crashing or serious physical injury, but the risk of ridicule. Here he is a seven-time Tour de France champion – win the Tour once or even win a single stage and you’re a made man in Europe – but he’s slugging it out with the world’s best triathletes. I heard him in an interview say he was worried about getting so fatigued on the run that he’d have to walk. For a guy like Lance, that would have to be a very real concern. Imagine the photos that would be taken and broadcast around the world with captions like, “seven time Tour de France champion humbled at local triathlon.” You could imagine the French getting a real charge at that.

So why would Lance, now 40 years old with five kids, take the risk to race against a bunch of younger guys knowing the odds are increasingly against him? On one level it’s for the good of his cancer foundation, Livestrong. He knows his organization and his campaign are much more compelling with him as an athlete than as a former athlete. But I have to believe that for him personally he knows that to stop training hard and competing is to let something die inside him. And when you’ve been as close to death as he has been you won’t let any part of yourself die without a fight.

I read an interview with someone who had climbed Mount Everest who said that, contrary to popular opinion, you’re not at your best when you’re standing on the summit of the mountain. You take a picture, you grin and shake hands with whoever else made it up there with you, but you’re already starting to die at that altitude. You can’t stay there and you still have the hazardous descent ahead of you. No, you’re at your best when you’re still climbing, muscles and lungs straining against the slope and the thin air. That’s when you’re actually doing something truly remarkable and noble.

So keep climbing, Lance. We climb with you.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Heart of Scorpio

José Palacios was a new grad student in our department when I met him in the summer of 2009. My immediate impression of him was that he was a super-nice guy. He came to A&M from Colombia via a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from UT El Paso. What was most interesting, though, was that he had just written a novel that won a contest in his home country. Since I had been working on a novel myself for over a year that fact really grabbed me. Here was a guy who had accomplished what I was trying to do. I asked to read his novel and he graciously gave me a signed copy. And man, it was good – kind of a stream of consciousness like The Sound and the Fury where different speakers’ voices pop in and you as the reader kind of have to figure out who is talking. I offered to translate his novel, titled El corazón del scorpion from Spanish to English. It wasn’t very long – only about a hundred pages – and I wanted my mom, who is a great reader, to read what my classmate had published. He agreed under the condition that we share whatever we get from it if we were ever able to publish it. That’s an unusual arrangement since the translator of a work usually gets a very small percentage of the take from the publication of a translated work.

About 90% of the work was easy to translate. The book’s characters were mostly Afro-Caribbean and I heard in their voices in Spanish the same musicality of the voices I had heard growing up in central Louisiana, which makes sense when you realize that Cartagena, Colombia is closer to New Orleans than New Orleans is to Los Angeles. “Óscar ‘Mano de Ñame’ Manzur” became “Oscar ‘Hands of Yams’ Manzur” just like that. Same rhyme, same musicality, same rhythm, same meaning. Some parts were tough, though. The novel is about a black boxer, Colombia’s first world champion in anything, and race (as well as racism) is a prominent theme throughout the book. But there’s no “N-word” in Spanish. Negro is negro. So how did I know when to use the most offensive, hateful word in the English language? I just had to go by feel and context. I think I used it twice, once in an off-hand manner by a black guy referring to another black guy and another time when it was part of an entirely intentional offensive tirade by one character directed at the protagonist.

The process was fun and rewarding, though, and I fit the work in between my teaching, studying and writing time. The best part, though, was getting to know José better. There was something in me that recognized something joyful and radiant in him. He may be the smartest guy I know. He got his first master’s degree in Physics. He’ll pick up a math textbook and work through it just for fun. I’ve been in several graduate seminars in Hispanic Studies with him and when he starts talking about what authors he’s read and applying the theoretical threads he knows it makes me feel like I haven’t read anything. And the most amazing thing to me is that he’s accomplished all that coming from Montería, Colombia, the birthplace of the brutal Para-militaries in Colombia and the epicenter of much of the violence and kidnapping in that country over the past thirty years. In that way, José represents Latin America to me: dignified, joyful, capable people who rise up out of violence, corruption, and failed institutions; people who continue to reinforce for me what’s really important in life.

When we made the decision to translate the book Jose said, “Whatever comes out of this we share equally.” That was when it was just an idea. That was before Alfaguara, a Spanish publisher with extensive connections in Latin America, agreed to publish José’s book on a large scale (the book is arriving in bookstores in Bogota, Colombia this week). And that was before last week when José and I signed a contract with a company in Austin to publish the English version, Heart of Scorpio. So, however modest it turns out, our project appears to be taking off. Let’s hope so.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Rolling Disappointment

Well, I thought I did everything right prepping for this collegiate cycling season. I put in the heavy bike miles over the winter through rain, wind and cold. I abandoned swimming and running to invest that time into training for cycling. I started doing cross-fit to strengthen my core and upper body and develop some high-end anaerobic capacity. I did hellish intervals once or twice a week to be able to get up to a good speed and hold it. I went and raced a couple of USA cycling races before the collegiate season. I can’t tell that any of it has really paid off.

I planned to race in the C’s initially* (the same category I raced last season) and then move up to B’s after a couple of races. But my performances in the C’s have been lackluster – middle of the pack – and worsening, not improving as the season has gone on.

It would make sense that a 48-year-old guy wouldn’t typically have as much high-end speed in a final sprint as the younger guys, but in last weekend’s time trial, which requires steady-state high output (something I thought I was good at), I finished a disappointing 18th out of about 25 or 26 riders in the C’s. One explanation would be that there are a lot of fast riders in the C’s this year. I didn’t track race data last year like I am this year, but it seems to me that the overall speeds are faster now. Last week’s average MPH at the Tulane road race was 22 mph over 40 miles and that included some long stretches of extremely slow going when no one wanted to work and we were all riding along looking at each other.

I still contend that what’s holding me back is a number and it’s not 48. It’s probably 25: the amount of pounds I’d have to lose to be anywhere near the fastest guys I’m racing against. It turns out that there’s a reason why jockeys are small in horse racing. Lightness and smallness counts in cycling, too, where you provide the horsepower to propel your mass through the wind and haul your weight up inclines.

So, am I willing to do what it takes to lose 25 lbs? No. Ten, maybe, but not 25. So where is this cycling thing going to go? More cycling races where I typically finish in the back of the pack and have even been crashed out of races? Back to just local group rides and some triathlons (where I’ve had good success but miss the “team” aspect of racing)? Wouldn’t that make more sense?

Whatever it turns out to be, I’ve got three race weekends left in this season. And given my timeline for getting my thesis finished, there may not be a next season or only a very limited one. Nothing to do but race my guts out these last three race weekends.

*Men’s collegiate categories are A’s (fastest, most experienced) down to D’s (newest, slowest) riders

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The OU Collegiate Race Weekend

Early in the Men’s “C” collegiate cycling* road race at Norman, Oklahoma last weekend I remembered the saying that you never step in the same river twice. Things were happening in this race that wouldn’t have happened last year. Most collegiate "C" road race courses are loops of a ten to fourteen mile course repeated three or four times to get to the requisite distance of about 40 miles. Last year’s C’s would do the first lap almost as an exercise of courteous familiarization. Once we had all seen the course and gotten warmed up, the fastest guys would attack on the first sharp turn of the second lap, establishing a break between them and the slower riders and the result would play out over the remaining thirty or so miles. Not this year, though. A real strong rider from Arkansas, who we’d never seen in a previous race, sprinted off away from us and established a good hundred meter buffer very early into the first lap. “This guy didn’t get the memo,” I thought. So we raced hard to get up to his wheel and pull him back in, expending a lot of energy in the process. The sprint and pull-back process repeated itself for much of the race but we and the UT riders** worked together to pull the guy in, along with some other fast individuals, without actually helping them. Eventually, Bobby Ehrmann, one of our guys riding a heavy aluminum bike with a triple chainring on the front, got the win in the final uphill sprint. He didn’t get it cheap, either, since he pulled at the front of the pack for most of the last five or six miles. We averaged 21.6 mph over 40 miles of a hilly windy course, which I considered to be pretty fast for C’s even though it’s the fastest speeds, and not the average speed, that matters in road cycling. A similar process went down in the Men’s B’s and one of our guys, Ben Baxter, got the win in that group.

Our Saturday was not done, though. We still had a 9-mile time trial that we’d do as two to four person teams. I went with Cale Maupin and Binbin Lu and we did real fine for never having ridden together as a team. 22.2 mph on road bikes after having ridden 40 miles a couple of hours earlier was pretty dang decent. Our first Men’s C team got third place but they rode so well they would have placed second in the Men’s B division. Our Women’s B team tore up their group and won easily.

The bad weather we had been promised for Saturday showed up overnight and by Sunday the criterium course had turned into a slick, puddle-ridden mess. The criterium is all about fast cornering, so the rain was most unwelcome. A big puddle stretched across most of the final (fastest) turn and little shallow rivers cascaded down the finishing stretch. It was an adventure, catching a face full of water rooster-tailing off of the riders in front of me, but I managed a respectable top-ten finish.

The most impactful part of the weekend for me may have been the experience of being in charge of getting nineteen collegiate cyclists safely up there and back with all our bikes and gear. In any group of people that sets forth to do something, you generally have three sub-groups of people: team players, tourists, and terrorists. The terrorists try to blow up everything constructive that goes on in the team. They complain. It’s all about them. They’re unrelentingly negative and they leave no doubt as to whether you’d have been better off leaving them at home. Team players, on the other hand, are looking for ways to help. They want to solve problems instead of pointing out problems or being the problems. Team players help load and unload the trailer in the rain even if they don’t race for another two hours. They’ll share and they’ll help and they’re positive. The tourists are just along for the ride. They’ll follow whoever seems to be the most interesting, and if they start to follow the terrorists your team is in big trouble. In the past couple of weeks of leading the team on road race weekends, I can confidently say we have no terrorists.

Not one.

And we have very few tourists. Just about everyone is a team player: looking for things to do to help the team. And no one wimps out of anything. Our two D racers knew they’d get hammered in the team time trial going against other teams with three and four guys, but they wanted to compete and they rode. I wouldn’t have blamed any new rider for looking at the rainy criterium course Sunday morning and saying, “I think I’m not doing this.” At least one guy raced that course still skinned up from taking a fall the week before. But nobody backed out. Everybody competed.

The more I get to know my teammates the more impressed I am with them. Austin Throop is talented enough to do anything and already knows he wants to be a high school teacher. Biggie Small is on his way to law school. Kristen Kjellberg may be governor of Texas someday if she gets tired of being a veterinarian. Ben Silva, who spent his Christmas break working in clinics in Cuzco, Peru, is on his way to med school next year. Several PhD aerospace engineering students. One of them, Chris Roscoe, got injured so badly racing last year I wouldn’t have blamed him if he had never raced again. After all, he's here to be a rocket scientist, not break himself on a crit course designed by The Three Stooges. But he’s back and even faster this year. Thomas Gilbert (like Cher and Madonna he just goes by one name: Gilbert) won the “D” road and criterium races last week. Nobody had to tell him to move up to “C” this week. He wanted to do it. And he got 4th in the “C” criterium. I put him with a “B” team for the team time trial, and just before they took off, he thanked his teammates for the opportunity to ride with them. And he did great.

Nicole Sharp told me that during the team time trial, she looked around at the work her teammates were putting out and through her own discomfort of effort it occurred to her that there was profound beauty in what they were doing.

That beauty of human excellence is what the ancient Greeks called Arete, which could be interpreted as, “reaching your highest human potential.” Paul used the word in his letter to the Philippians when he said, "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence (arete), if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." In addition to being noun in the Greek language, Arete was also a goddess in Greek mythology. Prodicus told us in the 5th century B.C. that Arete, along with her counterpart Kakia, appeared at a crossroads to the hero Heracles. Kakia offered Heracles wealth and pleasure. Arete offered him glory and a life of struggle against evil. Heracles chose the path of Arete.

And so did we.

On a windy, rainy weekend in Oklahoma that will not be recognized or remunerated.

We chose Arete.

*There are Men’s A, B, C, and D and Women’s A, B, and C categories, with the A’s being the strongest riders and the “D’s” being mostly inexperienced cyclists. A very few of the A’s wind up riding professionally and the D’s, as the NCAA commercial says, go pro in something else.

**in the collegiate cycling universe the Aggies and Horns are friends