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