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.